The Tokyo war trial (May 1946-Nov.1948) and significance

As the war drew to an end and the war trial was about to begin, the American occupational forces had several options: to abolish the Japanese monarchy and replace it with a republic, to have Hirohito abdicate the throne (resign as emperor) and replace him with a member of the royal family (e.g. one of his younger brothers), or to keep Hirohito on the throne.  There would have been support in all cases: the Communists and other radicals supported the abolition of the monarch; the second option had even more support: even some of the emperor's relatives persuaded him to step down.  As it turned out, Douglas MacArthur opted for the third choice: to keep Hirohito on the throne and maintain peaceful transition to a democratic Japan.  MacArthur's choice was closely related to his conservative anti-Communist, anti-liberal world view (Bix, 585), although, for the sake of eradicating the roots of militarism in Japan, MacArthur legalized the Japan Communist Party and allowed freedom of speech and religion.  The choice of keeping Hirohito was a conservative option because compared with the other two options, it involved the least degree of unpredictability.  Hirohito was a known figure, and especially given his wartime record, he would not be able to assert a very independent policy after the war.  But keeping Hirohito also meant his wartime record would have to be rewritten, and he should not be subject to trial as a war criminal.  Covering up Hirohito also meant the whole trial itself was not to be made a very significant occasion.  Eventually, historians would argue that it created very cloudy historical memory among the Japanese people, inadvertently lending credibility to the right wing in Japan that Japan was not guilty of invading China and southeast Asia, and all the talk of invasion was fabricated.  For most of the Japanese population, there was a denial of the past, and in the public historical memory, such as exhibitions, the war years would be covered without a mention of the war.

1. Views from all sides:

  • The emperor did not want to see a national trial of .war criminals.

The emperor was concerned with the position he would be put in if war criminals were tried in his name. (581)

  • The Japanese cabinet wanted to hold an independent trial.

On the part of the Japanese cabinet, they wanted to be able to designate the war criminals and keep things under their control. (581)

  • The American occupational forces wanted to take over the trial completely:

            Douglas MacArthur wanted to spare the emperor the embarrassment. (582)

    2. Process of deciding on war criminals

total class A war criminals: 28; total executed: 7. 

The selection process, according to Bix, was a collusion between the Japanese Shidehara administration, Hirohito, and the American occupational forces.  On the Japanese side, former Prime Minister Tojo Hideki and former Naval Minister Shimada Shigeturo were willing to shoulder the responsibility of the war.  (584)  On the part of MacArthur, he was determined not to get the emperor involved in any war responsibility.  That MacArthur succeeded in doing so was because the other countries that sent representatives to the tribunal, including the Soviet Union, China, the Philippines, and India, all wanted to follow the U.S. so as to get along with it. (593)  Consequently, the Japanese government's official version of the emperor's relationship to the war, that only the advisers to whom the emperor delegated authority bore responsibility for the decisions on war (586) was perpetuated during the Tokyo war trial.

3. The slips and the GHQís efforts to cover them:

Bix tries to prove that the MacArthur occupational forces went to great lengths to achieve a well rounded testimony from the indicted war criminals that would not involve Hirohito.  When slips did occur, his subordinates and the Japanese administration went to great lengths to "mend the loops." 

Inukai Takeru (599): whose father as PM was assassinated by the right wing in 1931, seemed to suggest the emperor did not stop military expansion into Manchuria.

General Tojo (604): suggested no one could ever go against the will of the emperor, implying inadvertently the emperor was in a position to stop the war.  

Ironically, the testimonies of Inukai and Tojo were not pursued further.  Both tried to retract what they said, leaving the judges, according to Bix, confused.  But no one tried to clear up this confusion.

    4. Advocates of the emperorís abdication

Obviously, MacArthur could have opted for the abdication of Hirohito.  Many would have been willing to see him go.  They included:

  • Brother, Prince Takamatsu. (605)
  • Prominent intellectuals, soldiers, close advisers, and even Bonner Fellers, MacArthur's right hand. (605-7)
  • Presiding judge Sir Webb of England and Judge Bernard of France (610)

Implication: there was ample ground for the emperorís abdication; there were advocates even within his family.

That MacArthur did not take this option shows, as mentioned above, his conservatism, because Hirohito's behavior would be almost completely within his prediction, and control.

5. Evaluation of the trial

Positive: revelation of a lot of facts of aggression (614)


Dropping charges of chemical warfare (617) because of implication of American chemical weapons.

Limiting those prosecuted after 1947 (618)

A limited indictment of war criminals and limited investigation of war crimes to avoid involving the indictment of Hirohito.  (617-618)

6. Consequences of the Tokyo War Trial

View on the Japanese war: more along naturalistic than moral lines (618): it was viewed as a tragedy rather than a crime. 

Tokyo trial failed to fully account for Japanís responsibility for war. (618)

The enshrinement of the dead soldiers, including General Tojo, in the Yasukuni Shrine, and visits there by prime ministers, gave the impression the war was righteous, since the war dead, according to Shinto teachings, once they were enshrined, all became deities.

The revisions of Japanese textbooks on invasion of China: failure of Japanese officially approved textbooks even today to admit Japan invaded China.

The denial of the Nanjing massacre: continued controversy in Japan that the Japanese atrocities against the Chinese civilians in Nanjing, the capital of China of Dec.1937 and early 1938, were completely fabricated.