British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

British and Australian military tribunals sat in judgment over accused Japanese defendants, imposing hundreds of death sentences on those found guilty of war crimes. Some of the trials took place on formerly Japanese-occupied islands in the South Pacific on which battles had been fought during the war, although the main trials occurred in Japan itself.

Summary of Event

It is sometimes forgotten that, after World War II, tribunals investigated atrocities committed by Japanese troops and administrators during the conflict, because these trials have been overshadowed in the historical imagination by the Nuremberg Trials, which scrutinized the conduct of the German leaders. Although the postwar occupation of Japan was largely an American concern, the British and Australians also presided over trials of Japanese soldiers accused of complicity in wartime human rights violations. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials War crimes;World War II World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes [kw]British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes (1946) [kw]Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes, British and (1946) [kw]Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes, British and Australian (1946) [kw]Death Sentences for War Crimes, British and Australian Tribunals Impose (1946) [kw]War Crimes, British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for (1946) [kw]Crimes, British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War (1946) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials War crimes;World War II World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes [g]Pacific;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [g]Southeast Asia;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [g]Asia;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [g]South Pacific;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [g]Melanesia;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [g]Japan;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [g]China;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [g]Burma;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [c]World War II;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1946: British and Australian Tribunals Impose Death Sentences for War Crimes[01620] Webb, William Comyns-Carr, Sir Arthur Strettell Mansfield, Alan Kimura,Hyotaro Doihara, Kenji

The main trials were presided over by an international panel of judges and held in Tokyo. Many trials of junior officers, however, were held in locales in the Pacific Islands where armed engagements had taken place. There had been fierce fighting between Japanese and Australian troops in 1942 and 1943 in the Territory of Papua and the Trust Territory of New Guinea, League of Nations mandates administered by Australia that would be united into Papua New Guinea in 1949. The British colony of the Solomon Islands had also seen intense action.

Because of the island-hopping strategy employed by General Douglas MacArthur to win the war in the Pacific, there were many Japanese garrisons in the Pacific Islands that had been leapfrogged for strategic reasons. These forces, still in place at the end of the war, had never been conquered when they surrendered, so in many cases it was easier to administer justice in the localities where they had surrendered than to bring the soldiers in question back to Japan. Furthermore, it was easier to obtain testimony from civilians and other witnesses in these locales.

Trials were held on Manus (Admiralty Island), just to the north of New Guinea, as well as in Hong Kong and Singapore; in Darwin, capital of Australia’s Northern Territory; in Rabaul, on New Guinea’s New Britain Island; and in Morotai, Wewak, and Labuan on New Guinea itself. These trials covered only breaches of conduct that occurred in the trials’ locations, whereas the Tokyo trials covered the entire gamut of the Pacific war, including Japanese atrocities committed in China long before the English-speaking Allies had begun fighting against Japan.

The local trials were conducted under far looser procedures than was the norm in Western justice systems. For instance, written evidence, not backed up by oral testimony, was permitted—the rationale being that many of the actual witnesses to the atrocities had been killed in the war or had died subsequently. In 1944, for example, the Kaifeng Massacre Kaifeng Massacre (1944) Massacres had occurred, in which, it was said, a whole shipload of Australian prisoners of war aboard the merchant vessel Kowa Maru had been killed by Japanese troops. The Japanese were about to evacuate New Guinea under Allied pressure, and they wanted to dispose of the captured personnel they held. Although there was no testimony from any Australian survivors, a sufficient number of Japanese witnesses, by that point themselves prisoners of the Allies, gave evidence for several officers to be sentenced to death.

William Webb, a former chief justice of Queensland, was involved in drafting provisions for punishing Japanese officers for their mistreatment of Australian prisoners of war. Webb also advised the British army on its treatment of captured Japanese. In 1946, Webb was appointed justice of the High Court of Australia and simultaneously served as the president of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. He was the most visible non-American involved in the tribunals.

Even though the tribunals’ prosecutors were an international team, including Canadian and Filipino representatives as well as Alan Mansfield, an Australian, and Sir Arthur Strettell Comyns-Carr, a renowned British lawyer, the fact that the prosecution operated as one unit meant that American attitudes dominated. Also, unlike the Nuremberg Trials, where Soviet prosecutors played a powerful role, the late entry of the Soviet Union in the war against Japan meant that the Soviets, though represented on both the panel of judges and the prosecutorial ensemble, did not carry much weight in the Pacific trials. (Separate trials, conducted purely by the Soviet military, were held in Khabarovsk for those Japanese who had surrendered to the Soviets in Manchuria.)

Trials were also held in the theaters on the Asian mainland, such as Burma, where Japanese forces were still fighting the British when Japan announced a general surrender in August, 1945. Hyotaro Kimura, who was still holding out in the Burmese capital of Rangoon, was arrested and tried in Tokyo, though Kimura’s subordinates were tried in Burma. Similarly, Kenji Doihara, most of whose crimes were committed in Manchuria, was not tried locally but in Tokyo, thereby putting him under the aegis of the international tribunal and not the local, Soviet-sponsored one presiding in Khabarovsk.

Significance

The Australian participation in both the local and international war crimes tribunals—like the role played by Australian foreign minister Herbert Vere Evatt at the initial United Nations conference in San Francisco as an advocate for small- and medium-sized nations—was a signal that Australia intended to play a broader role on the postwar world stage. At the time, the war crimes trials were not particularly controversial. Outrage at Japanese behavior during the war was still high in the Asia-Pacific region. The Japanese public, ashamed of what had been revealed about its government’s wartime policies, was sufficiently disaffected with the wartime regime to quell any potential expressions of dissatisfaction with the judicial process.

In the early 1970’s, amid skepticism about the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, historians began to reexamine the Japanese war crimes trials, seeing them as essentially a Western attempt to interfere with Asian national aspirations. It was pointed out that the United Nations, the body that tried the accused war criminals, was created by the alliance that had opposed Japan. Therefore, true impartiality, it was alleged, had been lacking, and the trials had constituted a kind of “victors’ justice.” Others pointed out, however, that justice is imperfect and that the war crimes tribunals not only brought the guilty to account while giving them a reasonable facsimile of due process but also permitted a kind of cathartic ventilation of wartime injuries that would enable the Japanese and their former adversaries to progress in a postwar Pacific where Japan, Britain, Australia, and the United States were all allies. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials War crimes;World War II World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brackman, Arnold C. The Other Nuremberg: The Untold Story of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. New York: Morrow, 1987. Brackman, who manifests a less polemical perspective than some of the other scholars, provides a thorough and balanced overview of the war crimes trials; intended for the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dower, John. Embracing Defeat. New York: Norton, 1999. Touches only tangentially on the war crimes trials themselves, but is important to the student of the tribunals for its portrait of the political relationship of the victors and defeated in the wake of the war in the Pacific.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maga, Tim. Judgment at Tokyo: The Japanese War Crimes Trials. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Maga, using as sources primarily works published in English, contends that the war crimes trials were generally fair and conducted according to sound legal principles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Minear, Richard H. Victors’ Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. Miner’s controversial book is skeptical of the legal integrity of the tribunals, which it sees as a manifestation of Western imperialism that punished the Japanese more for having lost the war than for any specific atrocities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moffitt, Athol. Project Kingfisher. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1989. Written by an Australian war crimes prosecutor, this book covers both the specific prosecutions in which he was involved and Japanese war crimes tribunals in general. Although lacking full historical distance, it is still the most thorough chronicle of Australian involvement in Japanese war crimes prosecution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thorne, Christopher. Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain, and the War Against Japan, 1941-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Thorne’s detailed examination of the diplomatic interaction among the anglophone Pacific Allies sheds light on the differing anterior circumstances affecting the war crimes tribunals conducted by Britain and Australia and those presided over by the United States.

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