Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Tokyo War Crimes Trials

Grade Level: High school

Time: 55 minutes (Part I) + 55 minutes (Part II)

Materials: Student handout and Internet access


  • Students will read and analyze primary sources (International Military Tribunal for the Far East
    Indictment document and photographs of the accused Japanese war criminals)
  • Students will acquire knowledge of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials and the associated historical

    National History Standards: Standards in Historical Thinking
  • Standard 2 - Historical Comprehension
  • Standard 3 - Historical Analysis and Interpretation
  • Standard 4 - Historical Research Capabilities
  • Standard 5 - Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making

United States History Standards for Grades 5-12

  • Standard 3 - The Causes and Course of World War II, the Character of the War at Home and Abroad, and its Reshaping of the U.S. Role in World Affairs

Bibliography A recent overview of the trials can be found in Tim Maga's book, Judgment at Tokyo: The
Japanese War Crimes Trials (University of Kentucky Press, © 2001, ISBN 0-8131-2177-0)

Background information

The justices of the International Military Tribunal for the Far EastThe U.S. and its allies established an International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMFTE) to prosecute Japanese military and government leaders. Twenty-eight high-ranking Japanese political and military leaders, often referred to as the "Big Fish", along with others were indicted on 55 counts in the most publicized Tokyo trial. The accused group included former prime ministers, foreign ministers, economic and financial leaders, ambassadors, war ministers, navy ministers, and senior military officers. General Douglas MacArthur decided, with President Truman's concurrence, not to place Emporer Hirohito on trial. He was seen by the victors as a much needed leader and symbol for the new, peaceful and democratic Japan to arise from the ashes of WW II. The U.S. was entering a new Cold War era and needed a militarily purged, newly reborn Japan as any ally with Hirohito as its unifying symbol.

General Tojo and other alleged Japanese war criminals arrive at the War Ministry Building for their arraignment.The Tokyo trials began on May 3, 1946 and lasted two and a half years. Three broad categories of war crimes were established. Class A charges, alleging "crimes against peace", were brought against Japan's top leaders who had planned and directed the war. Class B and C charges, which were leveled at Japanese of any rank, covered "conventional war crimes" and "crimes against humanity". Former U.S. assistant attorney general, Joseph Keenan, served as the chief prosecutor. He was a Roosevelt New Dealer and had once personally prosecuted such infamous American gangsters as "Machine Gun Kelley".

Sir William Webb of Australia served as the tribunal's president. Eleven judges representing various countries presided. On November 4, 1948 Webb announced that all defendants had been found guilty. Seven were sentenced to death (including the most infamous, former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo); sixteen received life terms (though many of these were paroled in the 1950's), and two were given lesser terms. Two had died during the trials and one was found insane. Hundreds of subsequent war crimes trials were held in other countries in Asia into the 1950's. These Tokyo trials, while important, have often remained in the shadow of the more publicized Nuremberg war crimes trials in Europe.

Ex-Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and his attorney, Capt. Beverly ColemanGeneral Douglas MacArthur was pleased with the Tokyo trials and stated, "No human decision is infallible but I can conceive of no judicial process where greater safeguard was made to evolve justice.…no mortal agency in the present imperfect evolution of civilized society seems more entitled to confidence in the integrity of its solemn pronouncements. If we cannot trust such processes and such men we can trust nothing."

Student Directions: You will read and analyze sections from one of the key primary sources related to the trials - the 45 page formal indictment presented at the trail.

PART I - Analyzing the Indictment

1) Read the opening paragraphs of this document contained on page one and the upper half of page 2 to address these:

A) List the eleven nations bringing these war crimes charges.

B) List the many examples of damages inflicted by this Japanese "criminal
militaristic clique" on other nations and on the Japanese people themselves.

C) Explain the "conspiracy between the defendants…and the rulers of other
aggressive nations". Which other nations are mentioned and what were they
attempting to do?

D) List the many crimes allegedly committed by the defendants

2) You will need to read pages 2-13 of the document to answer these:

A) Group One: Crimes Against Peace (pages 2-9, Counts 1-36)

  • Summarize in 1-2 sentences the general accusations in Counts 1-4.
  • What was Japan attempting to do and in what geographic areas?
  • These actions violated what?
  • Explain the "domination of the whole world" conspiracy charge in Count 5
  • Quickly scan Counts 6-36 to answer these:
  • In what year did the accused first begin to plan and prepare "a war of
  • List the 13 nations that were forced to defend themselves against this
    Japanese military aggression

B) Group Two: Murder (page 9-12, Counts 37-52)

Read and answer these:

  • What crimes are the accused specifically charged with in their attacks on the U.S.,
    the British Commonwealth, the Philippines, the Kingdom of the Netherlands,
    Thailand, Hong Kong, Russia, and several cities in China?
  • Read Count 44. From 1931 thru 1945 the accused are charged with conspiring and
    executing their plan to commit what crimes and against what groups?

3) Group Three: Conventional War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity

  • Read the bottom of pages 12 thru page 13 (Counts 53-55) to answer this
  • Between 1931 and 1945 the Japanese defendants are accused of committing
    criminal acts against what two specific groups?

4) Look at the last page of the indictment. Who is Joseph Keenan?

Part II - General discussion or writing assignments

Teacher Directions: You could use the following general topics for an all-class discussion, a debate, a post WW II hearings simulation, or as a writing assignment. If you want your students to read more in-depth descriptive explanations of the types of crimes committed by the Japanese, the various treaties and other international covenants violated, and the general conspiracy by Japan to wage aggressive war against innocent neighboring countries have them read Appendices A,B, and D.

A) Hiro Nishikawa, a Japanese historian and legal expert, has stated his belief that these Tokyo trials
were more about Westerners passing negative judgment on the Japanese "alien race" and its culture than it was about bringing justice against individual criminals. He concluded that these trials had a more racist tone than that of the Nuremberg trials in Germany. In the early 1970's author Richard Minear saw the Tokyo trials as "sham trials" based on the Allied victors' desire for vengeance against the defeated. One of the war trial judges, Justice Radhabinod from India, stated that the trial was a show trial based on revenge and racism and that Japan had shown a "long fuse" in dealing with the aggressive policies of the victorious nations. The Vatican in 1948 supported the notion that "Japan was on trial" and that the Americans and that the Allies were too eager to convict and punish the defeated. Other Tokyo judges disagreed and many historians since have felt the trials were necessary and had been conducted with regard to the rights of the defendants.

Give your analysis of such an argument. Compare the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials - the charges, the defendants, and the sentences. Is "victor's justice" an oxymoron? Is there an alternative to war crimes trials?

B) Many of the Japanese military leaders on trial did not personally murder, torture and plunder. These atrocities were committed by soldiers in the field. Should a superior officer be held accountable as a war criminal for failing to know about or control the actions of his foot soldiers in their interaction with enemy soldiers, prisoners of war and innocent civilians? If so, how do you prove the accused's complicity in approving heinous actions? Should a civilian leader such as a prime minister or other advisor to the Emperor be held accountable for brutality committed by soldiers?

C) Former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, viewed as the personification of the "evil of Japan" by many, was the most famous of the 28 indicted leaders. Some believed that he became the scapegoat for all Japanese aggression since they couldn't try Emporer Hirohito. Tojo's legal counsel, Ichiro Kiyose, claimed that it would be impossible for him to receive a fair trail. He argued that the charge against Tojo of being part of the group that waged "aggressive war" was too simplistic and unsubstantiated by international law. He told the judges that in a war both sides are the aggressors. In short, Japan was only in a defensive mode for its own survival during the 1930's and 1940's. It was only reacting to the imperialistic actions and racist policies of the U.S. and other western powers. Keenan and the prosecution team felt they had brought forth plenty of evidence and testimony to prove Tojo's sadistic side, his years of complicity in planning out Japan's militarism, and his knowledge and encouragement of atrocities committed by those under his command. Tojo himself did not help his image when he sent his condolences to infamous Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering upon hearing of his death sentence handed down at the Nuremberg war crimes trial. Tojo, like Goering, was sentenced to death by hanging. They both attempted suicide but only Goering succeeded.

Do you accept Tojo's argument that Japan was forced to act defensively against racist, expansionist policies from other powers? To adequately answer this question you must study the U.S., British and Japanese interactions in the prewar years in regards to foreign policy, immigration restrictions, arms buildups, treaty violations, economic trade policies and embargos, and military incidents, incursions and occupation of Asian and Pacific nations.