After World War II eleven of the Allied Powers (Australia, Canada, China, France, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States) prosecuted twenty-eight of Japan's top military, political, and diplomatic leaders for an assortment of War Crimes committed in Southeast Asia between 1928 and 1945. Known as the Tokyo trial for the city in which it took place, this legal proceeding stands along side the Nuremberg Trials for its contribution to International Law and the Rules of War.
American involvement in World War II formally began on December 8, 1941, when the United States declared war on Japan, and formally ended on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri. For more than a decade before the war, the Japanese military had been expanding its foothold on the Asiatic mainland. During the war itself, Japan invaded or attacked Burma, China, Indochina, the Philippines, Malaysia, Manchuria, Wake Island, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Aleutians, committing an array of atrocities. The Tokyo trial was the Allies' effort to hold Japan responsible for its crimes during this period of military aggression.
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMT) was established on January 19, 1946, by order of General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of Allied Forces in the South Pacific. MacArthur appointed eleven judges to preside, one from each of the Allied countries participating in the proceeding. All decisions made by the IMT were by majority vote, with MacArthur retaining plenary power over appeals. Because the vanquished government of Japan consented to the jurisdiction of the IMT, the tribunal sidestepped some of the murkier legal issues confronting the judges at Nuremberg who had faced repeated challenges to their authority under international law.
Each of the participating Allied Powers was represented by a chief prosecutor and a support staff comprised of assistant prosecutors, investigators, and miscellaneous other personnel. The defendants were represented by over one hundred attorneys, three-quarters Japanese and one-quarter American, plus a support staff of their own. The prosecution began opening statements on May 3, 1946, and took 192 days to present its case. The defense opened its case on January 27, 1947, and finished its presentation 225 days later. The IMT delivered its judgment over a period of 4 days, concluding the trial on November 12, 1948. During 818 public sessions held by the IMT, 230 translators were employed, 419 witnesses gave testimony, 4,336 exhibits were introduced, and more than 53,000 pages of transcript were printed.
Although the IMT heard evidence regarding fifty-five counts of war crimes, most of the transgressions fell into one of three categories: crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and conventional war crimes. Crimes against peace included the planning, initiating, and waging of "aggressive war," which was broadly defined as any hostile military act that violated the territorial boundaries or political independence of a sovereign nation. Crimes against humanity included the murder, persecution, and enslavement of civilian populations. Conventional war crimes included violations of the international rules and customs of warfare that have been recognized by civilized societies and govern hostilities between combatants, the behavior of occupying powers, and the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs).
The prosecution offered compelling evidence that the defendants had violated more than a hundred international treaties and committed countless war crimes over the previous twenty years. In particular, the evidence showed that when Japan invaded Nanking, China in 1937, at least 20,000 women were raped by Japanese soldiers, and at least 100,000 civilians were slaughtered. Thousands of Chinese civilians were captured during the massacre and deported to Japanese labor camps where they were forced to work at gunpoint. Other evidence revealed that the Japanese army had brutally marched 50,000 U.S. POWs across the Bataan peninsula in 1942. Many of these prisoners were underfed, dehydrated, and malnourished, while some were tortured, shot, and buried alive in what became known as the "Bataan Death March." Additionally, prosecution witnesses gave testimony that U.S., Soviet, Filipino, and Chinese POWs had been used as subjects in barbaric scientific experiments performed at Japanese concentration camps throughout the war.
The IMT spent six months reaching judgment and drafting its 1,781-page opinion. Nine judges were persuaded by the prosecution's evidence, and two were not. The judges from France and India wrote separate dissenting opinions. Twenty-five defendants were found guilty of committing war crimes; seven of them were sentenced to death by hanging, 16 to life imprisonment, one to a term of 20 years, and one to a term of seven years. Two defendants died before the proceedings ended, and one was declared incompetent to stand trial by reason of insanity.
The highest ranking official prosecuted by the Allies was Hideki Tojo, the prime minister of Japan during the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941. He was found guilty of waging aggressive war and sentenced to death. Tojo's predecessor, Kuki Hirota, was prime minister during Japan's invasion of China in 1937. He was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death for negligently failing to stop the massacre at Nanking after learning about the terror and carnage in its early stages. Hirohito, the Japanese emperor during World War II, was spared from prosecution as a condition of Japan's surrender in 1945.
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