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.

The Tokyo trial is consequential not because of long-defunct Wilsonian daydreams about a world pacified by international law, but because it misfired and fizzled. While Japanese leaders have repeatedly apologized for the crimes of World War II, there is no Japanese equivalent to the near-universal national repentance of Germany today. The international lawyers and human rights activists who extol Nuremberg usually see Tokyo as an embarrassment best forgotten. The Tokyo trial is important precisely because it remains so controversial. If Nuremberg is remembered as a metaphor for moral clarity, then Tokyo represents a dive into murk.

There are several reasons for the contested legacy of Tokyo. Although the Tokyo trial was far more international than Nuremberg, its judges proved incapable of unity. There were dissents from the Dutch, French and Indian judges, while the Australian chief judge and the Philippine judge wrote concurring opinions. After the judgment, the Supreme Court of the United States allowed American defense lawyers to make oral arguments about the legitimacy of the Tokyo court, but then ruled that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over an international tribunal. All of this apparent indecision from the Allied powers undermined the judgment, making many Japanese wonder if justice had really been done.

Beyond the legal problems, the Tokyo trial was undercut by military imperatives and international realpolitik. Fearing the bloodshed from a ground invasion of Japan, the Truman administration had ended the Pacific War with a tacit negotiation — which, as political scientists have demonstrated, is how almost all wars end. This was a brutal arrangement, brought about by firebombing, blockade, advancing armies and atomic bombs, but a negotiation all the same. After the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Truman administration cut an implicit deal to quietly spare Emperor Hirohito from overthrow or prosecution as a war criminal. This helped induce Japan to surrender at last, and the emperor proved helpful in legitimizing the subsequent American-led occupation. Yet Hirohito’s enduring presence on the throne and the revival of conservative elites around him permanently muddied postwar debates about Japan’s culpability, making possible a view that Japan had fought a patriotic and perhaps legitimate war.

Furthermore, in the early Cold War, the United States turned from firebombing Japan to fortifying it against the spread of Communism in Asia. That meant halting the prosecutions of lower-ranked war criminals, and even the parole and rehabilitation of Class A war crimes suspects. Perhaps the most important of these was Nobusuke Kishi, a senior official in Japanese-run Manchuria who later served in Tojo’s cabinet at the time of Pearl Harbor, and who after the war was jailed by the Americans for more than three years as a Class A suspect. After being released without being tried in December 1948, he went on to become Japan’s foreign minister and then prime minister in 1957. He reviled the Tokyo trial as victors’ justice and argued that Japan had been forced to fight in self-defense.

Kishi’s resentments were passed on to his devoted grandson, Shinzo Abe, who grew up to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, serving in 2006-2007 and again in 2012-2020. As prime minister, Abe sought to deny official Japanese responsibility for the wartime sexual coercion of Korean women. He told a committee of the national legislature, the Diet, that the verdict was a conviction by the judgment of the victors. On a trip to India, he visited the family of Pal, the dissenting Indian judge. It has taken decades for Kishi and Abe’s views of wartime history to reach the Japanese mainstream, but they are firmly ensconced there now.

To be sure, there are plenty of valid reasons to criticize the Tokyo trial. Its legal claims that aggression had been outlawed were shaky — although that is true of Nuremberg as well. Its moral purpose was undercut by the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Tokyo and dozens of other cities, and the awful civilian death tolls from combat on Saipan and Okinawa. The thuggish Soviet judge, a Red Army major general who followed the party line from Moscow, was a core part of the majority. Many of the judges were from colonial powers who were resented across Asia, particularly the Soviet Union, Britain, France and the Netherlands, as well as the United States with its stake in Hawaii and the Philippines.

Still, for all the trial’s grave flaws, no Chinese, Philippine or American politician could have ignored their peoples’ demand to punish Japanese war criminals. Indeed, most of the Chinese, American and British publics would have preferred to do so by summary executions, rather than a lengthy trial where Tojo got to testify in vindication of his war efforts. Furthermore, the ouster and discrediting of war criminals was a necessary element in the broader project of creating a peaceful, democratic postwar Japan. The Tokyo trial had some real impact in turning the Japanese people against their militaristic wartime leadership. After the prosecution’s evidence about the Nanjing massacre, a leading Japanese newspaper wrote a blistering editorial condemning “the evil of Japanese imperialism” and “the indelible historic sins of the military clique’s barbarism.”

If anyone is inclined to listen to voices in Asia, millions and millions saw the Tokyo judgment as a necessity. Seventy-five years later, the Tokyo trial stands out as a crucial missed opportunity to confront Asia’s wartime memories — and as an alarming prelude to the current disorder in Asia that could lead to a new, terrible war.

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