A Warning to the Rest of the World

How were the Tokyo Trials understood and reported within Japan? Under the Allied occupation, all media was highly controlled. Newspapers, radio, and journals could publish what they wanted as long as they abided by the authority of the occupational forces, strict conventions. Some media outlets were known to say things that they did not really believe in order to gain favor with the occupation authorities. Moreover, the media at the time could not report rapes, murders, assaults, robberies or other crimes committed by the occupation troops.1

Japan’s leading newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, published an article before the trial’s conclusion discussing Chief Justice Joseph B. Keenan’s statement for his closing argument. The article provides an interesting insight to the discussion of wartime responsibility and the Japanese nation from a Japanese perspective:

February 28, 1948

The Tokyo trial entered the phase of final arguments for the prosecution delivered by Chief Prosecutor Joseph B. Keenan yesterday when the 371st session of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East was opened more than 21 months after the trial began.

The trial was opened as part of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and the Japanese people, having accepted those terms unconditionally, are in no position to make comments on the proceedings but we must not neglect to derive lessons from them, to make positive efforts to avail of the suggestions they offer and to appraise them calmly in our minds. For they point the way to a Japan transformed from a militaristic past into a nation newly reconstructed on the basis of peace.

Mr. Keenan’s arguments contain such important points as that the responsibility for the irresponsible militaristic actions of which Japan was guilty since the Manchurian incident of September 18, 1931, lies with their leaders and not the people, that militarism dominated the nation during all those years preceding the Pacific War and that the latter war was one of aggression and not of legitimate self-defense. What we would like to take up here is the first point, that the responsibility for the militaristic actions of Japan lies with their leaders and not the people.

It is now a fact not to be denied that throughout the period since the Manchurian incident through the China war to the Pacific War the military clique, which accused Tojo repudiates, substantially dominated government and dogmatically and exclusively directed the course of national policy. Consequently, the top-ranking leaders who were at work at the pivotal center of the military regime must take direct responsibility for the militaristic actions of Japan legally and morally. This is only logic and so far as this is so it is quite clear where responsibility lies. On the other hand, simply because those who are directly responsible are so unmistakable, are the people themselves permitted to look on as if the matter did not concern them in the least? What the Japanese today most lack is reflection regarding the past and present of their own selves.

Accused Tojo’s testimonies the other day gave the impression of variety. This variety, however, consisted merely in asserting the “inevitableness” of the Pacific War and recognizing his own responsibility to the Japanese people, while almost all other accused endeavored to prove themselves pacifists and to establish their innocence. What he did was merely to justify the international upheavals that he brought about himself while he showed no reflection on his own actions. If such lack of self-introspection were general among the Japanese people, that would prove a serious stumbling block to a real metamorphosis of the nation. Whatever accused Tojo may do or say, we ourselves must ponder deeply on this question.

To be sure, for about 14 years up to the end of the war the people were subjected to powerful dictatorial government. But dictatorships cannot be established by any one man or a group of dictatorial politicians. A dictatorship depends on objective economic and social as well as political conditions making it possible, but above all it must have the support of the great masses.

The people in those days were silenced and blinded, it is true, but, whether consciously or unconsciously, positively or negatively, at any rate they supported the national policies that the dictatorial leaders enforced. If they did not actually support them, they at least followed them. This was the common error of politicians, businessmen, the press and the people at large. Thus, although the people may not be liable to legal responsibility, it would do well to remember that part of the moral responsibility for making the dictatorship possible and enabling the enforcement of militaristic policies for the 14 years in question.

The way that Japan must go is already determined. It is to pursue the doctrine of peace no matter what circumstances should arise. It is to devote ourselves to the repudiation of war with religious enthusiasm. In his speech, Mr. Keenan said: “The Powers of the world did not intend merely to drive out irresponsible militarism from Japan but to drive it out of the whole world. This lengthy trial is intended to be something more than a trial of individuals, a warning to the rest of the world.” The purpose of the Tokyo trial is here clearly and directly presented. In order that this purpose may be served fully Japan must exert her utmost and that is the foremost mission of a rejuvenated Japan. We must strongly bear in mind not to repeat the past errors, to reflect on the methods of avoiding them and to pursue a policy of peace in the face of all difficulties. We must realize that this requires a greater courage than the momentary uplifting of the spirit on the battlefield.2


  • 1 : Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (professor, York University), correspondence with the author, January 1, 2014.
  • 2 : “Keenan Opening Statement printed in Tokyo News, Page 1,” The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal:A Digital Exhibition website, accessed January 1, 2014.

Connection Questions

  1. What insight does the article for the Asahi Shimbun give into the relationship between a dictatorship and the population? What point is the author trying to make about responsibility?

  2. Why would this journalist use the work “dictatorship” to describe Japan during the war? How do you define a dictatorship? Was Japan a dictatorship?

  3. Historians often talk about the idea of agency, the relative power of a person, group, or institution to impact the course of events. What inferences can you make from the article about how the author of this article thought about the agency of the “great masses” in Japan during the war?

  4. After reading the article, what insights did you gain about Japan at this time in their post-war history? Are there other points that the article’s author argues that are more universal?

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