Scholar finds archive details of ’48 war criminal hangings

U.S. military document lists procedures of execution day

Kyodo

An academic has found a copy of an official U.S. military document detailing the procedures to be followed at the 1948 execution of seven Japanese convicted as Class-A war criminals by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

The original four-page document, titled “Execution of Prisoners,” is kept at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Kenji Nagata, a Kansai University associate professor studying the death penalty, said he found photocopies at the National Diet Library in Tokyo.

It is the first time a comprehensive official record covering the full scope of the Dec. 23, 1948, executions of the seven men, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, has been found.

The document corresponds with the accounts of a Buddhist priest and a former senior official of the headquarters of the Allied Occupation, who witnessed the hangings at Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison.

In addition to the document detailing the procedures, other papers identifying the seven men and including their fingerprints and receipts for their bodies were also uncovered.

“The execution will be witnessed with due solemnity and carried out with military precision. Every precaution will be taken to prevent undue suffering on the part of the condemned,” says the document compiled by the provost marshal, Col. Victor Phelps.

“Persons in attendance will make no demonstrations and no unseemly conduct of any kind will be tolerated,” it continues.

The document shows the seven men, who included Koki Hirota, prime minister and foreign minister between 1933 and 1938, were to be notified of the time of execution on the evening of Dec. 21, 1948, and hanged at “0001 hours, or as soon thereafter as possible” two days later.

The death sentences were handed down Nov. 12, 1948.

The document, which is believed to have been compiled after the trial ended, says the executions will be “private” and that “no photographs or motion pictures will be made.”

“The place of the execution will be closely and securely guarded to prevent entry of unauthorized persons or disturbances of any kind,” it states.

It says the men “will be escorted in one group of four and one group of three . . . from the death cells to the platform of the scaffold,” and that copies of their fingerprints would be “made prior to final disposition of remains.”

It further stipulates that in the 24 hours prior to the hangings, “thorough tests” were to be conducted to “insure all necessary equipment is in excellent condition.” Sugamo Prison’s commanding officer prepared ropes, hoods, waist belts, arm and leg shackles and trap doors.

“In the event of mechanical failure of the equipment and the execution is not successfully concluded, the procedure will be repeated until the prescribed punishment has been administered,” the document says.

It also lists the names of 11 of the execution party, which consisted of more than 20 people and nine witnesses. The names of an executioner and three assistant executioners were redacted.

As detailed execution procedures were not stipulated in Japanese law at the time, the document cites a U.S. Department of the Army pamphlet.

Nagata of Kansai University said it is clear that the hangings were carried out “in a unique way” due to the lack of stipulations under domestic law. He said some handwritten corrections in the document suggest the convicts were hurriedly executed.

The late Shinsho Hanayama, the Buddhist priest who served as a spiritual adviser to the war criminals and witnessed the executions, wrote that he heard the sounds of the trap doors at 12:01 a.m. and 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 23, 1948.

The newly unearthed document is highly valuable, as it is the first confirmed detailed U.S. military record of the Class-A war criminal execution procedures, Kentaro Awaya, professor emeritus of modern Japanese history at Rikkyo University, said.

Awaya said he believes the hanging of the seven convicts was a special event for the Allied Forces, based on the fact that as many as nine people witnessed the event.