About the project

This project examines the repatriation and release of Japanese war criminals convicted in Allied courts in Asia and the Pacific in the aftermath of the Second World War.  At the end of the military conflict, there was a strong determination on the part of the Allies to place on trial those accused of responsibility for mistreatment and neglect of Allied prisoners-of-war and civilian internees, as well as indigenous inhabitants of occupied regions. As a result, some fifty courtrooms were set up in Asia and the Pacific to try Japanese military personnel suspected of what were called ‘Class B and C’ war crimes. (Class A crimes, notably the waging of aggressive war, were tried in the separate International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) in Tokyo.) Class B and C trials were undertaken by Australia, Britain, the Republic of China, France, the Netherlands, the Philippines and the United States. Nearly five thousand defendants were convicted. Some were sentenced to death and executed, but most received sentences of prison terms varying from a few years to life.

The fate of these criminals gradually attracted attention in Japan, where a campaign emerged to have them repatriated to Japan to serve their sentences in Tokyo’s Sugamo prison. Whereas war criminals had been despised in Japan in the immediate aftermath of the war, information about flaws in the proceedings of some trials, as well as the perception that senior officers and officials responsible for the conduct of the war had escaped prosecution, led to a change of mood. Many in the Japanese public saw the ‘lesser’ war criminals as scapegoats and were keen to see them released.

Justice considerations made it difficult for the Allies to sustain long sentences: with the war over, the sentences could no longer be considered a means of preventing further offences; nor were they a deterrent; nor did they show much prospect of rehabilitating the offenders. Political circumstances changed, too. As Japan moved from being a wartime enemy of the West to a Cold War ally, the pressure to sustain punishment diminished.

The project examines the tangled process by which all the surviving convicted war criminals were repatriated to Japan and finally released by the end of 1958.