Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The case of General Tomoyuki Yamashita established the principles that commanders are responsible for their troops’ actions and that captured soldiers are not protected by the U.S. Constitution even after hostilities end.

Summary of Event

General Tomoyuki Yamashita, nicknamed the Tiger of Malaya, had a distinguished career before World War II that became even more distinguished during the war. The most brilliant of his achievements was a ten-week campaign down the Malay Peninsula that led to the fall of Britain’s “invincible” fortifications at Singapore on February 15, 1942. Despite Yamashita’s success and immense popularity in Japan after this event, General Hideki Tōjō Tojo, Hideki , Japan’s prime minister, sent Yamashita into virtual exile in Manchuria. The reason for Tōjō’s animosity is unknown, but it may have resulted from Yamashita’s reputation as a moderate and his opposition to beginning the war. In 1929, Yamashita had gone so far as to suggest that the Japanese army should be reduced to a size adequate only for defense. [kw]Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes (Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946) [kw]General Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes, Japanese (Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946) [kw]Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes, Japanese General (Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946) [kw]War Crimes, Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of (Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946) [kw]Crimes, Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of War (Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes War crimes;World War II Executions;Tomoyuki Yamashita[Yamashita] Capital punishment World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes War crimes;World War II Executions;Tomoyuki Yamashita[Yamashita] Capital punishment [g]Southeast Asia;Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946: Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes[01590] [g]Philippines;Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946: Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes[01590] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946: Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes[01590] [c]World War II;Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946: Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes[01590] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 29, 1945-Feb. 23, 1946: Japanese General Yamashita Is Convicted of War Crimes[01590] Yamashita, Tomoyuki MacArthur, Douglas [p]MacArthur, Douglas;governorship of Japan Reynolds, Russel B.

In October, 1944, new rulers in Tokyo sent Yamashita to command the Fourteenth Army Group in the Philippines. By that time, the Japanese situation in the Philippines was desperate. Ten days after Yamashita arrived, American troops landed at Leyte, and Yamashita had little choice but to retreat to the mountains of Luzon. Allied naval victories and air supremacy cut off Japanese supplies and communications, placing the Japanese in a hopeless situation. Upon hearing a radio broadcast from Japan announcing defeat, Yamashita ordered his troops to surrender unconditionally and surrendered himself on September 3, 1945. General Douglas MacArthur, in Tokyo, appointed a commission of five U.S. Army generals to try Yamashita for war crimes as quickly as possible.

On October 29, 1945, Yamashita’s trial opened. The charge against him was that troops under his command had committed atrocities. These were of three kinds. In the first category were atrocities committed in Manila during February of 1945, just before the Americans took the city. The troops in Manila were naval forces placed under Yamashita’s tactical command in January, 1945; they remained under the administrative command of the navy. Although Yamashita ordered them to abandon the city twice, the admiral in Manila chose to obey a naval order to stay and destroy the harbor facilities. This decision doomed the troops, and they knew it. About twenty thousand soldiers ran berserk, raping and pillaging until American artillery destroyed central Manila at point-blank range.

A second group of atrocities occurred outside Manila, mainly in the district commanded by Colonel Masatoshi Fujishige Fujishige, Masatoshi . Fujishige was proud there were no rapes in his area, but he did order the destruction of villages in an attempt to stop guerrilla actions. He stated that he ordered his troops to kill anyone who opposed them, including women and children. In defense of this policy, he told how a child had thrown a hand grenade at him. He said the policy was his, and that he had not reported his actions.

The defense wanted to remind the commission of the case of American brigadier general Jacob H. Smith Smith, Jacob H. , who had ordered his troops to conduct a punitive expedition against Philippine guerrillas in 1901. Smith had said, “I want no prisoners. . . . The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me.” Everyone over ten years old was to be killed. A court-martial for breach of discipline sentenced Smith merely to be reprimanded by his superior. No such allusions were allowed, however, as the commission specifically warned the defense lawyers not to present any cases of misconduct by American troops.

A third category of offenses was the mistreatment of prisoners of war in violation of the Third Geneva Convention Geneva Conventions of 1929 requiring that prisoners receive the same rations as their captors. Many witnesses testified that they received insufficient food, but it was fairly easy for the defense to establish that Japanese soldiers were no better fed because of the American blockade and poor transportation. The prosecution concentrated on the so-called Palawan Incident Palawan Incident (1944) of December 14, 1944, in which a local Japanese commander had 142 American prisoners killed. Yamashita did not take command until three weeks after this incident occurred, but the prosecution argued that he should have known about it and done something about it.

In general, the defense contended that Yamashita knew nothing of these incidents and could have done nothing about them had he known. By the time he took command, communications were so bad that he was isolated from the troops he nominally commanded. His lawyers argued that he was being tried for who he was rather for than anything he did. There was no proof that he ordered any atrocities or knew of them. The prosecution argued that he must have heard about some atrocities, because there had been so many.

Conduct of the trial by General Russel Reynolds bore only faint resemblance to normal courtroom proceedings. The commission, none of whose members were lawyers, ignored rules of evidence and law by allowing hearsay testimony, unsupported affidavits by absent witnesses—despite an act of Congress prohibiting them—and propaganda films to be submitted as evidence. They cut short defense cross-examination for the sake of speed and threatened the defense attorneys with retribution for slowing down the proceedings with objections.

It was not much of a surprise to anyone when the commission found Yamashita guilty on December 7, 1945, and sentenced him to hang. The defense lawyers feared that MacArthur would order Yamashita’s execution before the U.S. Supreme Court could agree to hear the case. MacArthur did refuse a suggestion to delay the execution and announced his intention to proceed on the grounds that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over him, but the secretary of war ordered him to delay the execution.

Yamashita’s appeal noted that the Commonwealth of the Philippines was not an occupied territory like Germany or Japan, and that he should be tried in civilian courts. His attorneys also said that the unusual circumstances of war had passed with the surrender of Japan, making military courts unnecessary. Their strongest argument was probably that the trial had been conducted in an improper manner.

Unlike the Nuremberg Trials, the Yamashita trial was not in the hands of an international tribunal. It was the sole responsibility of the United States, and U.S. law applied. Eight justices of the Supreme Court heard the case and gave their opinions on February 4, 1946. Six of them declared in the majority opinion that the military commission did have the right to try Yamashita, because the war was not technically over until a treaty was signed. They dismissed the case against the irregularities in procedure by saying that it was up to the military authorities to review the case and make any corrections. Justice Frank Murphy Murphy, Frank and Justice Wiley Rutledge Rutledge, Wiley dissented strongly. Both delivered scathing denunciations of the commission and the “vacuity” with which it handled the case. They also agreed that Yamashita was being punished for who he was and not for anything he had done.

President Harry S. Truman denied an appeal by the defense attorneys. Yamashita was hanged on February 23, 1946.


Even at the time of Yamashita’s trial and execution, many people saw the dangers of the precedent being set. In his dissenting minority opinion, Justice Murphy warned that future U.S. leaders and soldiers might suffer the consequences of the United States’ actions in this case. Justice Rutledge ended his dissenting opinion with a quotation from Thomas Paine: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.”

The fate of no U.S. leader has yet been sealed by the Yamashita decision, but it has caused considerable embarrassment for some. During the war in Vietnam, several opponents of U.S. policy suggested that the various atrocities committed by U.S. troops were the responsibility of their commanders, up to and including the commander in chief. Bertrand Russell and Ralph Schoenman conducted the International War Crimes Tribunal International War Crimes Tribunal in 1967 and 1968 in an attempt to convince the world that the United States was guilty of war crimes in Vietnam.

These hearings in Stockholm came to nothing, because the proceedings were biased, but accusers based their contention that President Lyndon B. Johnson was responsible for atrocities in Vietnam on the Yamashita precedent. One historian of these events wrote, “While collective guilt, like the notion of original sin, may have a place in theology, it is not part of Anglo-American jurisprudence. Here guilt is always personal, and if all are guilty then in effect nobody is guilty.” The Yamashita case introduced another principle into American jurisprudence: Someone, preferably the highest-ranking person, must pay even if all are guilty. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes War crimes;World War II Executions;Tomoyuki Yamashita[Yamashita] Capital punishment

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Connaughton, Richard M. MacArthur and Defeat in the Philippines. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2001. The author argues that MacArthur’s mistakes led to defeat in the Philippines. Illustrated and includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lael, Richard L. The Yamashita Precedent: War Crimes and Command Responsibility. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1982. Short, useful account of the case, with details of the arguments that went on between the Supreme Court justices before their decision. Contends that MacArthur and other leaders were not “black-hearted villains” but merely “made questionable decisions.” Fully documented, with a bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perret, Geoffrey. Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur. New York: Random House, 1996. A comprehensive, definitive one-volume biography of MacArthur.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Potter, John Deane. The Life and Death of a Japanese General. New York: New American Library, 1962. Popularized account of Yamashita’s trial. Presents him as a victim.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reel, A. Frank. The Case of General Yamashita. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949. Reel was one of Yamashita’s defense lawyers. This is one of the more useful books on the topic, as it gives a firsthand account of the trial. The organization is confused, however, and the book is written in an anecdotal style. No reference features or illustrations, but a valuable appendix containing the Supreme Court decision and dissenting opinions in full.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swinson, Arthur. Four Samurai: A Quartet of Japanese Army Commanders in the Second World War. London: Hutchinson, 1968. Brief accounts of Yamashita and three other Japanese generals of World War II. The author makes some attempt to use Japanese sources but offers little information about Yamashita that is not available in the other sources listed here.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Lawrence. A Trial of Generals: Homma, Yamashita, MacArthur. South Bend, Ind.: Icarus Press, 1981. Despite the title, there is little in this book about MacArthur’s involvement with the case. Lael’s book is much better for an account of the events and their significance by a nonparticipant. Index, bibliography, and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yamashita, Tomoyuki. Before the Military Commission Convened by the Commanding General, United States Army Forces, Western Pacific: United States of America vs. Tomoyuki Yamashita. 34 vols. Manila, 1945. The proceedings of the trial and, therefore, the ultimate source for information on the trial itself. Its size makes it difficult to use for any but the most interested and determined reader.

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Categories: History