Japanese war crimes

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: World War II

The term Japanese war crimes refers to events which occurred during the period of Japanese imperialism, from the late 19th century until 1945. Other names, such as Asian Holocaust and Japanese war atrocities, are also used for these incidents.

Historians and governments of many countries officially hold the military of the Empire of Japan, namely the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy, responsible for killings and other crimes committed against many millions of civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) during the first half of the 20th century.


Hsuchow, China, 1938. A ditch full of the bodies of Chinese civilians, killed by Japanese soldiers.
Hsuchow, China, 1938. A ditch full of the bodies of Chinese civilians, killed by Japanese soldiers.
Aitape, New Guinea, 1943. An Australian soldier, Sgt Leonard Siffleet, about to be beheaded with a katana sword. Many Allied prisoners of war were summarily executed by Japanese forces during the Pacific War.
Aitape, New Guinea, 1943. An Australian soldier, Sgt Leonard Siffleet, about to be beheaded with a katana sword. Many Allied prisoners of war were summarily executed by Japanese forces during the Pacific War.

There are differences from one country to another regarding the definition of Japanese war crimes. In Japan itself, the description of particular events as war crimes — and specific details of these events — are often disputed by Japanese nationalists, such as Tsukurukai (Society for History Textbook Reform). Such organisations and their activities are a subject of controversy and are alleged to be examples of historical revisionism.

Japanese definitions

Although the Geneva Conventions have, from 1864 onwards, provided the standard definitions of war crimes, the Empire of Japan never signed the Geneva Conventions. However, many of the alleged crimes committed by imperial personnel were also violations of the Japanese code of military law, which Japanese authorities either ignored, or failed to enforce. The empire also violated provisions of the Treaty of Versailles such as article 171, which outlawed the use of poison gas (chemical weapons), and other international agreements signed by Japan, such as the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 which protect prisoners of war (POWs). According to historian Akira Fujiwara, Hirohito personally ratified, on 5 August 1937, a proposition by his Army chief of staff Prince Kan'in to remove the constraint of those conventions, on the treatment of Chinese prisoners.

In Japan, the term "Japanese war crimes" generally refers to cases tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Trials, following the end of the Pacific War. The tribunal did not prosecute war crimes allegations involving mid-ranking officers or more junior personnel. Those were dealt with separately in other cities throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

The position of the Japanese government

The Japanese government officially honours war service by all those who died in wartime, including "listed war criminals". Some Japanese people believe such service is above all other considerations, even though war crimes are unacceptable. It is for this reason that Japanese leaders visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Emperor Hirohito himself refused to visit Yasukuni after Class A war criminals were enshrined there in 1978. However, he never blamed leaders such as Hideki Tojo, who was Prime Minister in 1941-44, calling him a "loyal servant".

Geneva Conventions

The Japanese government takes the position that as Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, it violated no international law. For the same reason, the Japanese government also takes the view that Allied states did not violate the Geneva Convention in acts committed against Japanese personnel and civilians, including the internment of ethnic Japanese citizens of Allied countries, the fire bombing of Tokyo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and instances of Japanese POWs being killed or otherwise brutally treated.

Other treaties

The Japanese government did sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1929, thereby rendering its actions in 1937-45 liable to charges of crimes against peace, a charge which was introduced at the Tokyo Trials to prosecute Class-A War Criminals. (Class-B War Criminals are those found guilty of war crimes per se, and Class-C War Criminals are those guilty of crimes against humanity.) However, any convictions for such crimes are not recognised by the Japanese government, as the Kellogg-Briand Pact did not have an enforcement clause, stipulating penalties in the event of violation.

The Japanese government accepted the terms set by the Potsdam Declaration (1945) after the end of the war. The declaration alluded, in Article 10, to two kinds of war crime: one was the violation of international laws, such as the abuse of prisoners of war (POWs); the other was obstructing "democratic tendencies among the Japanese people" and civil liberties within Japan.

Japanese law

Japanese law does not recognize those convicted in the Tokyo Trials and other trials as criminals, despite the fact that Japan's governments have accepted the judgments made in the trials, and in the Treaty of San Francisco (1952). This is because the treaty does not mention the legal validity of the tribunal. In the Japanese text, the word used for "accept" is judaku, as opposed to the stronger shounin ("to approve"). Therefore the position of the Japanese government is that it accepts the judgment and sentences set by the trials as demands, but it does not accept the legal validity of the tribunal. This means, among other things that those convicted have had no ability, under Japanese law, to appeal, as the Tokyo Tribunal and other war crimes courts have no standing in Japanese law. Under normal circumstances it violates a number of fundamental principles of modern legal procedure to punish someone whose crime and penalty were defined only after the fact. Had Japan certified the legal validity of the war crimes tribunals in the San Francisco Treaty, this might have resulted in Japanese courts reversing such verdicts. Any such outcomes would have created domestic political crises and would have been unacceptable in international diplomatic circles.

The current Japanese jurists' consensus regarding the legal standing of the Tokyo tribunal is that, as a condition of ending the war, the Allies demanded a number of conditions including the execution and/or incarceration of those whom they deemed to be responsible for the war. These people were defined as guilty by a tribunal organized by the Allies. The Japanese government accepted these demands in the Potsdam Declaration and then accepted the actual sentencing in the San Francisco Treaty, which officially ended the state of war between Japan and the Allies. Although the penalties for the convicted, including execution, can be regarded as a violation of their technical legal rights, the constitution allowed such violations if proper legal procedure was followed, in the general public interest. Therefore, any such execution and/or incarceration is constitutionally valid, but has no relationship to Japanese criminal law. Hence those convicted as war criminals are not defined as criminals in Japan, although their execution and incarceration is regarded as legally valid.

International definitions

War crimes may be broadly defined as unconscionable behaviour by a government or military personnel against either enemy civilians or enemy combatants. Military personnel from the Empire of Japan have been accused and/or convicted of committing many such acts during the period of Japanese imperialism from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. They have been accused of conducting a series of human rights abuses against civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) throughout east Asia and the western Pacific region. These events reached their height during the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937– 45 and the Asian and Pacific campaigns of World War II ( 1941-45).

Different societies use widely different timeframes in defining Japanese war crimes. For example, the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910 was followed by the deprivation of civil liberties and exploitations against the Korean people. Thus, some Koreans refer to "Japanese war crimes" as events occurring during the period shortly prior to 1910 to 1945. Events such as the March 1st movement where 7000 people were killed and the murder of Empress Myeongseong are considered war crimes in Korea. By comparison, the United States did not come into military conflict with Japan until 1941, and thus Americans may consider "Japanese war crimes" as encompassing only those events that occurred from 1941 to 1945.

A complicating factor is that a small minority of people in every Asian and Pacific country invaded by Japan collaborated with the Japanese military, or even served in it, for a wide variety of reasons, such as economic hardship, coercion, or antipathy to other imperialist powers. The Formosan Army, which was part of the imperial army, was recruited from ethnic Chinese men on Formosa (Taiwan). The Indian National Army is perhaps the best-known example of a movement opposed to European imperialism, which was formed duing the war to assist the Japanese military. Prominent individual nationalists in other countries, such as the later Indonesian president, Suharto, also served with Japanese imperial forces. In some cases such non-Japanese personnel were also responsible for war crimes committed by the Empire of Japan. B. V. A. Roling, the Dutch justice at the Tokyo war trials, noted how "many of the commanders and guards in POW camps were Koreans [as] the Japanese apparently did not trust them as soldiers." Korean guards, he added, were often said to be "far more cruel than the Japanese.". One Korean described abject Allied POWs: "[n]ow I have seen how depraved and worthless the white man is." For political reasons, many non-Japanese personnel in the Imperial armed forces were never investigated or tried and brought to justice after 1945. In South Korea especially, it is alleged that such people were often able to acquire wealth by participating in exploitative activities with the Japanese military. It is further alleged in South Korea that some former collaborators have covered up "Japanese" war crimes in order to avoid their own prosecution and/or exposure.

It has been argued that acts committed against people subject to Japanese sovereignty cannot be considered "war crimes". The issue of Japan's de jure sovereignty over places such as Korea and Formosa, prior to 1945, is a matter of controversy. Japanese control was accepted and recognized internationally and was justified by instruments such as the Treaty of Shimonoseki ( 1895, which included China's ceding of Taiwan) and the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty ( 1910). The legality of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, in particular, is in question because it was not signed by the Korean head of state; it was signed by government ministers under duress. The native populations were not consulted on the changes in sovereignty, nor was there universal acceptance of such annexations. There was ongoing resistance to Japanese invasions and — in any case — war crimes may also be committed during civil wars. (See Korea under Japanese rule and Taiwan under Japanese rule for further details.)

There are also allegations that war crimes were committed even after the Empire of Japan officially surrendered on August 14, 1945. For instance, it is believed that Allied prisoners of war who survived the Sandakan Death Marches, in North Borneo, were killed up to two weeks after the Emperor signed the surrender document.


Japanese military culture and imperialism

Military culture, especially during Japan's imperialist phase had great bearing on the conduct of the Japanese military before and during World War II.

Centuries previously, the samurai of Japan had been taught unquestioning obedience to their lords, as well as to be fearless in battle. After the Meiji Restoration and the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Emperor became the focus of military loyalty. During the so-called "Age of Empire" in the late 19th century, Japan followed the lead of other world powers in developing an empire, pursuing that objective aggressively.

As with other imperial powers, Japanese popular culture became increasingly jingoistic through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century. The rise of Japanese nationalism was seen partly in the adoption of Shinto as a state religion from 1890, including its entrenchment in the education system. Shinto held the Emperor to be divine because he was deemed to be a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. This provided justification for the requirement that the emperor and his representatives be obeyed without question.

Victory in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) signified Japan's rise to the status of a world power. Unlike the other major powers, Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention — which stipulates the humane treatment of civilians and POWs — until after World War II. Nevertheless, the treatment of prisoners by the Japanese military in wars such as the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and World War I (1914-18), was at least as humane as that of other militaries.

The events of the 1930s and 1940s

By the late 1930s, the practices of Japan's military dictatorship created at least superficial similarities between the wider Japanese military culture and that of Nazi Germany's elite military personnel, such as those in the Waffen-SS. Japan also had a military secret police force, known as the Kempeitai, which resembled the Nazi Gestapo in its role in annexed and occupied countries.

As in other dictatorships, irrational brutality, hatred and fear became commonplace. Perceived failure, or insufficient devotion to the Emperor would attract punishment, frequently of the physical kind. In the military, officers would assault and beat men under their command, who would pass the beating on to lower ranks, all the way down. In POW camps, this meant prisoners received the worst beatings of all.

The traditional severity of Bushido and the ethnocentrism of Japan's modern imperial phase often coalesced into brutality towards civilians and POWs. After the launching of a full-scale military campaign against China in 1937, instances of murder, torture and rape committed by Japanese soldiers seemed to be overlooked by their commanding officers and generally went unpunished. Such acts were repeated throughout the Pacific War.

The crimes

Because of the sheer scale of suffering caused by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 1940s, it is often compared to the military of Nazi Germany during 1933–45. The historian Chalmers Johnson has written that:

It may be pointless to try to establish which World War Two Axis aggressor, Germany or Japan, was the more brutal to the peoples it victimised. The Germans killed six million Jews and 20 million Russians [i.e. Soviet citizens]; the Japanese slaughtered as many as 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians and Burmese, at least 23 million of them ethnic Chinese. Both nations looted the countries they conquered on a monumental scale, though Japan plundered more, over a longer period, than the Nazis. Both conquerors enslaved millions and exploited them as forced labourers — and, in the case of the Japanese, as [forced] prostitutes for front-line troops. If you were a Nazi prisoner of war from Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand or Canada (but not Russia) you faced a 4 % chance of not surviving the war; [by comparison] the death rate for Allied POWs held by the Japanese was nearly 30 %.

Mass killings

R. J. Rummel, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, states that between 1937 and 1945, the Japanese military "murdered near 3,000,000 to over 10,000,000 people, most probably almost 6,000,000 Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, and Indochinese, among others, including Western prisoners of war. This democide was due to a morally bankrupt political and military strategy, military expediency and custom, and national culture."

In China alone, during 1937-45, approximately 9.13 million civilians were killed, and there were another 8.4 million Chinese civilian casualties. (See Chinese Casualties in the Sino-Japanese War.) The most infamous incident during this period was the Nanjing Massacre of 1937-38, when, according to the findings of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the Japanese Army massacred 260,000 civilians and prisoners of war.

Experiments on humans and biological warfare

Special Japanese military units conducted experiments on civilians and POWs in China. One of the most infamous was Unit 731. Victims were subjected to vivisection without anesthesia, amputations, and were used to test biological weapons, among other experiments.

To determine the treatment of frostbite, prisoners were taken outside in freezing weather and left with exposed arms, periodically drenched with water until frozen solid. The arm was later amputated; the doctor would repeat the process on the victim’s upper arm to the shoulder. After both arms were gone, the doctors moved on to the legs until only a head and torso remained. The victim was then used for plague and pathogens experiments.

According to GlobalSecurity.org, the experiments carried out by Unit 731 alone caused 3,000 deaths. Furthermore, "tens of thousands, and perhaps as many 200,000, Chinese died of bubonic plague, cholera, anthrax and other diseases...", resulting from the use of biological warfare.

In 2006, the first accounts of experimentation by the imperial military outside China were published. According to the BBC and Kyodo news agency, former IJN medical officer Akira Makino stated that he was ordered — as part of his training — to carry out vivisection on about 30 civilian prisoners in The Philippines between December 1944 and February 1945. The surgery included amputations and the victims included women and children.

Use of chemical weapons

According to historians Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Seiya Matsuno, Emperor Hirohito authorized by specific orders ( rinsanmei) the use of chemical weapons in China. For example, during the invasion of Wuhan from August to October 1938, the Emperor authorized the use of toxic gas on 375 separate occasions, despite Article 171 of the Versailles Peace Treaty and a resolution adopted by the League of Nations on May 14, condemning the use of poison gas by Japan.

Preventable famine

Deaths caused by the diversion of resources to the Japanese military in occupied countries are also regarded as war crimes by many people. Millions of civilians in southern Asia — especially Vietnam and the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), both of which were major rice-growing countries — died during a preventable famine in 1944–45. (See, for example, the article on the Vietnamese Famine of 1945.)

Torture of POWs

Japanese imperial forces are also reported to have utilized widespread use of torture on prisoners, usually in an effort to gather military intelligence quickly. Tortured prisoners were often later executed. A former Japanese Army officer who served in China, Uno Shintaro, stated:

The major means of getting intelligence was to extract information by interrogating prisoners. Torture was an unavoidable necessity. Murdering and burying them follows naturally. You do it so you won't be found out. I believed and acted this way because I was convinced of what I was doing. We carried out our duty as instructed by our masters. We did it for the sake of our country. From our filial obligation to our ancestors. On the battlefield, we never really considered the Chinese humans. When you're winning, the losers look really miserable. We concluded that the Yamato [i.e. Japanese] race was superior.

After the war, some 148 Koreans were convicted of war crimes by Allied war trials. Most prominent was Lieutenant General Hong Sa Ik, who orchestrated the organization of prisoner of war camps in Southeast Asia.

Forced labour

The Japanese military's use of forced labour, by Asian civilians and POWs also caused many deaths. According to a joint study by historians including Zhifen Ju, Mitsuyochi Himeta, Toru Kubo and Mark Peattie, more than 10 million Chinese civilians were mobilized by the Kôa-in (Japanese Asia Development Board) for forced labour. According to Himeta, 2.7 million Chinese civilians died in the Sanko sakusen (scorched earth policy) implemented in 1942 by Yasuji Okamura. More than 100,000 civilians and POWs died in the construction of the Burma Railway.

The Geneva Convention exempted POWs of sergeant rank or higher from manual labour, and stipulated that prisoners performing work should be provided with extra rations and other essentials. According to historian Akira Fujiwara, Emperor Hirohito personally ratified the decision to remove the constraints of international law on the treatment of Chinese prisoners of war in the directive of 5 August 1937. This notification also advised staff officers to stop using the term "prisoners of war". During World War II such rules were largely respected in German POW camps, except in the case of Soviet POWs. However, Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention at the time, and Japanese forces did not follow the convention.

Comfort women

The term comfort women (慰安婦 ianfu ?) (or military comfort women (従軍慰安婦 jūgun-ianfu ?) was a euphemism for prostitutes in Japanese military brothels in occupied countries, some later making allegations of sexual slavery . The extent to which individuals were forced to become comfort women has been disputed. Some sources claim that virtually all comfort women consented to becoming prostitutes and/or were paid, but others have presented research establishing a link between the Japanese army and the forced recruitment of local women.

In 1992, historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi published material based on his research in archives at the National Institute for Defense Studies. Yoshimi claimed that there was a direct link between imperial institutions such as the Kôa-in and "comfort stations". When Yoshimi's findings were published in the Japanese media on January 12, 1993 they caused a sensation and forced the government, represented by the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Kato Koichi, to acknowledge some of the facts that same day. On January 17, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa presented formal apologies for the suffering of the victims, during a trip in South Korea. On July 6 and August 4, the Japanese government issued two statements by which it recognized that "Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military of the day. The Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women" and that the women were "recruited in many cases against their own will through coaxing and coercion".

There are different theories on the breakdown of the comfort women's place of origin.

While some people linked to the Tsukurukai such as Ikuhiko Hata claim that the majority of the women were from Japan, others, such as historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi, argue as many as 200,000 women, mostly from Korea and China, and some other countries such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Burma, Netherlands, Australia and the Dutch East Indies were forced to engage in sexual activity. </ref>

Estimates of the number of comfort women during the war are , corroborated by testimony by surviving comfort women.


Many historians state that violence by Japanese personnel was closely tied to looting. For example, Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, in a 2003 book on " Yamashita's gold" — secret repositories of loot from across Southeast Asia, in the Philippines — argued that the theft was organized on a massive scale, either by yakuza gangsters such as Yoshio Kodama, or by officials at the behest of Emperor Hirohito, who wanted to ensure that as many of the proceeds as possible went to the government. The Seagraves allege that Hirohito appointed his brother, Prince Chichibu, to head a secret organisation called Kin no yuri (Golden Lily) for this purpose.

Post-1945 reactions

The Tokyo Trials

The Tokyo Trials, which were conducted by the Allied powers, found many people guilty of such crimes, including three former (unelected) prime ministers: Koki Hirota, Hideki Tojo, and Kuniaki Koiso. Many military leaders were also convicted. Two people convicted as Class-A war criminals later served as ministers in post-war Japanese governments.

  • Mamoru Shigemitsu served as foreign minister both during the war and in the post-war Hatoyama government.
  • Okinori Kaya was finance minister during the war and later served as justice minister in the government of Hayato Ikeda.

However, these two had no direct connection to alleged war crimes committed by Japanese forces, and foreign governments never raised the issue when they were appointed.

Other trials

Besides the Tokyo Trials, other prosecutions of Japanese personnel for war crimes were also held in many other cities throughout Asia and the Pacific, during 1946– 51. Some 5,600 Japanese personnel were prosecuted in more than 2,200 trials. The judges presiding came from the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, France, the Soviet Union, New Zealand, India and the Philippines. More than 4,400 Japanese personnel were convicted and about 1,000 were sentenced to death. The largest single trial was that of 93 Japanese personnel charged with the summary execution of more than 300 Allied POWs, in the Laha massacre (1942).

Official apologies

The Japanese government considers that the legal and moral positions in regard to war crimes are separate. Therefore, while maintaining that Japan violated no international law or treaties, Japanese governments have officially recognised the suffering which the Japanese military caused, and numerous apologies have been issued by the Japanese government. For example, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, in August 1995, stated that Japan "through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations", and he expressed his "feelings of deep remorse" and stated his "heartfelt apology". Also, on September 29, 1972, Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka stated, "The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war, and deeply reproaches itself."

However, the official apologies are widely viewed as inadequate by many of the survivors of such crimes and/or the families of dead victims. The subject of official apologies is controversial as many people aggrieved by alleged Japanese war crimes maintain that no apology has been issued for particular acts and/or that the Japanese government has merely expressed "regret" or "remorse". However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an apology is "a formal, public statement of regret", and moreover, the Japanese word for "apology" itself has also been used on several occasions. Some allege that the media in some countries "glosses over" or hides efforts at reconciliation by Japan, including "generous" Japanese aid packages, especially in countries where media outlets are under formal or de facto state control It is further alleged that this reflects anti-Japanese sentiment.

Some in Japan have asserted that what is being demanded is that the Japanese Prime Minister and/or the Emperor perform dogeza, in which an individual kneels and bows his head to the ground — a high form of apology in east Asian societies that Japan appears unwilling to do.

Some point to an act by German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who knelt at a monument to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, in 1970, as an example of a powerful and effective act of apology and reconciliation, although not everyone agrees.

Citing Brandt's action as an example, John Borneman, associate professor of anthropology at Cornell, states that, "an apology represents a non-material or purely symbolic exchange whereby the wrongdoer voluntarily lowers his own status as a person." Borneman further states that once this type of apology is given, the injured party must forgive and seek reconciliation, or else the apology won't have any effect. The injured party may reject the apology for several reasons, one of which is to prevent reconciliation, because, "By keeping the memory of the wound alive, refusals prevent an affirmation of mutual humanity by instrumentalizing the power embedded in the status of a permanent victim."

Therefore, some argue that a nation's reluctance to accept the conciliatory gestures that Japan has made may be because that nation doesn't think that Japan has "lowered" itself enough to provide a sincere apology. On the other hand, others state their belief that that particular nation is choosing to reject reconciliation in pursuit of permanent "victimhood" status as a way to try to assert power over Japan.


There is a widespread perception that the Japanese government has not accepted the legal responsibility for compensation and, as a direct consequence of this denial, it has failed to compensate the individual victims of Japanese atrocities. In particular, a number of prominent human rights and women's rights organisations insist that Japan still has a moral and/or legal responsibility to compensate individual victims, especially the sex slaves conscripted by the Japanese military in occupied countries and known as comfort women.

The Japanese government officially accepted the requirement for monetary compensation to victims of war crimes, as specified by the Potsdam Declaration. The details of this compensation have been left to bilateral treaties with individual countries, except North Korea, because Japan recognises South Korea as the sole legitimate government of the Korean peninsula. In the case of POWs from the western Allies, compensation was paid to the victims through the Red Cross. The total amount Japan paid was £4,500,000. However, in a number of Asian countries, claims for compensation were either: abandoned for political reasons, or; paid by Japan, under the specific understanding that it would be used for individual compensation, but was not paid out to the victims by the governments concerned. Therefore a large number of individual victims in Asia received no compensation.

Therefore, the Japanese government's position is that the proper avenues for further claims are the governments of the respective claimants. As a result, every individual compensation claim brought to Japanese court has failed. Such was the case in regard to a British POW who was unsuccessful in an attempt to sue the Japanese government for additional money for compensation. As a result, the UK Government later paid additional compensation to all British POWs. There were complaints in Japan that the international media simply stated that the former POW was demanding compensation and failed to clarify that he was seeking further compensation, in addition to that paid previously by the Japanese government.

A small number of claims have also been brought in US courts, though these have also been rejected.

During the treaty negotiation with South Korea, the Japanese government proposed that it pay monetary compensation to individual Korean victims, in line with the payments to western POWs. The Korean government instead insisted that Japan pay money collectively to the Korean government, and that is what occurred. The South Korean government then used the funds for economic development. The content of the negotiations was not released by the Korean government until 2004, although it was public knowledge in Japan.

There are those that insist that because the governments of China and Taiwan abandoned their claims for monetary compensation, then the moral and/or legal responsibility for compensation belongs with these governments. Such critics also point out that even though these governments abandoned their claims, they signed treaties that recognised the transfer of Japanese colonial assets to the respective governments. Therefore, to claim that these governments received no compensation from Japan is incorrect, and they could have compensated individual victims from the proceeds of such transfers.

The Japanese government, while admitting no legal responsibility for the so-called "comfort women", set up the Asian Women's Fund in 1995, which gives money to people who claim to have been forced into prostitution during the war. Though the organisation was established by the government, legally, it has been created such that it is an independent charity. The activities of the fund have been controversial in Japan, as well as with international organisations supporting the women concerned. Some argue that such a fund is part of an ongoing refusal by the Japanese government to face up to its responsibilities, while others say that the Japanese government has long since finalised its responsibility to individual victims and is merely correcting the failures of the victims' own governments.

Compensation under the San Francisco Treaty

Compensation from Japanese overseas assets

Japanese overseas assets refers to all assets owned by the Japanese government, firms, organisation and private citizens, in colonised or occupied countries. In accordance with Clause 14 of the San Francisco Treaty, Allied forces confiscated all Japanese overseas assets, except those in China, which were dealt with under Clause 21. It is considered that Korea was also entitled to the rights provided by Clause 21.

Japanese overseas assets in 1945
Country/region Value (1945, ¥15=US$1)
Korea 70,256,000,000
Taiwan 42,542,000,000
North East China 146,532,000,000
North China 55,437,000,000
Central South China 36,718,000,000
Others 28,014,000,000
Total ¥379,499,000,000

Compensation to Allied POWs

Clause 16 of the San Francisco Treaty stated that Japan would transfer its assets and those of its citizens in countries which were at war with any of the Allied Powers or which were neutral, or equivalents, to the Red Cross, which would sell them and distribute the funds to former prisoners of war and their families. Accordingly, the Japanese government and private citizens paid out £4,500,000 to the Red Cross.

Allied territories occupied by Japan

Clause 14 of the treaty stated that Japan would enter into negotiations with Allied powers whose territories were occupied by Japan and suffered damage by Japanese forces, with a view to Japan compensating those countries for the damage.

Accordingly, the Philippines and South Vietnam received compensation in 1956 and 1959 respectively. Burma and Indonesia were not original signatories, but they later signed bilateral treaties in accordance with clause 14 of the San Francisco Treaty.

Japanese compensation to countries occupied during 1941-45
Country Amount in Yen Amount in US$ Date of treaty
Burma 72,000,000,000 200,000,000 November 5, 1955
Philippines 198,000,000,000 550,000,000 May 9, 1956
Indonesia 80,388,000,000 223,080,000 January 20, 1958
Vietnam 14,400,000,000 38,000,000 May 13, 1959
Total ¥364,348,800,000 US$1,012,080,000

The last payment was made to the Philippines on July 22, 1976.

Debate in Japan

There is a widespread perception, outside Japan, that there is a reluctance inside Japan to discuss such events and/or admit that they were war crimes. However, the controversial events of the Japanese imperial era are openly debated in the media, with the various political parties and ideological groups taking quite different positions. What differentiates Japan from Germany and Austria is that in Japan, there is no restriction to the freedom of speech in regard to this matter, while in Germany, Austria and some other European countries, Holocaust denial is a criminal offence.

Until the 1970s, such debates were considered a fringe topic in the media. In the Japanese media, the opinions of the political centre and left tends to dominate the editorials of newspapers, while the right tend to dominate magazines. Debates regarding war crimes were confined largely to the editorials of tabloid magazines where calls for the overthrow of " Imperialist America" and revived veneration of the Emperor coexisted with pornography. In 1972, to commemorate the normalisation of relationship with China, Asahi Shimbun, a major liberal newspaper, ran a series on Japanese war crimes in China including the Nanking Massacre. This opened the floodgates to debates which have continued ever since. The 1990s are generally considered to be the period in which such issues become truly mainstream, and incidents such as the Nanking Massacre, Yasukuni Shrine, comfort women, the accuracy of school history textbooks, and the validity of the Tokyo Trials were debated, even on television.

As the consensus of Japanese jurists is that Japanese forces did not technically commit violations of international law, many right wing elements in Japan have taken this to mean that war crimes trials were examples of victor's justice. They see those convicted of war crimes as "Martyrs of Shōwa" (昭和殉難者 Shōwa Junnansha ?), Shōwa being the name given to the rule of Hirohito. This interpretation is vigorously contested by Japanese peace groups and the political left. In the past, these groups have tended to argue that the trials hold some validity, either under the Geneva Convention (even though Japan hadn't signed it), or under an undefined concept of international law or consensus. Alternatively, they have argued that, although the trials may not have been technically valid, they were still just, somewhat in line with popular opinion in the West and in the rest of Asia. However, the peace groups and the left also generally consider the bombing of Japanese civilians by the Allies, particularly the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to be unjust and/or a violation of the international law. The left is also accused of being soft on Soviet atrocities.

By the early 21st century, the revived interest in Japan's imperial past had brought new interpretations from a group which has been labelled both "new right" and "new left". This group points out that many acts committed by Japanese forces, including the Nanjing Incident (they generally do not use the word "massacre"), were violations of the Japanese military code. It is suggested that had war crimes tribunals been conducted by the post-war Japanese government, in strict accordance with Japanese military law, many of those who were accused would still have been convicted and executed. Therefore, the moral and legal failures in question were the fault of the Japanese military and the government, for not executing their constitutionally-defined duty.

The new right/new left also takes the view that the Allies committed no war crimes against Japan, because Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, and as a victors, the Allies had every right to demand some form of retribution, to which Japan consented in various treaties.

However, under the same logic, the new right/new left considers the killing of Chinese who were suspected of guerilla activity to be perfectly legal and valid, including some of those killed at Nanjing, for example. They also take the view that many Chinese civilian casualties resulted from the scorched earth tactics of the Chinese nationalists. Though such tactics are arguably legal, the new right/new left takes the position that some of the civilian deaths caused by these scorched earth tactics are wrongly attributed to the Japanese military.

Similarly, they take the position that those who have attempted to sue the Japanese government for compensation have no legal and/or moral case.

The new right/new left also takes a less sympathetic view of Korean claims of victimhood, because prior to annexation by Japan, Korea was a tributary of the Qing Dynasty and, according to them, the Japanese colonisation, though undoubtedly harsh, was better than the previous rule in terms of human rights and economic development.

They also argue that, the Kantōgun (also known as the Kwantung Army) was at least partly culpable. Although the Kantōgun was nominally subordinate to the Japanese high command at the time, its leadership demonstrated significant self-determination, as shown by its involvement in the plot to assassinate Zhang Zuolin in 1928, and the Manchurian Incident of 1931, which led to the foundation of Manchukuo in 1932. Moreover, at that time, it was the official policy of the Japanese high command to confine the conflict to Manchuria. But in defiance of the high command, the Kantōgun invaded China proper, under the pretext of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. However, the Japanese government not only failed to court martial the officers responsible for these incidents, but it also accepted the war against China, and many of those who were involved were even promoted. (Some of the officers involved in the Nanking Massacre were also promoted.) Therefore, claims that the government was held hostage by soldiers on the field hold little weight.

Whether or not Hirohito himself bears any responsibility for such failures is a sticking point between the new right and new left. Though both sides agree that constitutionally, he was exempt from any legal responsibility, some insist that he was ultimately responsible both politically and morally. They cite the fact that, after the war, the Emperor consulted Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida regarding his possible abdication, a course of action that Yoshida advised against. Others argue that Hirohito deliberately styled his rule in the manner of the British constitutional monarchy, and he always accepted the decisions and consenses reached by the high command. Accordingly, the moral and political failure rests primarily with the Japanese High Command and the Cabinet, most of whom were later convicted at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal as class-A war criminals.

Controversial reinterpretations outside Japan

Some activists outside Japan are also attempting controversial reinterpretations of Japanese imperialism. For example, the views of a South Korean ex-military officer and right wing commentator, Ji Man-Won, have caused controversy in Korea and further abroad. Ji has praised Japan for " modernising" Korea, and has said of women forced to become sex slaves: "most of the old women claiming to be former comfort women, or sex slaves to the Japanese military during World War II, are fakes." In Korea, such views are widely regarded as being offensive, libellous of the women concerned, and as representing historical revisionism but are born out of political tensions within nations such as Korea and China between democratic and establishmentary movements in which the use of Japanese history, or contrived Japanese hate, is a useful tool for both sides.

Later investigations

As with investigations of Nazi war criminals, official investigations and inquiries are still ongoing. During the 1990s, the South Korean government started investigating some individuals who had allegedly become wealthy while collaborating with the Japanese military. In South Korea, it is also alleged that, during the political climate of the Cold War, many such individuals and/or their associates or relatives were able to acquire influence with the wealth they had acquired collaborating with the Japanese and assisted in the covering-up, or non-investigation, of war crimes in order not to incriminate themselves. With the wealth the had amassed during the years of collaboration, they were able to further benefit their families by obtaining higher education for their relatives.

Non-government bodies and individuals have also undertaken their own investigations. For example, in 2005, a South Korean freelance journalist, Jung Soo-woong, located in Japan some descendants of people involved in the 1895 assassination of Empress Myeongseong (Queen Min), the last Empress of Korea. The assassination was conducted by the Dark Ocean Society, perhaps under the auspices of the Japanese government, because of the Empress's involvement in attempts to reduce Japanese influence in Korea. Jung recorded the apologies of the individuals.

As these investigations continue more evidence is discovered each day. It has been claimed that the Japanese government intentionally destroyed the reports on Korean comfort women. Some have cited Japanese inventory logs and employee sheets on the battlefield as evidence for this claim. For example, one of the names on the list was of a comfort woman who stated she was forced to be a prostitute by the Japanese. She was classified as a nurse along with at least a dozen other verified comfort women who were not nurses or secretaries. Currently, the South Korean government is looking into the hundreds of other names on these lists.

Sensitive information regarding the Japanese occupation of Korea is often difficult to obtain. Many argue that this is due to the fact that the Government of Japan has gone out of its way to cover up many incidents that would otherwise lead to severe international criticism. On their part, Koreans have often expressed their abhorrence of Human experimentations carried out by the Imperial Japanese Army where people often became fodder as human test subjects in such macabre experiments as liquid nitrogen tests or biological weapons development programs (See articles: Unit 731 and Shiro Ishii). Though some vivid and disturbing testimonies have survived, they are largely denied by the Japanese Government even to this day.

Major incidents

  • Alexandra Hospital massacre
  • Invasion and Occupation of the Andaman Islands during World War II
  • Bataan Death March
  • Changteh Chemical Weapon Attack
  • Comfort women
  • Death Railway (Construction of the Burma-Siam Railway)
  • Kaimingye germ weapon attack
  • Laha Massacre
  • Nanking Massacre
  • Manila Massacre
  • Parit Sulong Massacre
  • Panjiayu Massacre
  • Sandakan Death Marches
  • Three Alls Policy
  • Sook Ching Massacre
  • Tol Plantation Massacre
  • Unit 100
  • Unit 200
  • Unit 731
  • Unit 516
  • Unit 543
  • Unit 773
  • Unit 1855
  • Unit 2646
  • Unit 8604
  • Unit 9420
  • Unit Ei 1644
  • War Crimes in Asia Mainland
  • War Crimes in the Pacific

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