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Tokyo Trial: A window onto the forces that shaped post-World War II AsiaFrom book cover of "Judgment at Tokyo" by Gary Bass.

Tokyo Trial: A window onto the forces that shaped post-World War II Asia

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The broad international framework used by Gary Bass in “Judgment at Tokyo” brings into focus concepts of international law, war crimes and human rights that remain both salient and contentious in today's postcolonial world.

UCLA International Institute, April 12, 2024 — The Tokyo War Crimes Trial (International Military Tribunal for the Far East) prosecuted 27 senior leaders of the Japanese Empire for war crimes and crimes against humanity following World War II. The trial that took place over the two year period 1946–48 was not, however, “just a legal event… but a panorama of the making of postwar Asia,” said political scientist Gary Bass.

Bass, a former journalist and William P. Boswell Professor of World Politics of Peace and War at Princeton University, recently spoke at UCLA about his most recent book, “Judgment at Tokyo; World War II on Trial and the Making of Modern Asia” (Knopf, 2023). The March event was cosponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations and the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law.

“Judgment at Tokyo” tells the story of the tribunal through the eyes of two of its major participants: Chinese judge Mei Ruao [also transliterated as Mei Ju-ao] and Indian judge Radhabinod Pal. Although Bass also wanted include the story of the Filipino judge, Colonel Delfin Jaranilla, he was unable to find sufficient written documentation on the latter’s participation in the trial.

“One of the core ideas of the book was to give perspectives about human rights and international law from what we today would call the ‘Global South,’” said Bass, and thus re-center the narrative towards Asian voices.

“I’m trying to tell the history not just of the courtroom proceedings, but what’s going on around the courtroom, … [which] encompasses the building of a new democratic, peaceful Japan; the impending communist victory in civil-war China (coming in 1949); the struggle for decolonization in India and Indonesia; and, of course, the onset of the Cold War,” explained the author.

His research spanned visits to 18 archives in seven different countries and worldwide travel to interview descendants of many tribunal participants, including Tojo Shigenori (the Japanese foreign minister who tried to prevent Pearl Harbor), Ruao and Pal.

Tokyo and Nuremburg trials compared

Not only is the Tokyo Trial far less known than the Nuremberg Trials of former German Nazi leaders, it differed from its European counterpart in several ways, said Bass. The Nuremberg Trials were overseen by the four Allied victors, all of which were imperial powers: the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France. In contrast, the Tokyo Trials were administered by judges from Allied nations and from territories that had been occupied by Japan.

According to Bass, the greater number of countries and peoples represented at the Tokyo tribunal — with its 11 judges and 11 prosecutors — reflected Truman’s deference to other Allied powers and his inexperience as a world leader. As a result, the British Commonwealth was the dominant block at the tribunal, consisting of judges from Great Britain (England and Scotland), Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Yet broader representation brought two major advantages: it gave real voice to the peoples who had suffered under Japanese rule and it diluted the power of the only authoritarian nation among the Allies, the USSR.

“Nuremburg did not have a judge to represent the Jews or the Poles, whereas Tokyo had judges from China, India and the Philippines,” observed the author. 

“In a glaring omission, there [was] no Korean judge [and] no Taiwanese judge. The trial starts it temporal jurisdiction in 1928, so the seizure and annexation of both Korea and Taiwan [by Japan was] off-limits.”

Among the Asian judges, Ruao and Pal were distinguished legal professionals and Ruao and Jaranilla had both directly experienced the war. “Ruoa was a survivor of the strategic bombing of Changqing by the Japanese Air Force and ... Jaranilla was a survivor of the Bataan Death March,” noted Bass.

In the parts of the Chinese juror’s diary that were preserved, Bass said of Ruao, “He is burning with rage at the [Japanese] defendants when they’re brought into the courtroom for the first time.” Yet it’s clear that Ruoa struggled to uphold the responsibilities of a judge, also writing, “I am here for the 14 million Chinese, overwhelmingly civilians, who died [at the hands of] Imperial Japan. I have a moral obligation to speak for them… I must be serious, I must be disciplined.”

Pal became world famous for his 1,000-page dissent at the trial, a document known as the ‘Pal judgment’ in Japan. (The dissent was based on the jurist’s rejection of the ex post facto charges of conspiracy and war crimes used against Japanese officials.)

“Certainly for conservative and nationalistic Japanese, [the dissent] stands as a… moral verdict in the trial, a sort of pan-Asian statement that it was actually Imperial Japan who was fighting a war of self-defense,” reflected Bass.

A clash of empires and racisms

The Tokyo war crimes trial is notable as a forum where Western and Asian empires and their respective racist policies clashed.

The Nuremberg Trials easily found the Nazi invasion of Poland to be a violation of a sovereign country, said Bass. At the Tokyo Trial, however, “when you’re speaking of an attack on Singapore, that’s British Singapore. When you’re talking about marching into Indochina, that’s French Indochina. What the trial treats as aggression against the Dutch means an attack on the Netherlands East Indies,” he specified.

“And the Japanese defendants say throughout the trial, ‘We’re doing what you [the Western imperial powers] did, we [were] just doing it alone.

“And by talking about empire, you’re inevitably talking about racism,” added the political scientist.

“Racism is a feature not just in the foreign policy of the United States in the Philippines, or of Britain across Asia, or of the French in Indochina or of the Dutch in Indonesia — it was a massive feature in their policy,” said the author. At the same time, “[Racism] is also a feature of Imperial Japan in dealing with other Asian peoples.

“It makes for a much more complicated story that there’s racism on both sides, and I wanted readers to try to grapple with that,” said Bass.

U.S. policy decisions create a ‘memory problem’ in Japan

One major legacy of the Tokyo Tribunal — an unrepentant attitude toward the war in Asia on the part of nationalist Japanese elites — was an outcome of U.S. policy choices.

Although U.S. President Harry Truman had approved an invasion of Japan, he was very reluctant to order it. Japanese negotiators insisted on keeping the emperor in place as a condition of their “unconditional” surrender even after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and after the USSR entered the Pacific theater of the war. In the end, Truman acceded to the request and resolved to use the emperor for his own policy ends.

“[The emperor] is useful in multiple ways. He’s useful in getting Japan to surrender in the first place… [which] helps get Japanese troops all across Asia to lay down their arms rather than fighting. And [he’s] useful in helping effect a bloodless occupation, where Macarthur’s occupation is overlaid over a Japanese government,” said Bass.

Given the alternative of a bloody ground war, almost any president would have made the decision to retain the emperor, said Bass. However, the choice “taints postwar memory [in Japan] in multiple ways. One is that by letting people in the circle of the emperor be… rehabilitated relatively quickly in the 1950s, they go on to propagate this idea that ‘We fought a legitimate patriotic war.’

“You don’t have an equivalent in [post-war] Germany of a leadership class that says, ‘No, we got a lot of this right.’”

The advent of the Cold War in Asia, including the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, provided additional impetus for the U.S. to tolerate the return of nationalists to Japanese political life.

“I think the Cold War bites with somewhat greater ferocity in Japan, particularly because of the fall of China,” he said. “It’s the same way that the Cold War would have … [had] an added layer of urgency in Europe if France [had gone] communist.”

The broad international framework used by Bass in “Judgment at Tokyo” brings into focus many concepts of international law, war crimes and human rights that remain salient and contentious in today’s postcolonial world. The historical debate on these issues at the Tokyo Trial provides valuable context for contemporary criticisms of the institutions and assumptions of the post-World War order built by the United States, one that is increasingly being challenged by the forces of populism and by non-Western, non-democratic world powers.