- The Tokyo War Crimes Trial: The Pursuit of Justice in the Wake of World War II
For a brief and shining moment in the 1940s, mankind paused for a few years in the middle of a century wracked with war, strife, death, and destruction to seek justice for victims of unbelievable atrocity. Two events, one in Europe, the other in the Far East, laid cornerstones from which modern international criminal law evolved and grew. These early efforts in Nuremberg and in Tokyo were mankind’s first serious international efforts to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities committed in and around the Second World War.
Popular attention has been paid to the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg, its prosecutors lauded, feted, and enshrined in the hearts and minds of jurists and its jurisprudence as the beginning of how we face down impunity. Yet the IMT in Nuremberg was only half of the effort. In Tokyo, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) also sought justice for the victims of Japanese atrocities in that theater of war. Lesser known and burdened by innuendo and misconception, the IMTFE also held leaders accountable, a first in the Far East. In my mind, though separate trials, the two tribunals in general must be placed side by side and understood together for their contribution to the advancement of the rule of law in armed conflict and the conduct of states in times of strife.
Professor Yuma Totani’s book on the Tokyo war crimes trial is an important work in not just being a concise history of the trial, but just as importantly laying out on the table, the alleged controversies that researchers, scholars, and students have wrestled with over the decades related to the IMTFE’s true place in legal history since the trial concluded. For this, The Tokyo War Crimes Trial is an important resource for those academics and practitioners who work in the field of international criminal law.
What struck me as someone who helped create a tribunal in Africa was just how similar the challenges of holding African leaders accountable and the challenges faced in Tokyo regarding setting up, the investigation, the indictments, and then the trials of those Japanese leaders accused of various war crimes and crimes against humanity are. Three similar key issues emerged from the book on the Tokyo trial and my experiences in West Africa. First, all tribunals are creatures of political events and political compromise; second, where the trials take place is a key to success; and third, that despite the political and diplomatic clutter, the trials are important to the victims as they seek some type of balance in their stricken world.
Though similar to the IMT in Nuremberg, there were distinct and important differences, some important, others problematic. Politically, the set up of the IMTFE, was fraught with problems due to the diverse nature of the crimes, peoples, locations, and the extent of the atrocity. Practically speaking, the very nature of the nationalities and languages [End Page 256] spoken and used both by the victims, witnesses, and court personnel at a time when technology was just beginning to deal with simultaneous translation, was almost insurmountable. Yet, like the IMT, the trial in Tokyo somehow managed all this. This may have been one of its quiet successes.
Both Nuremberg and Tokyo were located at the very “scene of the crimes” and were visible by victims and perpetrators alike. At the time it was practical and necessary to do so, yet in modern international criminal law the location of the tribunal has become important in the overall perceived success of the judicial process. Placement of the venue of the trial is a continuing challenge.
It is often forgotten that these military or international trials are for and about the victims, and the more society sees that the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun, the easier it may become for a...