Tokyo Trial

Formally, it was called The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE). Convened in late April, 1946, the purpose of this trial, also known as the Tokyo Trial, was to try the leaders of Japan for three kinds of war crimes.

Netflix, in conjunction with the Japanese TV Network called NHK, Don Carmody Television, and FATT Productions, has made this mini-series (4 episodes) available to its streaming service subscribers.

General Douglas MacArthur appointed 12 judges (the 12th was a replacement as one judge left to return home. These judges came from 11 countries – Australia, Canada, China, France, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, UK., USA. and the Soviet Union.

The expectation was that the trial would last about 6 months. Instead it lasted 2 1/2 years, or about 1000 days.

MacArthur not only agreed to prosecute 28 Japanese leaders but he also approved the Charter which gave the Tribunal the right to prosecute the Japanese.

They would be charged in three categories.

  1. Crimes of Aggression
  2. Crimes against humanity
  3. Conventional war crimes

Using the Nuremberg Trials as the precedent, the President of the Tribunal,  Sir William Webb from Australia, believed that they had the moral authority as well as the legal authority to try to convict the Japanese. Item # 1 would prove to be both a stumbling block as well as a controversial point in their judicial discussions.

Webb was played by Tim Ahern in this production.

The item #1 – Crimes of Aggression – was also known as Crimes against peace. The concept of this was to charge the top Japanese leaders with: leading, organizing, instigating, or being accomplices in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to wage wars of aggression, and war or wars in violation of international law.

Said another way – this concept was the opposite of a self-defensive war effort.

The first of the justices to step up and disagree was the Indian Rabhabinod Pal, a Judge on the Calcutta High Court. He argued, in a lengthy dissenting opinion (over 1200 pages) that a) At the time of the crimes, there was no international law against waging an ‘aggressive’ war. The basics of that was the Japanese were being charged retroactively. He also argued that b) the argument of the prosecution was quite weak with regard to the conspiratorial aspects of waging an aggressive war, and c) there was nothing to show that these crimes were a product of government policy or that the Japanese government officials were directly responsible for the atrocities committed (like the events in Nanking, China, or the maltreatment and abuse of POWs).

Indian actor Irrfan Khan had the role of Justice Pal.

Also in the trenches (at least in the pre-verdict discussions) with Judge Pal was the Law Professor from New Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Professor Bert Röling.

Dutch actor Marcel Hensema played Röling.

On the other side of the ledger, meaning those who argued (most strenuously in favor of the prosecution)  were the Scottish Judge, The Honorable Lord Patrick, the Chinese Judge, Mei ju-ao, and the Canadian, Edward Stuart McDougall, Justice of the Court of King’s Bench of Quebec. In today’s terms, they would be called the hawks.

Paul Freeman played Lord Patrick.

David Tse played Judge Mei.

McHattie as McDougall is on the left

McHattie as McDougall is on the left

Stephen McHattie played the Canadian McDougall.

The film has adopted an unusual format. All of the judges’ deliberations and discussions in chambers, or in ex-parte locations are all in color. But all of the scenes in the trial are presented in black and white newsreel footage style. These scenes not only look like actual newsreels but they sound like newsreels as well.

Here’s an example of a group of judges in chambers.

And another.

Here’s a view from the trial.

And another.

My takeaway from this mini-series is that discussions and arguments about 1) the right to try the case, 2) guilt or innocence, and the 3) deliberations of the penalties – were all quite well done and offered the viewers some tasty intellectual concepts to mull over.

The actors were uniformly excellent and the dialogues were well written. One needn’t be a historian or even a student of history to appreciate the fact that this trial was and might still be a kind of quagmire of conflicting legalities.

But as one of the justices commented – How will this ever stop, if not with us.  Meaning if we don’t put our foot down now, history could be repeated.  But as we all know, nothing on a printed page or a set of laws can ever achieve the amount of deterrence necessary.

So the conundrums presented were indeed worthwhile. But at what cost?

Since we know that the mini-series is based on factual events, we can assume a certain loss of surprise or even an unexpected event. Yes, knowing that 23 of 28 defendants were convicted, and that x number were sentenced to death by hanging, can leave us without dramatic high points.

But having said that, I can still say that this was a more than satisfying docudrama, and I’ll recommend the series.

Check out the trailer:


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