Seventy-five years ago, the Tokyo Trial began. Also known as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, and formally as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), it was set up to try 28 senior Japanese admirals, generals and officials for an assortment of crimes committed during the Second World War.
Few in the West remember, let alone comment on the trial today. Its anniversary has had almost no media coverage, even if it was earlier the subject of an excellent Netflix docudrama, Tokyo Trial (2016). Yet, 75 years on, this trial deserves our attention. Not least because its impact can still be felt today.
On 21 April this year, Japanese premier Yoshihide Suga flaunted his disagreement with the guilty verdicts and seven hangings dictated by the IMTFE. He sent a ceremonial offering to the Yasukuni Shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, where several ‘Class A’ Japanese war criminals, so designated by the verdicts of the IMTFE, are buried. Suga’s gesture ‘predictably angered’ Beijing and Seoul, since Chinese and Koreans retain bitter memories of Japanese occupation before and during the Second World War.
The Tokyo Trial lasted from 3 May 1946 until 12 November 1948. It generated a 48,000-word transcript and a 1,200-page majority judgment made by seven of the 11 judges, who were drawn from 11 nations. Of the 55 counts brought against the defendants, no fewer than 45 were dismissed.
Yet, floodlit for filming, the trial was never a purely legal affair. Rather, it was a political event that was to shape the development of postwar Japan.
A Pyrrhic victory?
The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, first and foremost, marked the political subordination of Japanese to American imperialism, formalising the doctrine of Japanese war guilt. In doing so, it sought to exonerate America and Britain for their colonial and racial exploits before and during the war – and for their use of atomic weapons at the end of it. Thanks in part to the Tokyo Trial, Japan remains a junior, non-nuclear partner to America today.
The IMTFE also exposed the racist aspects of the West’s behaviour in the Asia-Pacific. Although the trial recounted stomach-churning interwar and wartime Japanese attacks on the Chinese and others, it also highlighted, thanks to its Japanese and American defence lawyers, clear double standards on the part of the white West. As a result, the Tokyo Trial emboldened the postwar Japanese right, and proved to be a political blow from which, in Asia, America has never entirely recovered.
The Tokyo Trial was thus a Pyrrhic victory for the Americans. It let slip the veil that Washington and the West wanted to draw over their racial record in the Far East.
On 13 February 1946, shortly before the IMTFE convened, the supreme commander for the Allied powers, as General Douglas MacArthur was then called, shocked Japanese ministers by rejecting their draft constitution for postwar Japan and imposed America’s own draft instead. To show who was boss, MacArthur’s intermediary, General Courtney Whitney, ridiculed a Japanese aide, saying: ‘We have been enjoying your atomic sunshine.’ (1) That set the martial tone for the IMTFE, whose terms of reference were written by MacArthur.
The IMTFE convened in the auditorium of the elite Imperial Army Officers’ School, Japan’s West Point, in Ichigaya, near the centre of Tokyo. Both the physical courtroom and the list of crimes were modelled on the Nuremberg Trials.
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