Seventy-five years ago, around the cold and bleak midnight of Dec. 22-23, 1948, seven convicted Japanese war criminals were marched toward the gallows. Among these former top leaders were Gen. Hideki Tojo, a wartime prime minister found guilty for aggression at Pearl Harbor and for atrocities such as the Burma-Thailand death railway, and Gen. Iwane Matsui, the army commander at Nanjing, who was convicted of failing to prevent the slaughter and mass rape of Chinese there.
Tojo, Matsui and other condemned war criminals, dressed in U.S. Army work clothes as they received Buddhist last rites, defiantly yelled an imperial cry: “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” Soon after midnight, the trap doors crashed open with a sound like a rifle volley.
Their executions and verdicts were meant as a momentous, definitive statement of global condemnation of Japanese aggression and cruelty in World War II. Yet East Asia is arguing about them still.
It is impossible to understand the bristling tensions in the most powerful region on the globe today without considering what is ominously called the “history issue” left from World War II. The most important attempt to adjudicate the horrors of World War II in Asia was the Tokyo war crimes trial — the lesser-known Asian equivalent of the Nuremberg trial for Nazi Germany’s leaders. In spectacular proceedings from 1946 to 1948, the victorious Allies put on trial Tojo and 27 other senior Imperial Japanese leaders for charges of aggression and war crimes. They faced judges from 11 Allied countries, including such major Asia-Pacific powers as China, India, the Philippines and Australia.
Unlike at the Nuremberg trial, where the rules of international law were shaped by the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France, the Tokyo court also gave significant authority to anticolonial judges and prosecutors from developing countries. One of the most influential judges, Mei Ruao of China, disgusted at the British Empire, privately scorned “the nonsense of these imperialist white supremacists.” Although the United States wanted to skew the trial toward aggression against the United States at Pearl Harbor, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. potentate ruling Allied-occupied Japan, rapidly lost patience with the tribunal, allowing it to be steered by other Allied governments. Chinese and Philippine prosecutors assembled a massive compilation of Japan’s atrocities and sexual violence.
Rather than resolving wartime grievances, though, the Tokyo trial remains an occasion for patriotic quarrels across East Asia to this day. Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader, pursues territorial disputes with Japan while remonstrating about World War II. When conservative Japanese politicians visit or pay tribute at the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead as well as Tojo and 13 other Class A war criminals, Chinese citizens recoil with state-sanctioned disgust. South Koreans seethe against an officially pacifist Japan that is hardly poised for imperialist backsliding. For their part, Japanese nationalists, including many in the country’s dominant conservative party, denounce the trial as “victors’ justice” and exalt the lengthy dissent by the Indian judge, Radhabinod Pal, which supported acquittal for Tojo and all the other defendants.
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