BEYOND THE “JUDGEMENT OF CIVILIZATION”: The Intellectual Legacy of the Japanese War Crimes Trials, 1946-1949, by Kei Ushimura, translated by Steven J. Ericson. Tokyo: LTCB International Library (No. 14), 2003, 336 pp., unpriced (cloth).

This is a provocative examination of the Tokyo war crimes tribunal that goes well beyond the familiar denunciation of sham proceedings and “victors’ justice” to explore the assumptions and clashes of civilization that lay at the heart of this encounter. In this ambitious intellectual history, Ushimura draws on trial transcripts and memoirs to sketch fascinating portraits of some of those involved, including a judge, a defender and some of the accused.

In the first section, Ushimura skewers Masao Maruyama, one of postwar Japan’s foremost intellectuals, for his 1948 analysis of the tribunal. Maruyama compared the testimony of the Nazi and Japanese leaders and criticized the latter for evading and quibbling about their responsibility for various atrocities carried out by the Imperial armed forces. Maruyama characterized Japan’s political and military elite as “dwarfish” for not resolutely accepting their guilt and responsibility. Ushimura quotes extensively from the transcripts to show that they did not shirk their responsibility as comprehensively as Maruyama suggests. His close reading of the trial transcripts has its moments, but the blow-by-blow, point-counterpoint exegesis can be laborious.

Readers who are not quite as intrigued as the author is with this intellectual jousting may wonder what is the point of “rehabilitating” those prosecuted at the tribunal. The author puts a lot of energy into convincing the reader that Japan’s wartime elite were not “dwarfish” and no more evasive than the Nazis, but to what end?

Ushimura contends that the Tokyo Trials were really about punishing Japan for “challenging” the Western colonial status quo in Asia. This perspective is based on the assumption that Japan’s Pan Asian ideology in the 1930s was sincere rather than a way of ennobling ignoble warmongering. Conservative historians often invoke Pan Asianism as a way of justifying Japan’s 15-year rampage through Asia (1931-45). Was Japan in the dock because it “challenged” Western imperialism? This view reasserts Japan’s role as “victim” and skirts the consequences of its military expansionism and the extraordinary toll this exacted from the Asians who were ostensibly being helped.

The central problem is that Japan was not challenging Western imperialism, but emulating it. Japan was seeking to pacify and exploit Asia. Pan Asian ideology was invoked to justify Japanese imperialism, but this ideology played better at home than among those in Asia who knew the score. The invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the rest of China in 1937 were aimed at suppressing anti-Japanese Chinese nationalism. In China, the Japanese were “challenging” Chinese resistance to Japanese imperialism and seeking to impose their rule. The subsequent expansion of the war to Southeast Asia was aimed at securing the natural resources need to win the war in China and overcome sanctions aimed at curbing Japanese military aggression.

Ushimura is on solid ground in critiquing the hypocrisy and self-righteous posturing of Japan’s Western prosecutors, but could he not have gone further to ask why issues like the “comfort women,” the Emperor’s war responsibility and the Unit 731 atrocities were never put on trial?

He cultivates sympathy for the accused as we learn that the Dutch were especially vindictive, executing more war criminals than any of the other allies, and that one war criminal despised his British jailers for their unseemly behavior. And we find out that the trials had many “lost in translation” moments for the accused.

However, in considering issues of war responsibility, why has Japan never prosecuted any of its own soldiers for any of the well-documented war crimes committed between 1931-45? One can infer from Ushimura that cultural differences regarding logic, law, guilt and responsibility explain this omission.

In exploring the intellectual legacy of the tribunal, it is important to explain why conservative historians have made it the centerpiece in developing a victim complex among Japanese, and why this view resonates so powerfully in contemporary Japan (and nowhere else).

Nobukatsu Fujioka, Kanji Nishio and the cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi have promoted an airbrushed version of Japan’s wartime conduct in their textbook for junior high school students with the express aim of erasing the “negative” history they blame on the tribunal. This shifting of responsibility from the Imperial armed forces to the biased tribunal, and the desire to manipulate history to inculcate pride in nation, merit careful consideration as significant intellectual legacies of the war crimes trials.

Fanning umbrage at the injustice of the kangaroo courts plays well domestically, but continues to divert attention away from the need to more fully accept war responsibility and promote regional reconciliation.

A series of anti-Japanese incidents in China indicate that the costs of denial are rising. Other amnesiac imperialists have provided Japan with a golden opportunity to get out in front on the issue of war accountability. Instead, the dead-end politics of visits to Yasukuni Shrine persists.

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