Comment on the British war crimes trials

Hayashi Hirofumi

    This comment was made at the Anglo-Japanese conference on prisoners of war in the second world war on 16 November 1997 in Cambridge.  In this conference I gave a presentation on the Japanese treatment of Chinese Prisoners, which is uploaded on this site.  This comment was given at the session on legal issues raised by the treatment of POWs. I was asked to give comments the day before, so I instantly prepared it. This comment was intended to criticize a paper of Dr J. Pritchard who had been claiming British war crimes trials were based on Justice and were well conducted.
   As this has not been checked by a native speaker, I am afraid there must be a lot of improper words and sentences.
   I published a book on British war crimes trials, 『裁かれた戦争犯罪Sabakareta Senso Hanzai』 in Japanese in 1998. In addition, I am preparing a paper in English.  

Thank you for giving me an opportunity of giving some comments on the legal issue.  I would like to give some comments on the legal issues, in particular, British minor war crimes trials of Japanese in the Far East.  When we think about war crimes trials, what I want to say is to consider them in the context of international political situation.

The main purpose of UK in the Far East after the war was to rebuild, to regain  her colonies, in particular, Malaya and Singapore. We have to note that British policy of minor war crimes trials was one of the methods contributing to the British purpose. In 1945 the Colonial Office claimed that Japanese responsible for war crimes should be tried because it is the opportunity to maintain the prestige of British Empire as regards the case of Gilbert Islands. It was the case with the War Office who was in charge of war crimes trials. As you know, SEAC, South East Asia Command, was cynically called ‘Save English Asian Colonies’.     

In case of Malaya, SEAC, in particular, SOE,Force136, had strong connection with the Chinese guerrillas. SEAC, including Mountbatten, strongly backed up the policy of supporting Chinese guerrillas because the Chinese guerrillas would give a great deal of assistance to British forces when they would land on Malaya to recapture it.

This policy caused a problem on how to deal with Malayan Chinese after victory over Japan, because Chinese in Malaya were treated as second-class people before the war. On the other hand UK was planning Malaya Union policy which meant that Britain would rebuild Malayan colony on the basis of Chinese, instead of Malay.

At the initial stage of war crimes investigation, Force 136 was the major organization of conducting investigation and Force 136 collected evidences of war crimes against Chinese by help of the Chinese guerrillas. In Malaya almost all cases which were brought to trial were war crimes against local Chinese.

Britain had to show her prestige to Asian people and had to show Britain is the protector of local people of her colonies in order to rebuild her empire.

War crimes trials were one of the most important chances to make a display of her prestige  Britain had lost by the defeat at the beginning of the war. However, Malaya Union policy was strongly opposed by the Malay and eventually British introduced Malaya Federation in February 1948 instead of Malaya Union. Malaya Federation was based on the Malay.

In addition, Malaya emergency broke out in June 1948. Britain had lost her interest in war crimes trials because most of victims by Japanese were Chinese many of whom had relations with the communist guerrillas. Furthermore, Britain not only made an end of war crimes trails but also began to commute the sentences of war criminals and in the end set all of them free by 1957.

One of the motives why Britain conducted war crimes trials may be “Justice” as Dr Pritchard stated. However, I think British war crimes policy depended more on her imperialistic motive than on Justice.

Of course, the reason why Britain needed to conduct war crimes trials in order to rebuild her empire was the strong anger of local people toward Japanese terrible atrocities. So British war crimes trials were reflection of local people’s will. I therefore will not deny British war crimes trials themselves. What I want to stress in my comment is that we have to think about British war crimes trials in context of international politics, in particular, British intention of rebuilding her empire.

As far as I know, all Japanese except a few will not admit that British war crimes trials were based on Justice, although some of them, including me, think they were partly based on Justice, because we notice such an imperialistic motive mentioned above and the notion ‘Justice’ has been exploited by various strong nations and groups who tried to justify their policy or conducts.

In order to materialize the reconciliation between British and Japanese, needless to say, Japan has to admit her responsibility for the war of aggression and various war crimes. However, On the other hand, British imperialism needs to be coolly examined.  Thank you.