From heroes to zero, and lasting scars

Following Japan's capitulation at the end of World War II in August 1945, the Tokyo Trial of its leaders — one of whose grandsons speaks out overleaf — ended 60 years ago on Nov. 12


Nov. 12 marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), commonly known as the Tokyo Trial, which in terms of judicial procedures is now widely regarded as having been fundamentally flawed and biased against the defendants.

In the end, 25 of the 28 military and civilian defendants were convicted, of whom seven were condemned to death by hanging and 16 were sentenced to life imprisonment. Two of the defendants died during the trial and one was judged mentally unfit to take the stand.

Although a majority of the justices agreed that many of the accused were guilty of a conspiracy to commit aggressive war, there are lingering doubts about whether the evidence supported such a verdict. Clearly, the 11 judges were deeply divided, and many of the guilty verdicts were decided by just one vote. Five justices issued dissenting opinions.

Controversially, Emperor Hirohito was not prosecuted or even called as a witness, despite his position under the Meiji Constitution as head of state and commander in chief of the Imperial Armed Forces. Indeed, the defendants, especially Gen. Hideki Tojo (1884-1948), prime minister from 1941-44, were coached to not implicate the Emperor, and testimony that did so was struck from the record. Tojo assumed responsibility that many critics believe was actually Hirohito’s.

In 1978, 14 of the Class-A war criminals were secretly enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, joining 2.47 million members of the armed services who had died in battle since the mid-19th century. A pamphlet currently distributed at the shrine states: “There were also more than 1,000 people who were labeled war criminals and executed after having been tried by the Allies . . . We refer to these divinities as the ‘Showa Martyrs.’ ” This figure refers to the Class-B and Class-C criminals prosecuted at tribunals scattered around Asia.

To clarify, Class A involved crimes against peace and conspiracy to commit aggressive war, Class B involved conventional war crimes while Class C involved crimes against humanity.

The Tokyo Trial did produce a wealth of information about the excesses and crimes committed by the Imperial Armed Forces. For many Japanese, news coverage of the proceedings was the first time that they confronted the grim realities of a war they had been taught was a noble mission to liberate Asians from the yoke of Western imperialism. The war in China, the center of hostilities, was vividly and accurately depicted as a war of aggression involving horrific atrocities, most notably the Rape of Nanking in December-January, 1937-38.

At the time, Japanese newspaper editorials endorsed the proceedings, reflecting widespread public anger about the suffering the political and military leadership had inflicted on Japan.

Certainly the Allies were seeking vengeance, but so too were many Japanese, who blamed their leaders for their devastated cities and lives. Those aware of the justice meted out by Japan in its colonies and occupied territories knew that the Tokyo Trial was hardly the gravest travesty of justice, and many Japanese wanted their leaders held accountable.

Now, however, the “Tokyo Trial view of history” is criticized by some Japanese conservatives for asserting a masochistic narrative that fails to nurture pride in nation.

The Dr. Feelgoods of Japanese history are trying to assert a vindicating and valorizing narrative of the 1931-45 conflict, emphasizing the noble goal of Pan Asian liberation and the defensive nature of Japan’s struggle. Indeed, Gen. Toshio Tamogami, ex-Chief of the Air Self-Defense Force, wrote an essay published on Oct. 31 and titled “Was Japan an Aggressor Nation?” that challenged the government’s position accepting war responsibility and suggesting disingenuously that other Asian nations respect Japan for its efforts; he was sacked ignominiously within 72 hours.

Emphasizing “victors’ justice” and Japan’s victimization at the IMTFE fits in with this exonerating narrative.

Conservative historians frequently invoke the dissenting opinion written by Radhabinod Pal, the Indian justice on the Tokyo Trial bench, to justify Japan’s wartime actions and establish its innocence.

They cite Pal — who emphasized the flawed judicial procedures, the court’s lack of standing in international law and the colonial context of the conflict. Pal also criticized the failure of the Tokyo Trial to judge the war crimes committed by the Allies, especially the atomic bombings.

Pal’s standing in Japan is such that, in 2005, Toshiaki Nambu, the Chief Priest at Yasukuni Shrine, had a monument erected in his honor in front of the Yushukan war museum there.

However, it is incorrect to assert that Pal exonerated the Imperial Armed Forces from committing atrocities, including Nanking. Pal clearly acknowledged that they committed horrific acts, but questioned the legitimacy of the IMTFE to try these cases.

Pal wrote, “The evidence is still overwhelming that atrocities were perpetrated by the members of the Japanese armed forces against the civilian population of some of the territories occupied by them as also against the prisoners of war.”

The U.S.-led prosecution at the Tokyo Trial was supposed to determine war responsibility, but has left an ironic legacy, having paved the way toward an International Criminal Court that the United States refuses to join and acknowledge, while providing conservatives in Japan with a useful symbol exemplifying Japan’s supposed victimization.