It is very likely that two actions of the United States made it easier for Japan to refuse to acknowledge its war guilt and war crimes. Those actions were the protection of Emperor Hirohito from prosecution as a war criminal and the premature winding up of Allied war crime prosecutions in East Asia and the Pacific region. Both actions were based entirely on political expediency.

The United States protected Japan's leading war criminal - Emperor Hirohito

An unfortunate aspect of the continuing refusal by Japan to acknowledge its war guilt and war crimes between 1937 and 1945 is the probability that young Japanese will not be made aware of the complicity of Emperor Hirohito in Japan's military aggression and war crimes.

EMPEROR HIROHITO - Japan's leading war criminal
Japan's leading war criminal, Emperor Hirohito, escaped prosecution because the government of President Harry S. Truman felt that administration of a defeated Japan would be greatly facilitated if the emperor appeared to be cooperating with the occupying Allied powers.

Despite being depicted by the Japanese as a powerless figurehead following the surrender in 1945, historical research by Professor Herbert P. Bix has confirmed long held suspicions that Hirohito, as commander in chief of the Imperial military, was deeply involved in the day to day management of Japan's military aggression between 1937 and 1945. See: "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan" (published 2000),especially at pages 327, 329-331, 359, and 387-391. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning history, Professor Bix makes the telling point that Imperial General Headquarters was established inside the Imperial Palace to facilitate Hirohito exercising his constitutional role as supreme commander of Japan's military. Through Imperial General Headquarters, Hirohito was able to participate directly in the planning of Japan's military aggression and guide its progress.

Following the Japanese surrender, the Australian government wanted to prosecute Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal, but this was opposed by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur believed that administration of a defeated Japan would be greatly facilitated if the emperor appeared to be cooperating with the occupying Allied powers. This could not happen if the emperor was charged and convicted of war crimes. President Truman backed MacArthur against Australia, and Japan's leading war criminal escaped prosecution solely on the ground of political expediency.

By protecting Hirohito from prosecution as a war criminal, the United States laid the foundation for Japan to refuse to acknowledge its war guilt and war crimes. The political theory of Imperial Japan, called kokutai, made the "divine" emperor the embodiment of the spirit of Japan and the focal point of the life of the nation. In 2000, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori encapsulated this theory in a few words when he said:

"Japan is the land of the gods with the emperor at its centre".

If the Allied occupying powers declined to prosecute Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal, then it could be reasonably inferred by many Japanese that he was innocent of any war guilt. From that inference, it was only a short step to a conclusion that, if the emperor was innocent, then Japan, as a nation centered on the emperor, must also be free of war guilt. The blame for Japan's military aggression and war crimes could be laid on the Japanese Imperial Army which had betrayed the emperor and his people. The correctness of this view was confirmed for the Japanese by the Allied occupying powers when they laid substantial blame for Japan's military aggression on wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo and the Japanese Imperial Army.

Although he escaped prosecution as a war criminal with the connivance of the United States, Hirohito could not escape the taint whenever he travelled abroad. On state visits to Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, and Germany, Hirohito was confronted by a wave of protest that shocked the Japanese.

Prosecution of Japanese war criminals by the Allied governments

Immediately after the surrender on 15 August 1945, the Japanese government and military moved swiftly to destroy evidence that might assist in the prosecution of any Japanese for war responsibility or war crimes, including Emperor Hirohito. The Imperial Army, Navy, and almost all government ministries, destroyed their incriminating files. Japanese who were considered likely to face prosecution as war criminals, were provided with a range of advice that included going into hiding as a last resort. The commanders of prisoner of war and civilian internment camps were ordered to destroy all camp records. Those commanders and prison guards who were thought likely to be accused of war crimes were advised to transfer or go into hiding, leaving no evidence of where they were going.

By the time that the surrender was formally signed in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945, vast quantities of records pertaining to war crimes and the war responsibility of Japan's leaders, including the emperor, had been burnt. The systematic destruction of war-related records would prove useful when successive Japanese LDP governments refused to acknowledge Japan's war guilt and war crimes.

The destruction of war-related records made the work of those investigating and prosecuting Japanese war crimes very difficult. Many Japanese who feared prosecution for their war crimes had gone into hiding. Many of the brutal camp guards had only been known to the prisoners by nicknames. After the surrender, it was easy for them to discard their uniforms and blend into the civilian population of Japan. The need to rely on cooperation from hostile Japanese officials and police made the task of tracking down suspected war criminals particularly onerous. These problems failed to blunt the determination of the Allied governments to bring suspected Japanese war criminals to trial.

Classifications of War Crimes

The Allies in the Pacific region defined three classes of war crimes and criminals:

Class A

These were the top Japanese war leaders, like Hideki Tojo, who had conspired to wage aggressive war and knowingly permitted brutal treatment of prisoners of war.

To try "Class A" war criminals, the Allies set up the International Military Tribunal of the Far East (IMTFE) in Tokyo. It was also known as the Tokyo War Crime Trials.

From a list of several hundred prospective defendants, only twenty-five were actually tried and sentenced. The trials lasted from 1946 to November 1948.

Of the small number of "Class A" war criminals who were brought to trial and convicted, seven were sentenced to death. One of those sentenced to death was General Hideki Tojo. As Prime Minister, and a hard-line militarist, Tojo had been a prime mover in Japan's military aggression. He had wanted to wage war on the United States. He had approved the sneak attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. He had approved the barbarous treatment of Allied prisoners of war, including starving them and working them to death as slave labourers.

The seven death sentences were carried out at Sugamo prison in Tokyo on 23 December 1948.

The other eighteen "Class A" war criminals were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment.

Classes B and C

These were the Japanese military who ordered atrocities, allowed them to happen, or actually committed them.

The "Class B" and "Class C" war criminals were tried by the Allies in the areas where the crimes had been committed. From a list of prospective defendants numbering over three hundred thousand, only 5,472 were brought to trial.

The Japanese who conducted the ghastly biological experiments on live prisoners of war at Unit 731 escaped prosecution because General MacArthur wanted their advanced research in biological and chemical warfare made available to the US military. With the full knowledge of the American government, MacArthur offered immunity from prosecution to the military commander and staff of the biological unit in return for their research. Many of the Unit 731 scientist/war criminals were able later to secure research appointments at prestigious Japanese universities.

Of the 5,472 "Class B" and "Class C" suspected war criminals who were brought to trial, 4,019 were convicted of war crimes. Of those convicted, 920 were executed and 3099 were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment.

That so few were brought to trial was largely caused by the difficulties already mentioned, and the limited resources and time allowed to the investigators and prosecutors. There were simply too many Japanese war crimes to investigate; incriminating records had been deliberately destroyed; investigators had to rely on hostile Japanese police and government officials to locate suspects and witnesses; and there were too few investigators and prosecutors. When the United States decided in 1948 to halt the war crimes prosecutions, some of Japan's worst war criminals were able to emerge from hiding and escape justice.

The United States calls a halt to war crime prosecutions

With the Cold War intensifying, the government of President Harry S. Truman felt that Japan needed to be moulded into an American ally and a bulwark against the spread of communism. Truman believed that these aims would be difficult to achieve if the Japanese people were alienated by continuing prosecutions of their war criminals. For this reason, the United States called a halt to further war crimes prosecutions when twenty-five "Class A" war criminals had been sentenced to death or imprisonment at the end of 1948. The decision to halt the prosecutions was entirely based on political expediency. It had nothing to do with issues of legality, morality, or humanity.

Immediately after the death sentences had been carried out on seven "Class A" war criminals in December 1948, General MacArthur released a large number of the remaining "Class A" suspects from detention. When the gates of Sugamo Prison were opened, some of Japan's worst war criminals were released. Many of these suspected war criminals were able to move smoothly into politics, the bureaucracy, and big business. At the same time, MacArthur began to wind down the "Class B" and "Class C" trials.

From the time that the Americans decided to halt the war crimes prosecutions, Australian prosecutions of Japanese war criminals were obstructed by lack of cooperation from the US military.

In 1952, President Truman's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, authored a peace treaty with Japan. This treaty waived the rights to compensation of every prisoner of the Japanese during WW II. Truman granted complete amnesty to every Japanese war criminal who was not then serving a term of imprisonment. Unlike Germany where intensive de-Nazification procedures were employed to prevent former Nazis entering parliament and the bureaucracy, the United States allowed Japanese war criminals to enter parliament and find employment in the government bureaucracy. A striking exmple of this difference of approach between Japan and Germany is the case of convicted war criminal Nobusuke Kishi who was able to rise to the office of Prime Minister of Japan in 1957.

It has been estimated by the US Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations that at least several thousand Japanese escaped prosecution as a result of the premature termination of war crime prosecutions by the United States in 1949.

So it can be fairly argued that, on grounds of political expediency, the American government facilitated the continuing refusal by Japan to acknowledge its war guilt and war crimes by protecting Emperor Hirohito from prosecution as a war criminal and by turning a blind eye to atrocities committed by thousands of Japanese war criminals.