The eternal burden of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 18.01.2016
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The eternal burden of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal

70 years after the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal was set up to prosecute Japan's war crimes, ties between East Asian nations continue to be strained. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe is now attempting to change this.

On January 19, 1946, US Army General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in occupied Japan, created the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), modeled after the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg.

The tribunal indicted 28 Japanese political and military leaders for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The accusations ranged from prisoners' abuse, rape and torture, to the ill-treatment of workers, arbitrary executions and inhuman experiments. After two and a half years, six defendants were sentenced to death and executed on December 23, 1948. Most of the remaining received life sentences.

But from the outset, the IMTFE elicited significant objections, particularly the total exoneration of Emperor Hirohito and all the members of his family, even though the war was waged in the name of the emperor.

The US occupation government led by General MacArthur even manipulated the testimonies of the defendants to ensure that no one implicated the emperor.

Oktober 1945 US General Douglas MacArthur & Hirohito Kaiser von Japan

US Army General Douglas MacArthur (left) with Emperor Hirohito (right)

By preventing the royal family from being indicted, the US government wanted to secure the implementation of democratic reforms in the East Asian nation. In fact, the emperor was able to secure his place in the new post-war Japanese order unopposed. His son, the current Emperor Akihito, still strives to make sure that the country's wartime past doesn't fade from memory.

Damaged credibility

However, it was not only the blanket exoneration of the imperial family which damaged the credibility of the tribunal. The granting of immunity to Japanese Surgeon General Shiro Ishii and his colleagues also contributed to this. The US was rather interested in the results of his cruel experiments - which he conducted by subjecting wartime prisoners to biological and chemical weapons.

Furthermore, the tribunal's questionable legal methods are another reason why Japanese nationalists still criticize it as a means for the dispensation of victor's justice.

For instance, there was no provision in international law at the time dealing with "crimes against peace." And a judge from the Philippines was biased as he had been captured by the Japanese during the war and subjected to the so-called Bataan Death March.

In addition, press statements issued by the Allies, many of which were unexamined documents and statements, were admitted as evidence.

But only one of the 12 international judges on the tribunal - Justice Radhabinod Pal from India - rejected its legitimacy. This is why Japanese nationalists such as current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revere the Indian judge to this day. Abe said to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi - when the two leaders met in September 2014 - that each and every Japanese is aware of Pal.

Continued provocations

The dubious nature of the war crimes tribunal remains a key factor behind the strained relations between the former warring parties in East Asia. The Yasukuni Shrine, which was built in the second half of the 19th century as a war memorial, honors 14 war criminals convicted by the tribunal. Visits to the shrine by nationalist politicians such as former PM Junichiro Koizumi and incumbent PM Abe evoke strong responses from China and South Korea, which feel provoked by these actions.

Each time a Japanese leader pays a visit to the shrine, it can be perceived as a statement hinting that Japan was both right and just in terms of its war engagement. Japanese nationalists are therefore not keen to end this diplomatic row by building a new, neutral war memorial.

Nonetheless, one can assume that the war crimes committed by the Japanese would have been rarely prosecuted without the IMTFE. As the recent nuclear disaster in Fukushima showed, there is a strong tendency in Japanese society to sweep unpleasant events under the carpet, and not prosecute those responsible for the events.

Many wartime politicians and officials later held important positions. At the time of the resumption of diplomatic relations with Asian countries, Japan insisted that all war crimes would be settled with the payment of reparations. That's why Tokyo has so far rejected all individual claims for compensation.

Efforts to draw a line

This attitude has led Japan's neighbors to doubt whether the country is really sorry for its wartime atrocities - doubts which have hindered closer regional ties like those forged in Europe.

Meanwhile, the fact that Japan has only once issued an official apology has been exploited by the governments of neighboring countries for domestic political reasons. This development has resulted in the past constantly overshadowing the present in East Asia, thus preventing deeper political and economic cooperation in the region.

Malaysia East Asia Summit - Shinzo Abe

PM Abe is striving to draw a line under the debate over Japan's wartime past

Premier Abe is currently striving to draw a line under the debate over Japan's wartime past. Addressing Congress during his US trip in 2015, Abe underlined Japan's democratic development and Tokyo's loyalty to Washington.

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the war's end in August 2015, Abe expressed his regrets about the war, although he declined to issue his own clear apology.

A few months later, the prime minister also negotiated a deal with South Korea to end the dispute over "comfort women" - former sex slaves forced by the Japanese military to serve in wartime brothels. The agreement foresees compensation payments by the Japanese government to the survivors. All these measures are intended to reduce Japan's past burden and reinforce its geopolitical significance.