IV. Explaining the United States Role in Transitional Justice for Japan


First, why did the USG take such a leading role in the establishment of the IMTFE? The USG’s involvement was, in many ways, even greater than its role in the creation of the IMT. This is somewhat unexpected, especially considering that the United States suffered more casualties in the European Theater177 and that Americans were (and still are) more familiar with individual Nazi leaders and their crimes.178

There are three likely, perhaps mutually supportive, political reasons for the USG’s motive to lead the transitional justice process for Japanese suspected of committing atrocities during WWII First, the USG was undoubtedly highly sensitive to the fact that Americans suffered in some ways more at the hands of Japanese than Germans. In the European Theater, the United States incurred comparatively fewer deaths than its allies, whereas in the Pacific Theater, Americans bore as many or more deaths than many of their allies.179 In particular, the United States had withstood Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese treatment of American POWs was arguably more brutal than the Axis powers’ practices in Europe. While 4 percent of Allied POWs captured by Germans and Italians died while imprisoned, almost seven times as many Allied POWs (27 percent) detained by the Japanese died (mostly from murder, disease, starvation, or torture). Death rates among Americans imprisoned by the Japanese even exceeded the average among the Allies as a whole: of 21,580 American POWs held by the Japanese, 7107, or 32.9 percent, died.180 Consequently, according to Dower: “Long after the war had ended, and notwithstanding the revelation of the enormity of Nazi atrocities, great numbers of Americans, British, and Australians continued to believe that the enemy in Asia had been even more heinous than the German one.”181 As a result of this perceived disparity, some believe that the IMTFE was “a vehicle for America’s taking revenge” against the Japanese.182 As Beigbeder observes, some experts believe that “MacArthur’s real aim was to avenge the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, which had brought humiliation on the US nation and its military forces ... .”183

The USG likely was motivated not only by retrospective but also prospective concerns. Thus, a second explanation is that the USG wished to assert its presence in Asia, where American and Soviet spheres of influence were less defined, in large part to stem the spread of communism from the Soviet Union. In fact, some commentators connect this very objective—intimidating the Soviet Union and demonstrating American military preeminence—to the USG’s deployment of atomic bombs in Japan.184 By leading the transitional justice institution for Japan, along with a greater role in the occupation, the United States could raise its stature and position in Asian—and global—affairs.

Third, racism probably also drove USG decision-making, at least subconsciously. Dower contends that because of its “reflective ethnocentricism,” the USG “excluded Japan’s Asian antagonists from any meaningful role in the occupation.”185 Not content to allow Asians (particularly Chinese)—who had suffered as much or more than Americans—to play a leading role in establishing and operating the IMTFE, the USG seized the initiative.

Beyond the likely reasons that motivated the USG to take such a leading role in the establishment of the IMTFE, there are some unlikely ones as well. International law scholar Antonio Cassese stated that some believe that the IMTFE was “a means of assuaging American national guilt over the use of atomic weapons in Japan.”186 I have found no evidence to suggest that USG officials held this motive or that many scholars believe this assertion.

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