Tokyo, Japan November 12, 1948

On this date in 1948 twenty-eight verdicts for Class A war crimi­nals were read out at the Inter­national Mili­tary Tribu­nal for the Far East (IMTFE), better known as the Tokyo Trials or the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Con­vened in the Japa­nese capital, Tokyo, on April 29, 1946, to try Japan’s highest-ranking poli­tical and mili­tary leaders, the defen­dants were charged with com­mitting crimes against peace and con­spiring jointly to start and wage aggres­sive war. (Both charges were required for prose­cuting Class A war crimi­nals.) “Class B” war crimes were typically reserved for lower-ranking indivi­duals who allegedly com­mitted “conven­tional” atro­cities such as murder, mas­sacres, exter­mi­na­tion, human experi­men­ta­tion, torture, rape, and pillaging help­less civil­ians; these indivi­duals were tried by Allied War Crimes Courts inside Japan and out­side, in coun­tries that made up the victo­rious Allies such as China, the Philip­pines, Austra­lia, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. “Class C” war crimes, namely, crimes against humanity, were reserved for those engaged in planning, ordering, autho­ri­zing, or failing to pre­vent such trans­gres­sions at higher levels in the com­mand struc­ture. In all, more than 5,700 indivi­duals were charged with committing Class B and C war crimes, of which over 1,300 were either acquitted, never brought to trial, or not sentenced.

Modeled on the Nuremberg Trials in post­war Germany (Novem­ber 1945 to Octo­ber 1946), Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, the Supreme Com­mander of the Allied Powers, set in motion the Tokyo Trials in Janu­ary 1946. He appointed a tribu­nal of 12 judges, nine of whom were repre­sen­ta­tives of nations that had signed the Japa­nese Instru­ment of Sur­render on Septem­ber 2, 1945. The chief prose­cutor, appointed by President Harry S. Tru­man, was assisted by ten other prose­cu­tors. The defen­dants were repre­sented by 79 Japa­nese and 25 Amer­i­can attor­neys, plus a support staff. Of the original 30 in the dock, 9 were civil­ian offi­cials (mostly prime minis­ters and foreign minis­ters), one was a poli­tical philo­sopher, and the rest were mem­bers of the Japa­nese armed ser­vices. Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito and all mem­bers of the Japa­nese imperial family, such as Prince Yasuhiko Asaka who was impli­cated in the Nan­king (Nan­jing) Massacre in 1937, were not prose­cuted for involve­ment in any of the three cate­go­ries of crimes. As the his­torian Herbert Bix explained (see text box below), “the Truman admin­is­tra­tion and Gen. Mac­Arthur both believed the occu­pa­tion reforms would be imple­mented smoothly if they used Hir­ohito to legiti­mize their changes.” Mac­Arthur went so far as to tell the emperor (via inter­medi­aries) that he “should never abdi­cate,” a topic that engaged the Japa­nese public during the trials. Hiro­hito wrote back to say that he was com­mitted to staying on the throne in order to work for the reconstruction of his country.

Perhaps the most notorious defendant at the Tokyo Trials was Gen. Hideki Tōjō, Chief of Staff of the Kwan­tung Army in Japa­nese-occupied China (1937–1938), Japa­nese war minis­ter (1940–1944), prime minis­ter (1941–1944), chief of the Imperial Japa­nese Army General Staff Office (1944). Tōjō was sentenced to death and hanged, along with four other former Japa­nese generals, at Sugamo Prison out­side Tokyo on Decem­ber 23, 1948. Tōjō’s sen­tence, like those of the other defen­dants, was con­firmed by MacArthur. Sixteen defen­dants were sen­tenced to life impri­son­ment. Three died in prison, while the other thir­teen were paroled between 1954 and 1956 after MacArthur had left Japan.

There remains an element of con­tro­versy in the pre­war and war­time role of Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito, who had taken the aus­pi­cious reign-title “Shōwa” (“illus­tri­ous peace”) in 1926. A recent (2015) narra­tive by Noriko Kawa­mura, Emperor Hiro­hito and the Pacific War, portrays Hiro­hito as a sacred but cere­monial figure in a pre­carious and ambig­u­ous posi­tion when it came to sanc­tioning deci­sions taken by Japa­nese mili­tary leaders, espe­cially when they con­flicted with his own personal, less hawkish views. An opposing narra­tive asserts that Hiro­hito was a true war leader and that he should have been charged with war crimes at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribu­nal just as were Japa­nese Prime Minis­ter/War Minister Gen. Hideki Tōjō and other senior offi­cials who served the emperor. Herbert P. Bix, in his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, believes the latter narrative is correct. In Bix’s view Hiro­hito, as com­mand­er in chief of all Japanese armed forces (daigensui), bears the strongest share of poli­tical, legal, and moral respon­si­bil­ity for the crimi­nal behav­ior of his armed forces in the Asia Pacific Thea­ter in the 1930s and ’40s, and he cer­tainly bears respon­sibility for green-lighting the infamous slaughter of Chin­ese soldiers and civil­ians in Nanjing in 1937. Bix demon­strates to the satis­fac­tion of many readers that Hiro­hito was a repeat vio­la­tor of inter­na­tional peace, starting with Japan’s illegal sei­zure of Man­chu­ria in 1931, con­tinuing for more than a dozen years for peo­ple swept up in the grue­some mael­strom of war, and ending only in August 1945 when he and his sub­or­di­nates could find no way out of the tragic mess they had made in South­east Asia. Hiro­hito, in Bix’s biography, was the missing defendant in the dock during the Tokyo Trials of 1946–1948.—Norm Haskett

International Military Tribunal for the Far East, April 1946 to November 1948

International Military Tribunal for the Far East CourtroomHideki Tōjō in the defendant’s box, International Military Tribunal for the Far East

Left: Held in the former Imperial Japanese Army head­quarters building in Tokyo, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East was con­vened on April 29, 1946, and adjourned 2½ years later on Novem­ber 12, 1948, after having spent six months reaching judg­ment and drafting its 1,781‑page opinion. In this photo­graph, the judges bench appears on the right, the defen­dants’ dock is on the left, and the prosecutors are seated in the rear.

Right: Former Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō (in glasses with head­phone) was tried by the Inter­national Mili­tary Tribu­nal for the Far East for war crimes and found guilty of waging wars of aggres­sion (five counts), waging unpro­voked war against the Repub­lic of China (one count), and ordering, autho­rizing, and per­mitting inhu­mane treat­ment of pri­soners of war and others (one count). He accepted full respon­sibility in the end for his actions during the war.

Brief History of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal), 1946–1948