My friend Doris Bargen at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, asked me to give a talk to her class on “Martyrs and Rebels in Japan.” When I chose “martyrs,” she sent me Samuel Klausner’s close definition of “martyrdom,” with her simple one defining martyrs as those “adhering to their ideology/faith and dying.” Her syllabus for the course included Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence,” along with Martin Scorsese’s film version of it.

Japan has produced a great many martyrs — not just the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637-1638 that precedes Endo’s fiction, but also Japan’s defeat in the Asia-Pacific War, a period of great interest to me in recent years.

There were, first of all, “kamikaze pilots” — Klausner names them — and the men who likewise went off on missions to certain death. Following Japan’s defeat, many military men committed suicide, 527 of them, according to a 1962 book. Civilians also did the same, for one ideology or another, including mass suicides. The book describes two such groups.

While preparing a draft of my talk, however, I had another occasion to consider military justice. The Potsdam Declaration of July, 1945, telling Japan to surrender or else, specified, “stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals.” Accordingly, military tribunals were set up after Japan’s defeat.

Not that the tribunals ended in “victors’ justice.” Gen. Hideki Tojo, for one, had expected that much. Sohei Yamate, a nisei sergeant assigned to Sugamo Prison as a guard, remembered Tojo telling him that he would take “full responsibility for the war,” adding, the coming trial would be “one of victor over loser.” After all, there is a Japanese proverbial saying: “If you win, you’re the government; if you lose, you are bandits.”

What interested me this time was, rather, the uneven distribution of war crime tribunals and the death sentence.

Sugamo Prison, though famed for housing and executing Tojo and six other high-ranking men, was only one of the many places of incarceration for those suspected of or charged with war crimes; all the others were outside Japan. Also, Sugamo was managed by the Allied Powers, while all the other prisons were managed by individual countries.

As it happens, there is a large volume listing the wills and last letters written by those who were charged for war crimes and sentenced to death and executed. After Sugamo Prison was transferred to Japan as the peace treaty took effect in 1952, a committee was formed to assemble such wills and letters. More than 1,000 men made the list. The volume also has a table of places of their deaths and which countries managed them.

Thus, other than the seven men tried by the Allied Powers and executed, the United States executed a total of 140 men in four locations: Sugamo, Shanghai, Manila and Guam. China executed 140, at nine locations. Great Britain executed 240 in 17 places, with 129 of them in Changi, Singapore, alone.

The Netherlands (Dutch East Indies) executed 219, with 60 of them in Glodok, south of Jakarta. The Philippines executed 17, all of them in Muntinlupa, south of Manila. France (French Indonesia) executed 26, all in Saigon. And Australia executed 129, with 95 of them in Rabaul. These figures do not include those who died of some disease (93), suicides (35) and others who died for other reasons.

Now, these figures show the U.S. and China together executed only less than 30 percent of all those condemned to death. This is rather odd, I thought.

In the Asia-Pacific War, Japan’s prolonged trampling of China led to its attacks on the U.S., Great Britain and the Netherlands. But in the Pacific phase of it, most major battles were between Japan and the U.S. For all that, three fifths of the executions were done by Britain, the Netherlands and Australia. One question, then, is: Were military tribunals swayed by extra-judicial, political considerations?

I first think of revenge factors. Singapore, the British Empire’s “impregnable fortress in the Far East,” fell so easily that it frightened Australia, only recently weaned from the United Kingdom, so that it at once allied itself with the U.S. That must have embarrassed the empire. The Netherlands had been deprived of its important colonies in South Asia.

More to the point perhaps, there was the question of how to deal with “war crimes.” When it came up first, in the face of Germany’s impending defeat, the U.K. argued for “executive action” or “execution without trial” over “judicial proceedings,” pointing out that “the present state of international law” — “treaty, precedent, or custom” — did not permit judging “German transgressions” one way or another. So the British leaders wanted to “take the top Nazi criminals out and shoot them without warning one morning,” an American envoy to the conferences reported.

In the end Britain accepted the judicial proceedings that the U.S. insisted on, but you can imagine that its heart wasn’t in the trials conducted in its colonies, particularly the adversarial system that the U.S. brought to its own trials, which even some of the Japanese condemned to death praised. The letters left by those condemned to death in British jurisdictions suggest a lack of judicial ardency.

This is not to say that the U.S. did not create its own problems. The war crime named “negative criminality,” which the defense team of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita tried in Manila took all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court but failed, has since been an albatross on U.S. military justice; so have other lofty categories of war crimes.

In addition, even during the Tokyo Tribunal, the U.S. had to execute “the reverse course” of its occupation policy for the need to turn Japan into a bulwark against communism in the East. That reversal led to the weakening of Article 9 (no military armament) of the Constitution and to the creation of the Self-Defense Forces that took in a great many former military men.

Hiroaki Sato is a poet, essayist and translator based in New York.

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