Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice

Men to Devils, Devils to Men
Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice

Barak Kushner
Harvard University Press  416pp  £33.95

In 1946 the International Military Tribunal for the Far East opened.  Known as the Tokyo Trial, it sentenced to death or prison the top Japanese leaders responsible for the invasion of China and the war in the Pacific. These war criminals – including wartime prime minister, Hideki Tojo, and Matsui Iwane, commander at the time of the notorious Rape of Nanking – have become the most famous examples of figures eventually brought before Allied, primarily American, justice.

Barak Kushner’s new book moves the narrative away from events in Tokyo and concentrates on China and Taiwan. In doing so, he reveals that the relationship between East Asia’s greatest powers in the post-1945 era was complex and hugely surprising. In the aftermath of Japan’s defeat, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government declared that it would ‘repay evil with good’ and sought to reach out to leaders in Tokyo in the hope of creating a new, stable and non-Communist order in Asia. Clearly this effort failed, but the after-effects shaped the region for decades, with many decisions shaped by fears that now seem fanciful – such as a resurgence of Japanese militarism – but which were prevalent at the time.  

There are many personalities and events in the book, which bring the era alive. One fascinating case is that of Okamura Yasuji, overall commander of Japanese forces in China during the war, who had been responsible for the brutal ‘Three All’ (‘burn all, loot all, kill all’) policy that had devastated many Communist-dominated areas of China and was involved in the notorious ‘comfort women’ order, which compelled women into sex slavery for the Japanese military. Astonishingly, the Chinese Nationalist government handed down a verdict of ‘not guilty’ against him. They also helped him resist repeated attempts by the US to ask him to testify at the Tokyo Trial. Okamura’s perceived value as a figure who might assist in the struggle against Communism in the postwar world was now seen as more important than his record as a war criminal, despite the devastation his troops had brought to China. Yet there was also ambiguity about the Chinese political spectrum, at the trials of Japanese war criminals in the early years of Mao’s China. One might expect that the defendants would have been harshly treated, but many were subjected to a process of restorative rather than retributive justice and were made to come to terms with their crimes in a way that recalls modern ‘truth and reconciliation commissions’.

Kushner has written a superb book, underpinned by rich research in Chinese and Japanese, that will force historians seriously to reassess the story of Cold War Asia. At a time when relations between China, Japan and Taiwan continue to be tense, Kushner’s book is a timely reminder that relations in the region have always been in a state of flux.

Rana Mitter is the author of China's War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (Penguin, 2013).

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