International Law The Tokyo Trials
Kirsten Sellars
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0182


Of the postwar trials convened in Tokyo to try Japanese leaders for crimes relating to the war in Asia and the Pacific, by far the longest and most far-reaching was the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (“Tokyo Tribunal”). There, the eleven Allied prosecuting powers charged twenty-eight Japanese defendants—former prime ministers, cabinet ministers, military leaders, diplomats, and ideologues—with being members of a militarist clique that had purposefully perpetrated a huge conspiracy, dating from 1 January 1928 to 2 September 1945, to secure “the military, naval, political and economic domination of East Asia, and of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.” This trial, much criticized at the time, and still much criticized today for its retroactive charges and procedural shortcomings, concluded with the handing down of Sentences in November 1948. Yet the Tribunal was not the only one convened in Tokyo dealing with crimes relating to the war. In the months before the proceedings opened, the Japanese ran their own trials, hoping to settle accounts on their own terms before the Allies took over. And in 1949, after the Tribunal had closed, the Americans convened two more trials in Tokyo, Tamura and Toyoda, also presided over by Allied judges. By this time, though, new Cold War priorities had taken hold, and the Allies’ appetite for prosecuting the Japanese had diminished: the Toyoda trial was the last of its kind to be convened in Japan.

International Tribunal for the Far East

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East opened full proceedings on the case, United States et al. v. Araki Sadao et al., on 3 May 1946 in the former Imperial Army Officers’ School in Tokyo. So began the lengthy trial process, governed by the Charter and Indictment reproduced in Pritchard 1998–2005 and Boister and Cryer 2008a and chronicled in the transcripts reproduced in Pritchard 1998–2005 (and indexed in Pritchard and Zaide 1981–1987). The trial eventually concluded on 12 November 1948 with the handing down of the Sentences on the remaining twenty-five accused. Once the death sentences had been carried out on 23 December 1948, the sponsoring powers moved swiftly to put the trial behind them: two months later, the inter-Allied Far Eastern Commission decided that, “No further trials of Japanese war criminals should be initiated.” Interest in the Tokyo Tribunal revived in the English-speaking world in the 1970s, with political assessments by, among others, Minear 1971, and has further developed over the last decade, with assessments from legal and historical perspectives by, among others: Boister and Cryer 2008b, Totani 2008, and Sellars 2013.

  • Boister, Neil, and Robert Cryer, eds. Documents on the Tokyo International Military Tribunal: Charter, Indictment and Judgments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008a.

    A single volume containing the essentials: the Tribunal’s founding documents, the Indictment, and the judgments. The authors’ introduction sets out the main features of the trial, with a strong emphasis on the legal issues: the validity of the charges, the problems with “common plan or conspiracy,” and the imprecision of the rules of evidence, plus incisive appraisals of the personalities involved.

  • Boister, Neil, and Robert Cryer, eds. The Tokyo International Military Tribunal: A Reappraisal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008b.

    An even-handed legal approach: on one hand the authors acknowledge the problems of mounting an international trial and credit the Tribunal for clarifying issues such as civilian command responsibility, while on the other they criticize the prosecuting powers for violating the principle of legality with the crimes against peace charge, treating the war crimes charges as an afterthought, and breaching the obligation to give the accused a fair trial.

  • Minear, Richard H. Victors’ Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.

    The avowedly political book that rekindled Western interest in the Tribunal, published at the height of the Vietnam War. Minear asks: “Could American policy be enlightened regarding Japan when it was so benighted about Vietnam?” His answer: “Very likely not” (p. xii). Guided by the principle that even enemies deserve justice, and drawing heavily on the dissents, he also addresses issues of international law and problems of legal process.

  • Pritchard, R. John, comp. and ed. The Tokyo Major War Crimes Trial. 124 vols. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998–2005.

    This 124-volume series is the most important primary source on the Tokyo Tribunal, encompassing its founding documents, the Indictment, transcripts, the judgments, and appeals and reviews. It also provides supplementary documents, such as International Prosecution Section committee minutes, decisions, and memoranda. Most volumes contain Pritchard’s illuminating introductory overview, and a grid setting out the phases of the trial. The only drawback: no index (see instead Pritchard and Zaide 1981–1987).

  • Pritchard, R. John, and Sonia Magbanua Zaide, comp. and eds. The Tokyo War Crimes Trial: Index and Guide. 5 vols. New York: Garland Publishing, 1981–1987.

    An index to the Tribunal’s records.

  • Sellars, Kirsten. “Crimes against Peace” and International Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139236980

    In this legal appraisal of the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals as a linked enterprise, Sellars notes that while the Allies openly declared their aims of stopping “irresponsible militarism” in Asia, they were also driven at Tokyo by the undeclared aim of buttressing the Nuremberg findings on crimes against peace. This was especially evident in Tokyo’s overwrought Indictment and its under-reasoned Majority Judgment.

  • Totani, Yuma. The Tokyo War Crimes Trial: The Pursuit of Justice in the Wake of World War II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1tm7fq3

    An historical work, more positive about the Tribunal than other works published in recent decades. Totani addresses at length the handling of war crimes (elided with crimes against humanity in the Indictment), particularly the Nanjing Massacre and the Burma-Siam railway. Also of interest, her coverage of the Japanese commentators on the trial; some supportive, many critical.

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