Justice and Judgment after the Nanjing Atrocities | Facing History & Ourselves
Matsui Iwane stands on trial at the War Crimes court, receiving his death sentence from the court.

Justice and Judgment after the Nanjing Atrocities

Students explore the complexities of achieving justice in the aftermath of mass violence and atrocities as they learn about the Tokyo Trials.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Genocide


About This Lesson

In the last lesson, students examined choices made by perpetrators, resisters, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers during the Nanjing atrocities. In this lesson, they will engage with dilemmas, both universal and specific to this history, about how to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. Finally, students will reflect on alternative ways to work toward healing and justice in the aftermath of events like the Nanjing atrocities, and they will consider how history itself can be used as a tool to achieve those objectives.

How do nations create their identities by separating “us” from “them”? How might a sense of nationalism built around such ideas contribute to the outbreak of war, the dehumanization of enemies, and the perpetration of atrocities?

  • Who was responsible for the crimes committed during the Nanjing atrocities? Who should have been held accountable, and how?
  • How can justice be achieved for those who were wronged during wartime atrocities?
  • Students will recognize some universal dilemmas of justice and judgment faced by societies in the aftermath of mass violence and atrocities.
  • Students will understand the contributions of the trials at Tokyo to ideas about international justice after the Second World War, and some of the challenges associated with achieving those ideals.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 1 video
  • 1 handout
  • 1 reading, available in English and in Spanish
  • 2 extension activities

In the spring of 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito reportedly said, “If we hold out long enough in this war, we may be able to win, but what worries me is whether the nation will be able to endure it until then.” The emperor issued an imperial rescript ordering the nation to “smash the inordinate ambitions of the enemy nations and achieve the goals of war.” 1 By mid-June of 1945, Hirohito’s stance began to shift as his empire was collapsing. Japan’s oil supply had been completely cut off for months, and huge sections of more than 60 Japanese cities were in ruins. Once the first atomic weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States, and Soviet forces further encroached into regions of China held by Japan, Emperor Hirohito finally agreed to surrender.

As the war ended, General Douglas MacArthur of the United States was put in charge of the occupation of Japan, which lasted from 1945 to 1952. He established the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, with trials set to begin in May 1946 in Tokyo, to seek accountability for Japanese aggression and atrocities. Based on the precedents set at Nuremberg (see the reading Establishing the Nuremberg Tribunal), the Far East tribunal indicted 28 Japanese military and civilian leaders for war crimes, crimes against peace (which included planning a war of aggression), and crimes against humanity.

But many others who might have been indicted were not. Historian John Dower describes the choices of whom to prosecute—choices that were later criticized:

[T]he absence of certain groups and crimes [in the Tokyo indictments] was striking. No heads of the dreaded Kempeitai (the military police) were indicted; no leaders of ultranationalistic secret societies; no industrialists who had profited from aggression and had been ultimately involved in paving “the road to war.” The forced mobilization of Korean and Formosan colonial subjects was not pursued as a crime against humanity, nor was the rounding up of many tens of thousands of young non-Japanese who were forced to serve as “comfort women” providing sexual services to the imperial forces. The Americans who controlled the prosecution chose to grant blanket secret immunity to one group of Japanese whose atrocious crimes were beyond question, namely, the officers and scientific researchers in Unit 731 in Manchuria who had conducted lethal experiments on thousands of prisoners (they were exempted from prosecution in exchange for sharing the results of their research with the Americans). The prosecution did not seriously pursue evidence concerning the Japanese use of chemical warfare in China. 2

The most notable absence among those indicted was that of Emperor Hirohito, the leader of Japan throughout the entire pre-war and wartime period. The decision not to try him was made by General MacArthur; it reflected the American policy of leaving the emperor on the throne as a way of helping the Japanese people accept their defeat, the occupation, and the guiding principles that MacArthur would follow to turn Japan into a democracy.

The same concerns about ex post facto (“after the fact”) justice that were expressed about the Nuremberg trials (see the reading Establishing the Nuremberg Tribunal) were raised about the Far East tribunal, but there, too, they were dismissed. One important difference, however, was that at the Tokyo trials, defendants were held responsible for crimes of omission—the failure to act to prevent war crimes from occurring or continuing. This played a significant part in the conviction and subsequent execution of two of the defendants: General Iwane Matsui, who directed the campaign to capture Nanjing, and Koki Hirota, who was Japan’s foreign minister at the time of the Nanjing atrocities. The prosecution presented evidence that both had known of the atrocities but had done nothing to stop them. The final judgment against Hirota read:

The tribunal is of the opinion that Hirota was derelict in his duty in not insisting before the Cabinet that immediate action be taken to put an end to the atrocities, failing any other action open to him to bring about the same result. He was content to rely on assurances which he knew were not being implemented while hundreds of murders, violations of women, and other atrocities were being committed daily. His inaction amounted to criminal negligence. 3

Seven other defendants at the Tokyo trials were convicted of either crimes against peace or war crimes, and they were executed. The others were sentenced to prison terms; no one was acquitted.

In addition to criticisms made during and after the Tokyo trials that they were simply “victor’s justice,” some people also claimed that the tribunal and its indictments reflected a strong racial bias. Only three of the 11 judges presiding at the trials were Asian. Justice Radhabinod Pal, who was from India, noted that the Japanese leaders were being prosecuted and convicted for starting a war of conquest against countries like Indonesia (colonized by the Dutch), Indo-China (colonized by the French), and Malaysia (colonized by the British), all of which had been “acquired by such aggressive methods” as the Japanese were accused of using. Historian John Dower notes that Justice Pal

also commented, with no little sarcasm, on the ways in which the positive rhetoric of imperialism and colonialism of the Europeans and Americans became transmogrified [changed] when associated with Japan: “As a program of aggrandizement of a nation we do not like, we may deny to it the terms ‘manifest destiny’, ‘the protection of vital interests’, ‘national honour’ or a term coined on the footing of the ‘white man’s burden’, and may give it the name of ‘aggressive aggrandizement’ pure and simple.” 4

In spite of the trials at Tokyo, many survivors of the Nanjing atrocities have not felt that the crimes they endured have been properly acknowledged. One way to consider questions of justice after the atrocities in Nanjing is to examine them through the contemporary lens of transitional justice. The International Center for Transitional Justice defines this process as follows:

A range of approaches that societies undertake to reckon with legacies of widespread or systematic human rights abuse as they move from a period of violent conflict or oppression towards peace, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for individual and collective rights.

In making such a transition, societies must confront the painful legacy, or burden, of the past in order to achieve a holistic sense of justice for all citizens. . . . A variety of approaches to transitional justice are available that can help wounded societies start anew. These approaches are both judicial and nonjudicial. 5

While international conversations about transitional justice did not exist in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the war, Japan took several steps in that direction. These included rewriting civil laws, rebuilding civic institutions, and participating in international trials for some Japanese leaders held accountable for atrocities committed under their command. But decades after the war’s conclusion, there are still open questions about what else can and should be done to acknowledge the grievances of victims and their descendants and what would constitute a full accounting by the Japanese government for war crimes committed in Nanjing and elsewhere during World War II. These old memories remain open wounds; such trauma can be passed down for generations. For many, the process of achieving justice for the crimes committed is ongoing.

  • 1Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001), 494.
  • 2John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 464–65.
  • 3Timothy Brook, Documents on the Rape of Nanking (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 264–65.
  • 4John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 464–65.
  • 5“What Is Transitional Justice?” International Center for Transitional Justice website, accessed January 1, 2014, http://ictj.org/about/transitional-justice.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

You may need additional background information to answer questions that come up in class about the Tokyo trials. To support your own background knowledge before teaching this lesson, consider reading War Criminals and Aggressive War and Responsibility of Command from the resource guide The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War and viewing the video Nuremberg and Tokyo: Foundations of International Law (10:11).

The first activity in this lesson includes the Four Corners teaching strategy. We recommend that you set up the room for this activity before class begins. Create four signs that read “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree,” and hang them in different corners of the room.

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Lesson Plans


  • Tell students that the question of what would need to happen for “justice to be served” had to be answered after the Nanjing atrocities and World War II. Explain that even before the war ended, the Allied leaders (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) were discussing ways to hold Japan accountable for the war and the murder of millions of civilians. In those discussions, the Allies encountered a variety of dilemmas and disagreements about what justice might look like and how it might be achieved.
  • Some of the dilemmas the Allies faced are probed on the handout Justice after the Nanjing Atrocities Anticipation Guide. Distribute the handout and ask students to complete the first two columns by circling their response to each statement (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) and explaining their thinking in the space provided. They will complete the right column later on in class.
  • After students have completed the anticipation guide, use the Four Corners strategy to discuss their responses. If time is short, you can choose a few of the items from the anticipation guide to discuss rather than working through the entire list. Remember that students can change their positions in the room if they are persuaded by their classmates in the course of the discussion. To ensure that you hear everyone’s voice, try to create space for each student to share at least one idea with the class during the discussion.
  • Finally, debrief the activity with the class by leading a whole-group discussion based on the following question: What does this activity suggest about the challenges faced by the Allies in seeking justice after World War II in East Asia and the Nanjing atrocities?
  • Explain to students that they will now learn about the Tokyo trials, established in the aftermath of World War II to try the leaders of Imperial Japan for war crimes.
  • Students will watch the video The Tokyo Trial: An Introduction (0:00–10:05) for a brief overview of the trials. Share the questions below with students before they watch the video. After viewing, help students recall key pieces of information from the video to record in their notes by leading a class discussion in which you draw from the following text-dependent questions:
    • Who was prosecuted for the war crimes committed during World War II and at Nanjing?
    • How did the Allies respond to the criticism that it was unfair to prosecute Japan and Germany for crimes committed “after the fact”—before such crimes were illegal under international law?
    • According to scholar Beth Van Schaack, what do the acquittals demonstrate about the Tokyo trials?
  • Ask volunteers to share their answers with the class. Then ask students to return to the anticipation guide from the first activity and select one or two statements from the guide that relate to an aspect of the Tokyo trials. In the right column, ask them to write a brief explanation of how the Tokyo trials responded to the dilemma(s) they have identified.
  • Tell students that they will now be learning in more depth about the trial of General Iwane Matsui and Koki Hirota, the two Japanese leaders who were prosecuted for the Nanjing atrocities. Pass out copies of the reading Responsibility of Command and tell students that as you read it aloud, they should be underlining information that helps them take a position on the question, “The Tokyo trials were effective at achieving justice for the Nanjing atrocities.”
  • Next, explain to students the procedure for the Barometer teaching strategy. Read aloud the statement “The Tokyo trials were effective at achieving justice for the Nanjing atrocities,” and ask students to stand on the spot along the line that represents their opinion, telling them that if they stand at either extreme, they are absolute in their agreement or disagreement. Once students have lined themselves up, ask them in turn to explain why they have chosen to stand where they are standing.
  • Encourage students to refer to evidence and examples from any of the materials they have read or watched when defending their stance. It is probably best to alternate from one end to the middle to the other end, rather than allowing too many voices from one stance to dominate. After about three or four viewpoints are heard, you can allow students to question each other’s evidence and ideas. Before beginning the discussion, remind students about norms for having a respectful, open discussion of ideas.
  • Remember that students can change their positions in the room on the line if they are persuaded by their classmates in the course of the discussion. To ensure that you hear everyone’s voice, try to create space for each student to share at least one idea with the class during the discussion.
  • To close the lesson and the unit, ask students to reflect on the following questions, first in their journals and then in a whole-class discussion:
    • What does this activity suggest about the challenges of finding justice for an atrocity like what happened in Nanjing? How might a trial address some of those challenges?
    • In what ways might a trial be insufficient to bring about healing and justice?
    • What else might be needed for a society to be repaired after war?

Extension Activities

  • To this day, the Nanjing atrocities stand as a seminal event in the history of World War II, one that continues to spark controversy. This contentious legacy rests largely on the fact that two very different historical narratives exist in China and Japan. These different historical interpretations affect public memorialization, interpretations of government apology, the teaching of history, and inclusion in history textbooks of current historical scholarship about the event itself.
  • As an extension or assessment for this unit, consider asking students to examine how their own world history textbooks cover World War II in East Asia. Using the material they’ve learned in this unit, students can write a new textbook summary for this topic. As a substitute or supplement for this activity, you could ask students to read What History Textbooks Leave Out and consider this observation from scholar Ezra Vogel: "By any standards, the China War is one of the most neglected periods in modern East Asian Studies.” Students can reflect on the following questions, either in their journals, as a class, or in a more formal, written assignment:
    • Why is it important to correct this problem? What is the value of learning this history?
    • How does the way we remember the past shape the future?
  • The following readings will also provide students with more material to draw from when considering the legacies of World War II in East Asia and the Nanjing atrocities:
  • Given the widespread mass rape perpetrated by the Japanese army during the Nanjing atrocities, it is important, if appropriate for the age and maturity of the students, to consider a focused lesson on the topic. Please note that you should preview all materials in advance of teaching this sensitive content, and devote at least a full class period for students to explore and reflect on the topic in depth.
  • To help students understand the role of sexual violence during the Nanjing atrocities, have them read Source 5, Summary of Treatment of Sexual Violence in International Law, from The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War. To learn of its importance in the history of establishing rape as an international war crime, read Rape as a Weapon of War. Students can analyze the reading using the following discussion questions:
    • What does this reading suggest about impact of rape as a weapon of war and genocide? What are the consequences for the victim and the community?
    • How do you explain why it took so long to make sexual violence in war a "war crime"?
    • Carol Rittner explains, "The Holocaust does not begin with Auschwitz. The use of rape as a weapon of war and genocide does not begin with the act of forcible rape on a woman or a girl. It begins long before that actual physical act; it begins with how boys are acculturated, how society treats women, the rights women have in society, whether they are equals." What does she mean?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the Justice and Judgment after the Nanjing Atrocities lesson plan.

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