War crimes trials

In passing sentence on the accused the court is merely carrying out the laws of British and international justice. We are not taking our vengeance, but protecting society from the ravages of cruelty and imposing a sentence to act as a deterrent to others who, in the years to come, may be like minded.

[Colonel J. L. McKinlay, Australian war crimes trials, Morotai, National Archives of Australia: A471, 80717.]

Two men stand guard either side of four Japanese  men sitting on a bench.

Military police guard four Japanese officers of the Borneo Prisoners of War and Internees Guard Unit, outside the Australian 9th Division Headquarters where they were to appear at a war crimes trial, Labuan Island, December 1945. AWM 123170

Even before World War II ended Allied authorities began collecting evidence of war crimes committed by the Japanese in the countries they occupied. This culminated in a series of trials held throughout the Pacific between 1945 and 1951 which mirrored war crimes trials in Europe.

There were three levels of trials conducted. A Class trials (conspiracy to wage and start war) saw twenty-eight high-ranking Japanese officers and politicians, including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, tried in Tokyo by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. The IMTFE consisted of judges from eleven nations with an Australian High Court judge, William Webb, serving as president.

Class B (violations of the laws and customs of war) and C (crimes against humanity) trials were held by national governments—Australia, Britain, China, France, Holland, Philippines and the United States—at various locations throughout the Pacific. In total 5 379 Japanese, 173 Formosans and 148 Koreans were tried. Of these 984 were sentenced to death, 475 to life imprisonment and 2 944 to some form of punishment.

Neither the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, nor any member of his family, was tried in any category.

The Australian B and C Class trials, which included crimes against prisoners of war and the execution of Allied air men, were conducted by military courts under the Australian War Crimes Act of 1945. They were held at Morotai, Wewak, Labuan, Rabaul, Darwin, Singapore, Hong Kong and Manus Island. In all, Australia conducted nearly three hundred trials, in which 924 Japanese servicemen were accused of war crimes. Of these, 644 were convicted and 148 were sentenced to death, although 11 had their sentences commuted.

Execution was carried out by firing squad or by hanging. This was the first and only time that the Australian military conducted executions. Indeed, such was the Australian inexperience that it was necessary to ask for British advice on gallows and firing squads.

Between June 1946 and July 1947 a total of 111 Japanese and Korean soldiers were convicted for crimes on the Burma-Thailand railway in Singapore. Death sentences were given to 32 of these men.

Among those tried were some of the most feared men on the railway. Sergeant Seiichi Okada, also known as 'Doctor Death' for his role as a medical orderly in the Hintok–Konyu area, was sentenced to ten years in prison in Singapore. The Korean Arai Koei, also known as the 'Boy Bastard', was sentenced to death by hanging for his role in the ill-treatment of prisoners on the Burma side of the railway.

The Japanese soldiers who were sentenced to death reacted in different ways. Many maintained a pride in their service to the emperor. Lieutenant Seizo Tanaka, executed in 1946 on Morotai, wrote to a family member:

it is decided I will be shot 7 o'clock 6 mar. I was sentenced to death, but not because I did a shameful act. Rather I think it an honour for me … By my culture, I am resigned facing death.

[AWM54 1010/1/29]

Initially the Australian government maintained a prison on Manus Island, north of New Guinea, for Japanese prisoners. However, by 1953 all Japanese held in Australian camps had been returned to Japan to complete their sentences.

The war crimes trials have been criticised, particularly in Japan, as 'victors' justice'. Certainly much of the punishment fell on relatively lowly ranked Japanese who had little control over issues such as the pace of work or supply of food and medicine to the prisoners. The trials have also been criticised on procedural grounds; such as the fact that evidence was taken from witnesses, including POWs, who were not produced in court to be cross-examined. In addition, evidence that was prejudicial to the defendant but irrelevant to a particular case was introduced.

Yet the trials were not necessarily a manifestation of vengeance: 280 of the 644 Japanese accused in Australian war crimes trials were acquitted. Moreover, victims of the Japanese, such as Stan Arneil and Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop, did not call for reprisals against the Japanese. Many simply wanted to go home. Dunlop himself worked for post-war reconciliation with Asia.


Last updated: 6 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), War crimes trials, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 29 September 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/events/after-war/war-crimes-trials
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