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Reviewed by:
  • Japanese War Criminals: The Politics of Justice After the Second World War by Sandra Wilson et al.
  • Robert Cryer (bio)
Japanese War Criminals: The Politics of Justice After the Second World War. By Sandra Wilson, Robert Cribb, Beatrice Trefalt, and Dean Aszkielowicz. Columbia University Press, New York, 2017. xvi, 417 pages. $70.00, cloth; $69.99, E-book.

Caveat lectorem. This is a review written by a lawyer, albeit one with a great interest in the trials in Asia after World War II/the Fifteen Years War. It may concentrate a little more on the legal aspects than other reviews will do. I am, at best, an amateur historian. That said, I am firmly of the view that this is a very well-researched, thoughtful book, that displays a huge degree of research, that is well presented (albeit at times that, in all senses of the word, can be exhaustive). This is a positive aspect of the work. There is little literature on the postwar policies of the Allies in relation to Japanese war crimes defendants and very little that engages at such a high level, integrates (for the most part) good legal analysis and detailed and careful historical research, and displays a mastery of the documentation that came from many of the Allied trials.

Other than the Tokyo International Military Tribunal, the postwar trials in Asia, in which more than 5,700 people were tried for crimes committed [End Page 510] by Japanese nationals and their allies (there were probably more trials in China and the USSR, but as the authors note [p. 1], documentation on those is at best scant), have until recently not been the subject of a great deal of scholarly attention in the West at least. The Australian Trials are a notable exception, but they remained the outliers on this. More recently though, an upswing in attention to these trials has led to a good number of monographs, edited collections, and journal pieces. This book can take its place as being a very good addition to this new literature.

The authors are to be congratulated on a great resource, characterized by detailed archival research, careful judgment, and a clear understanding that the various parties involved (the Western and Asian Allies, as well as Japan), had different and at times conflicting ideas about how to deal with postwar accountability. These views, as well explained by the work under review, also included dissensus between various actors within each of the relevant governments concerned.

The narrative of Japanese War Criminals is that that over time the views of the victorious powers moved from an exclusively punitive/retributive approach to a more utilitarian one, in which geopolitics on all sides became the more dominant consideration. The result of this was that by 1958, all of those who had been sentenced (other than to death, many of which sentences were commuted) had been released. The authors' narrative is not so very different from views in the dominant narrative about the trials. Rather, the authors show with abundant evidence how original legalistic positions, in spite of the differences between the parties, ended up converging on letting the cold war decide the fate of the (still living) convicts. These final decisions were determined more by international and domestic politics in Japan and elsewhere than by concerns for the integrity of the law. Chapters 4–9 report this with great detail and sophistication, noting that the convicts' formal rather than material role in crimes committed as well as the narrative of "ordinary men with aging mothers" (pp. 187–206) were often invoked by those seeking clemency for or release of those imprisoned.

What is brought through very well in the book is that the Allies were not a unified front but a group of multifarious actors, both internally and externally. The evidence for this is provided in abundance in the second half of the book. The issues of who was prosecuted, what they were sentenced to, and how they were dealt with postconviction are examined in great detail by the authors. For example, the United States and the United Kingdom took differentiated positions, depending on the time and tempo of the...


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