Main Army generals slip through tribunal net
On August 30, 1945, U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, landed at the Imperial Navy’s Atsugi airfield in Kanagawa Prefecture. That night, MacArthur instructed his subordinates to arrest Hideki Tojo, who was Prime Minister when Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor, and to immediately compile a list of war criminal suspects. The Potsdam Declaration Japan accepted stipulates “Stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals” as one of the terms of Japan’s surrender. Tokyo’s acceptance of the declaration was finalized with signing an instrument of surrender on September 2, 1945. This became the legal basis for the Allied Powers to open the International Military Tribunal for the Far East to try Japanese war criminal suspects.
Selection of war criminal suspects started with MacArthur’s order. Named in the first list of suspects were Tojo and ministers of his Cabinet, including former Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, former Navy Minister Shigetaro Shimada, former Finance Minister Okinori Kaya and former Commerce and Industry Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Their arrest orders were issued on September 11.
MacArthur informed the U.S. government of his intention to immediately try the ministers of the Tojo Cabinet, who launched the war, on charges of murder at a U.S.-instituted military tribunal for Class-B and Class-C war criminal suspects. However, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff rejected MacArthur’s plan and notified him on November 10 that the U.S. government’s policy was to try Tojo and others as Class-A war criminal suspects at an international tribunal. (See Footnote.)
On November 19, December 2 and 6, the second, third and fourth orders, respectively, for arrests were issued, bringing the number of Class-A suspects to about 100. Tojo shot himself in the chest with a handgun in a suicide attempt on September 11, but the bullet narrowly missed his heart and he survived. Army Chief of General Staff Hajime Sugiyama, who was certain to be arrested, shot himself to death on September 12. Former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe took potassium cyanide to kill himself in the early hours of December 16, the deadline for turning himself in to authorities. In January 1946, an ordinance to purge war criminal suspects from public offices was brought into force and the suspects were automatically removed from public offices.
How did the General Headquarters (GHQ) set up by the Occupational authorities select defendants to stand trial? Within GHQ, the International Prosecution Section (IPS) was established with Joseph Keenan as the Chief Counsel. Keenan divided his staff into several working groups tasked with identifying defendants from designated dates and categories. The work was very difficult, primarily because many government documents that would have been used in evidence in the tribunal were incinerated immediately after the war. Investigators in the IPS depended heavily on such documents as diaries, including those of former Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido, records of interrogations of suspects and eye-witness testimonies.
Thus those initially omitted from the accusation lists eventually found themselves facing the possibility of being defendants. They included former Prime Minister Keisuke Okada, former Foreign Minister Hachiro Arita, former Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the Soviet Union Mamoru Shigemitsu and former Commander of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria Yoshijiro Umezu. At one stage, some consideration was given to picking at least two defendants to take responsibility for each incident out of concern that elderly defendants could die in the course of the tribunal process.
The U.S. prosecutors got in touch with the Central Liaison Office—an ad hoc government bureau set up by the Foreign Ministry in late August 1945 to liaise with the Allied Powers—to gauge how Japanese felt about the tribunal. Consequently, they became increasingly confident that they could indict, in addition to Tojo, former Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, Army General and former Education Minister Sadao Araki, ultranationalist philosopher Shumei Okawa, former chief of the War Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau Akira Muto, and even former chief of the Navy Ministry’s Naval Affairs Bureau Takazumi Oka, who had not been detained. The IPS executive committee consisted of prosecutors from each of the Allied Powers. They held a series of meetings from March 4, 1946, and narrowed down the number of defendants to 29. At a meeting of prosecutors, three people were removed from the list of defendants: Kanji Ishihara, Jinzaburo Masaki and Hiroshi Tamura, former chief of the Prisoner of War Information Bureau. As a result, 26 defendants-to-be were selected to face trial.
Ishihara was one of the masterminds behind the Manchurian Incident, but he was not even included in the list of people wanted for arrest due to a lack of conclusive evidence. Rather than trying to bring Ishihara to the dock, the Chinese prosecutor was keen to pursue the responsibilities of former Army General and Commander of the Seventh Area Army Seishiro Itagaki, who was involved in the Manchurian Incident and also in some brutal incidents during the Sino-Japanese War. Memoirs of Tadashi Hanaya, who also was directly involved in these incidents, were made public in a magazine as the entire picture of the incidents was revealed in 1956, eight years after the Tokyo Tribunal made its rulings.
Masaki, who was a heavyweight in the Imperial Japanese Army’s Kodo-ha(Imperial Way Faction), was arrested by the Military Police after the February 26 Incident of 1936 on suspicion of being an accomplice in a coup. He was later acquitted in his trial in connection to the coup. At the Tokyo Tribunal, Masaki made such a good impression with his unstinting cooperation with the prosecutors’ investigations that the authorities decided to spare him from being indicted.
The Soviet Union’s prosecution team, who arrived belatedly in Japan on April 13, demanded the number of defendants be increased during an April 17 meeting of prosecutors. As a result, Shigemitsu and Umezu, who were not detained, were added to the list although the prosecutors had earlier agreed not to indict them. Thus, finally, 28 people were indicted.
During this process, the most sensitive issue was how Emperor Showa would be treated. On January 9, 1946, Australia submitted a list of 64 war criminal suspects, including the Emperor, to the United Nations War Crimes Commission, headquartered in London. However, the United States was steadfast in its plan to ensure the Emperor would not face the tribunal as a defendant. MacArthur warned the U.S. government that if the Emperor were indicted as a war criminal, military government would have to be instituted across Japan, and guerrilla warfare might break out.
The Soviet Union and other Allied Powers did not dare express opposition to the U.S. position on this issue. On April 3, 1946, the Far Eastern Commission held in Washington exempted Emperor Showa as a war criminal defendant.
Daisaku Komoto, the mastermind of the Chang Tso-lin bombing incident, and Navy Captain Shingo Ishikawa, who promoted the advance into southern French Indochina, were removed from the list of suspects. Also removed were the so-called Army war party trio of Lieutenant General Shinichi Tanaka, Colonel Takushiro Hattori and Colonel Masanobu Tsuji. Some experts argue that one reason why people such as Tsuji and Ishikawa were not included in the list is that former Imperial Japanese Army Major General Ryukichi Tanaka, who often stood as a witness for the prosecution, had scant knowledge of the internal workings of the Army and Naval General Staff offices. Tanaka himself was exempted from the prosecution although he was involved in the conspiracy that led to the First Shanghai Incident. Some people related to the Tokyo Tribunal questioned Tanaka’s exemption from prosecution. In addition, Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, the Commander of the Unit 731 germ warfare team, also avoided being prosecuted on condition that he would provide information and findings on experiments the unit conducted on human subjects.
The Tokyo Tribunal started on May 3, 1946, at a special courtroom within the former War Ministry building in Ichigayadai, Tokyo. Eleven judges were selected from each of 11 countries including Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union and the United States. Sir William Webb, a justice of the Australian High Court, was chosen as the president (chief judge) of the tribunal. There also were 11 prosecutors, led by chief prosecutor Keenan, with nearly 500 staffers at the IPS. More than 50 defense attorneys, both from Japan and the United States, were involved, including chief defense counsels Somei Uzawa and Ichiro Kiyose.
The biggest, most serious problem during the trial process was the utter lack of capable interpreters. Sometimes the interpreters available inaccurately expressed the defendants’ statements and other evidence, severely disrupting their ability to get a fair trial. Sentences were handed down on November 12, 1948. On December 24, the day after seven Class-A criminals were executed, the 17 Class-A war criminal suspects who had been detained from the outset, but who had avoided prosecution, were released. They included former Commerce and Industry Minister Nobusuke Kishi, former Minister for the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Kazuo Aoki and Vice Foreign Minister and chief of the Intelligence Section of the Foreign Ministry Eiji Amo.
Before the sentences were handed out, the GHQ indicted former Chief of the Naval General Staff Soemu Toyoda, and former chief of Prisoner-of-War Management Lieutenant General Hiroshi Tamura, who were Class-A war criminal suspects, as Class-B and Class-C war criminals. Proceedings for the B and C criminal defendants took place from October 1948 in a special court the GHQ instituted in Marunouchi, Tokyo, that also was called the Marunouchi Tribunal. In 1949, Tamura was sentenced to eight years of hard labor, while Toyoda was acquitted.
Class-A, Class-B and Class-C war criminals
Class-A war criminals were military and political leaders who conspired in crimes including “crimes against peace,” “conventional war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” At the Tokyo Tribunal, all 25 defendants were found guilty, with former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and six others sentenced to death by hanging. Class-B war criminals were those accused of committing “conventional war crimes,” such as violations of the international armed conflict law. Trial for Class-B and Class-C war criminals were held at 49 tribunals in and outside Japan. A total of 5,700 people were accused of having violated rules of war-related laws. In total, 920 defendants were executed. They included Army General Tomoyuki Yamashita for his responsibility for the killing of more than 100,000 Filipino civilians by Japanese troops in fierce fighting in Manila and Lieutenant General Masaharu Honma, who was held responsible for the actions of soldiers in the Bataan Death March, a forcible transfer of prisoners of war by Japanese forces in the Philippines in 1942 during which many prisoners were brutally abused and killed.