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Sunday, July 15, 2001

Hunting for justice in the Tokyo war tribunal

Staff writer
JUDGMENT AT TOKYO: The Japanese War Crimes Trials, by Tim Maga. University Press of Kentucky, 2001, 200 pp., $25 (cloth).

Fifty-six years since Japan's surrender, World War II's legacy continues to make headlines: Compensation sought by sex slaves; Controversy rages over history textbooks; Prime minister's pledge to visit Yasukuni Shrine draws fire.

The Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction the last two years have intensified the attention on Japan's war history: John Dower's postwar narrative and analysis "Embracing Defeat" in 1999 and Herbert Bix's biography "Hirohito" in 2000.

At the center of these books and media reports is the question of justice -- what really happened? Who was right and who wrong? Who was on the side of good and who evil?

"Judgment at Tokyo: The Japanese War Crimes Trials," a new work by Bradley University Professor Tim Maga, enters the fray to put a spotlight on the first time these questions were addressed in a court of law, and to address the other question that follows: Was that pursuit of justice, in fact, just?

Maga answers yes. Coming on strong in his preface, he asserts that the trials were "an amazing endeavor to punish 'evil' and to do 'the right thing.' " He portrays himself as a truth-seeking David facing a Goliath of "political correctness." His thesis, that there were "good intentions behind the Tokyo trials" and that they did "good work," may not seem so bold on its face, but Maga insists his is a lonely voice in an academic environment that has made up its mind that the trials were racist and vengeful.

Given that forceful introduction, one expects a detailed exposition on the many academics in the West that have vilified the trials and on what grounds.

Instead, he makes note of Japanese rightists who have (hardly surprisingly) challenged the justness of the trials, and provides a paragraph describing a Harvard University-sponsored seminar near the 50th anniversary of the trials where distinguished speakers mostly shared the view that the trials were a "sham," a "racial conspiracy," and an "allied crucifixion" of Japanese wartime leaders. While in the Notes section he offers to make materials from the seminar available, one would like to see more of their content in the book -- on what evidence did the senators and other VIPs in attendance make such damning judgments?

Maga makes reference to other critics of the trials, but in the end he doesn't air their arguments thoroughly. He instead provides a narrative of key and "spectacular" parts of the trials, which he mostly lets speak for itself.

For example, a chief objection raised by historians has been that the principal charge at the Tokyo trials was that of "aggression," even though the U.S., France and Great Britain had agreed as recently as 1944 that waging aggressive war was not a crime. While Maga duly notes the defense counsels' objections on these grounds, he offers no philosophical justification for such an evident contradiction on the part of the Allies.

Inasmuch as the book is a narrative, it is successful in capturing the drama and interesting legal dilemmas the trials produced. How, for example, problems such as the following arose from translation: The Japanese language makes no distinction, as English does, between a "stick" and a "club." But surely a guard who beat his prisoners with one is guilty of a different degree of brutality than one who used the other.

The essential question of who should be held responsible for atrocities committed in wartime -- the commanders who set the ball rolling with either direct orders or by nurturing a culture of brutality, or the grunts in the field who carried out atrocious deeds -- gets a good airing.

Maga is also effective in portraying key players in the trials -- the ambitious chief prosecutor in Tokyo, Joseph Keenan, and his relationship with Gen. Douglas MacArthur; the problematic former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who "was never a Hitler-style dictator;" the puzzling former Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, whose trial surely established substantial doubt as to his culpability for war crimes but who was nevertheless found guilty.

It is certainly a credit to Maga's intellectual honesty that he includes such details that seem to fly in the face of his thesis, but it leaves one curious about why he isn't more ambivalent about the trials.

He certainly makes it clear that the tribunal had a difficult job to do -- caught between Australians, who, the chief justice of Queensland observed, thought the trials might be more trouble than they were worth, and the Chinese who aimed to exact revenge. There was also a need to strike a balance between seeking justice for war criminals while being careful not to lose the trust and cooperation of the Japanese people.

Perhaps it is these mitigating factors that drive Maga's conclusion that the trials were "as just as they could be."

But were they? It is one thing to acknowledge good intentions and to recognize the powerful strains on and differing interests of the various interested parties. It is quite another to say the trials could not have been more just.

Could they have been more just if a person other than MacArthur, who clearly had at least a fingernail on the scales of justice, was running occupied Japan? Could they have been more just if, as Justice Radhabinod Pal of India thought appropriate, Allied forces were also tried for war crimes? Could they have been more just if Emperor Hirohito were tried for his responsibility in the war?

The last of these questions seems especially key. Biographer Bix asserts that the Japanese as a whole "came to feel that because the emperor had not been held responsible, neither should they." Dower notes that two of the trials' justices found the whole tribunal to be "flawed and compromised by the decision not to bring the emperor to trial."

MacArthur's decision to spare the Emperor was motivated by hopes of appeasing the Japanese public by preserving Imperial continuity. In part, it was also a manifestation of the Occupation's sensitivity to charges of victor's justice. It is ironic, then, that the long view of history may damn the trials chiefly for failing to try the Emperor Showa.

Maga's effort is an uneven one. He does not justify his thesis that justice was delivered in Tokyo. Confusingly, he even acknowledges that the trials were flawed, and clearly they were -- to the extent that a much more nuanced verdict than his is surely called for. On the other hand, by detailing key events and people in the prosecution and the defense, he convincingly demonstrates that the trials were no sham, either. In an epilogue, he usefully looks at the legacy of the trials and their continuing impact on the movement to establish a permanent international tribunal.

While Japan continues over the coming decades to struggle with the Pacific War's legacy in classrooms, courts and on the world stage, "Judgment at Tokyo," with its particulars on wartime atrocities and how they were legally handled, provides some useful reference points and fills in some gaps between recent historical studies.

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