Tokyo International Court

Tokyo International Court
Tokyo International Court

The Tokyo International Court was appointed by the supreme commander for the Allied powers, General Douglas MacArthur, to implement the terms of surrender for Japan in World War II. Also known as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), it held proceedings from 1946 to 1948 at Ichigaya, the hilltop headquarters of the Japanese armed forces during the war.

The accused were divided into three categories: Class A included those accused of crimes against peace, that is, planning, initiating, and waging aggressive war; class B included those accused of violating the laws of war; and class C referred to those accused of committing, with orders from above, torture, enslavement, and other crimes against humanity.

The IMTFE at Tokyo tried only class A war criminals. Indictments were served against 28 out of 80 suspects in this category. Among them were four former prime ministers, three former foreign ministers, four former war ministers, two former navy ministers, six former generals, two former ambassadors, and three former economic and financial leaders. Others included an ideologue, an imperial adviser, a colonel, and an admiral.

Trials of class B and class C suspects were held by military commissions of the Allied powers, individually and sometimes jointly, across Asia. From 1945 until 1951, about 2,000 trials were held by the United States, the Netherlands, France, China, Australia, and Britain. In these trials, 920 Japanese were executed and 3,000 were sentenced. Thousands were released with the end of the occupation of Japan in 1952.

In Tokyo, the IMTFE sentenced 16 of the defendants to life imprisonment, seven to death by hanging, and two to varying lengths of time in prison. Of the remaining three, two had died of natural causes, and one was declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

The prosecution proved that Japan's domestic politics had been controlled by militarists since the 1920s; that they had conspired, initiated, and waged aggressive war against China, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union; and that they had inflicted and condoned violence against prisoners of war and innocent civilians. An appendix to the indictment named 47 treaties, protocols, and international agreements that Japan had violated.

The defense comprised a team of U.S. attorneys and Japanese lawyers. Chief defense counsel captain Beverly Coleman resigned during the trial. Japanese-American lawyer George Yamaoka took on a leadership role thereafter.

The defense challenged the legality of the tribunal, arguing that it imposed ex post facto law on the defendants in the form of crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, that judges drawn from Allied nations could not guarantee a fair trial for the defendants, and that Japan's war had been in self-defense after suffering from economic embargo.

The prosecution rebutted the arguments, and the bench dismissed these motions by the defense. The bench comprised 11 judges, one each from the United States, Canada, Britain, France, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, Australia, New Zealand, China, the Philippines, and India. Sir William Webb, then chief justice of the supreme court of Queensland in Australia, was president of the tribunal.

Over the course of the trial, there were 419 witnesses, 779 depositions and affidavits, and 4,336 exhibits. Both in its proceedings and in its judgment, the IMTFE was influenced by the precedent set by the international court at Nuremberg, which had tried war criminals of Nazi Germany in 1945–46.

The bench at the IMTFE arrived at its decisions on the basis of a majority vote. The majority decision on the judgment was signed by nine of the 11 judges. The defense appealed to General MacArthur, who upheld the sentences. The defense appealed again, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted to hear the case but on review decided it had no jurisdiction.


The Tokyo trial had important consequences. It served as a vital source of information to the Japanese people about the machinations of military cliques and financial interests within prewar and wartime governments. It formally acknowledged Japan's crimes in the war and laid the basis for vast changes in Japan's new constitution and foreign policy.

Though evidence of atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in the rape of Nanjing, the Bataan death march, construction of the Burma-Siam railway, and the rape of Manila horrified observers, the trial humanized the nation, as it became clear that ordinary people had been ignorant of the atrocities.

The Tokyo trial has been subject to multiple criticisms. On the one hand, from the point of view of victims of Japan's wartime policies, particularly China and Korea, the IMTFE elided issues such as the emperor's responsibility for the war, Japan's suspected biological weapons program, and the sexual slavery of "comfort women" because the United States needed Japan as an ally in the rapidly emerging cold war. On the other hand, according to some scholars, the trial had no basis in existing law at that time.

For Japanese ultranationalists, it was punishment for Japan's challenge to "liberate" Asia from European imperialism. The Tokyo trial was seen as "victor's justice" because the United States was not brought to account for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.