Healing? Old Wounds

Just over a year ago, I heard a lecture by the author of a then-forthcoming book, Judgment at Tokyo, about prosecutions resulting from Japan’s WW II war crimes. We’re all familiar with the Nuremberg trials in Germany, but many people don’t know about the similar, yet more difficult and contentious, post-war effort in the Pacific theater. The book is out now, receiving rave reviews (New York Times; Washington Post), and is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Now, as the fog of war descends over the Mideast, we’re reminded of the value and the difficulty of trying to understand “what really happened.”

Judgment at Tokyo

Last week was the first lecture in a local lecture series on “Crime and Punishment,” which includes both real-life crime (true crime, writ large), and an examination of fictional crime, as in the works of Raymond Chandler and Victor Hugo.

The first lecture, given by Gary Bass, a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton was about the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal after World War II and is based on a book he’s been researching for years. I don’t know about you, but I was a tabula rasa for this one. If you’d asked me if there was such a tribunal, I would have said, “Uh, probably.” But I wouldn’t have been sure.

It’s interesting (and sad, really), how popular culture has shaped much of our information about post-WWII actions in Europe. We can probably thank Hollywood and Spencer Tracy for that—at least for periodic reminders of those dramatic events–and it’s a shame there hasn’t been an equivalently memorable treatment of the actions and personalities at the Tokyo Tribunal, which went on for twice as long (two and a half years). Though Americans may be marginally aware of it, most certainly the Asian nations that had suffered at the hands of the Japanese occupiers were acutely aware of these proceedings.

For example, China was consumed with memories of the bombings and privations its population had suffered, as well as the Nanjing massacre of 1937, during which more than 200,000 civilians were slaughtered. Post-war Australia and New Zealand were fixated on the grim fates of their captured soldiers whom the Japanese worked to death. Again, popular culture fills in a few blanks, if you remember the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai or Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the 2014 Booker Prize winner.

One of the most interesting personalities involved in the Tokyo trial was Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal (pictured below), who became the only one of the judges who insisted that all the defendants were not guilty, based in part on his questioning of the tribunal’s legitimacy. The interests of Empire and the U.S. use of the atomic bomb meant, to Pal at least, that no one’s hands were clean.He’s still held in high esteem in Japan today.

Europe-based World War II stories are a staple of crime and espionage thrillers. Thinking about the complexities the Tokyo Tribunal exposed, you may see a deep well of new and compelling inspiration.