The Tokyo Trials


Just over seventy years ago, Sir William Webb reluctantly passed a death sentence to the war-time Prime Minister of Japan: ‘Accused Hideki Tojo, on the counts of the indictment of which you have been convicted, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East sentences you to death by hanging’. Tojo, the man who instigated a devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, bowed gracefully to Webb and walked out of the room.

The verdict, however, posed many controversies which are seldom raised in contemporary international politics; Webb and his counterparts weren’t particularly remorseful of sentencing seven Japanese officials to their deaths between 1946 and 1948. Instead, the implications focused more on Japan’s future, specifically on the issue of nation-building and how it would interact with others on the international stage thereafter. Thus, what are the lessons we can learn from the Tokyo Trials, or international military tribunals in general?

View of the Tribunal in session | Credit: 写真秘録『東京裁判』、講談社、第1刷 [Public domain], Via Wikimedia Commons
The former half of the 20th century was riddled by a fickle state of affairs between great power nations. The frequent changing of allegiances and the endemic kind of political bargaining primarily served as a tool for conquest and territorial expansion. Yet following the disastrous outcomes of the First World War, the interwar period was marked by the humiliation of the defeated – a key impetus which only bred more resentment among nations. During the Tokyo Trials, Allied governments acknowledged the fragile nature of regime change, given that the reprimanding Treaty of Versailles essentially permitted Germany to reassert its military might in the lead-up to the Second World War. Ironically, it was this very document that secretly conceded the German-owned province of Shandong not back to China, but to Japan. This was essentially a warrant for a Japanese invasion, which subsequently occurred during the 1930s’.

It was previous events like this that needed reflection and compromise. But it wasn’t easy. Sir William Webb spent many years during the Second World War investigating Japanese war atrocities and concluded that justice had to be dealt with all the way to the top. The Americans and British desisted. A joint decision was made which granted Emperor Hirohito immunity in exchange for his cooperation. If Japan was to smoothly transition to a free and fair liberal democracy, some concessions would have to be elicited. That is, Japan would still enjoy many of its cultural and ceremonial practices at the expense of a new, codified constitution under the guidance of the US.

With such a rich and embedded culture, the Allies had to treat Japan with care to facilitate its “national rebirth”. Yet the careful measures elicited by the United States totally embarked Japan on a newfound trajectory; that is, while Japan disavowed its once hawkish ways through Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which would forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation’, the US would provide a security umbrella against external threats. Decades worth of trust and embracement of westernisation have henceforth permitted Japan to slowly be granted more security autonomy, which is why current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ilk are determined to controversially revise Article 9 to that of collective self-defence.

The underlying message here is that the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, from over seventy years ago, played a prudent role in pivoting Japan to the successful state it is today. Diplomacy and compromise served as an effective tool of upending a brutal, imperialistic regime to one of liberalism and democracy. These principles shouldn’t be forgotten for the times ahead.


Third year IR student with keen interests in East Asian regional stability, Chinese politics, Japanese politics, and war and conflict studies.

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