Published on : 12 May 20205 min reading time

For nearly two years, I have been regularly feeding this blog with the most mediatic events of the memory. Yet I have never before saved any article on my desktop for comment. It is therefore necessary to believe that memory also knows inflections that should be understood over the long, medium, and short term.

In any case, this burning lack of topicality has allowed me to plunge back into older, but just as fascinating, files. This is notably the case of an issue of the excellent journal Droit et Cultures devoted to the Memories and Responsibilities of War. The Tokyo and Hague trials.

In this article, I was particularly interested in issues concerning Japan and its relationship to the Second World War, in which the country played a special role.

The Tokyo Trial

The Tokyo trial is a key moment in the contemporary history of Japan, although this episode is largely ignored by Western historians and citizens. According to the official name, it is more precisely the International Military Tribunal for the Far East set up following the conflict to try those responsible for the war. In short, the Tokyo trial is Japan’s equivalent of the Nuremberg Tribunal for Germany.

A first contradiction then appears: since these tribunals are supposed to be international and are the direct consequence of a war that has been characterized as “global”, how is it that two tribunals are organized in parallel? In fact, it would seem that the Allies (and especially the United States) very early on wanted to distinguish between the issues at stake on the two fronts in which they were involved, ignoring the potential links between Nazi Germany and Japan.

The Indian judge Radhabinhod Pal, who participated in the Tokyo trial, provides some explanations for this desire for differentiation: according to him, this tribunal was only “a simple instrument in the service of power” [notably American].

Judge Radhabinhod Pal

Judge Pal is a key man in the Tokyo trial. He has emerged as one of the leading dissenting voices in the trial of those responsible for the war. Although he does not dispute Japan’s responsibility as an aggressor, he rejects the charges of crimes against peace and crimes against humanity on the grounds that they are unfounded in terms of international law:

“If such a lawsuit is filed, the establishment of a tribunal to try the present case may well be seen as a way of disguising fundamentally political aims as justice; indeed, it would be very natural to interpret things in this way. The result would be a “ritualized revenge”, which would not only bring only fleeting satisfaction, but would inevitably lead to remorse in the end. However, the only conceivable way to contribute effectively to the restoration of order and order in international relations is to defend the law through a genuine legal process.

Judge Pal’s nationality and the geopolitical context of the trial is not without consequences for his position. At a time when India is going through its final jolts towards independence, his struggle illustrates quite clearly a desire to emancipate itself from Western domination and therefore to reject a trial exclusively against the East.

Justice Pal does not, however, reject all the Western proposals en bloc. If he objects to a form of “Legal Diktat” from the West, he is prepared to accept the birth of a truly international organization:

“We in no way question the need for the whole world to create an international organization… or more precisely, … a world community under the control of the law, without the slightest distinction of nationality or race”.

Following the Tokyo trial, he will accept a post on the International Law Commission at the United Nations. Nevertheless, I believe that his statement reveals the ambiguity of the character who, in a call to support a new form of world community, nevertheless manages to reuse the term “race”. Admittedly, the word was not as connoted then as it is today, especially in the context of an Indian caste society. Nevertheless, he probably uses it knowingly and maintains an ambiguous position, to say the least.

This ambiguity reappears a few years later when, back in Japan, Radhabinhod Pal recollects himself in front of the mausoleum in the Peace Park in Hiroshima. He was shocked by the memorial stele commemorating the atomic bombing, which bears the words: “Sleep in peace, for the mistake will not be repeated. He explains:

“It’s obvious that this sentence (the mistake will not be repeated) is aimed at the Japanese [rather than the Americans], but what mistake is it? I wonder. It is also obvious that the souls of the victims of the atomic bombing are worshipped here, that it was not the Japanese who dropped the bomb, and that the hands of those who dropped it are far from being purified today. … If the decision not to repeat the mistake means giving up arms, what a magnificent resolution! But if Japan intends to proceed with rearmament, it is committing a sacrilege against the souls of the victims”.

Thus, shortly after the conflict, in my view, this man poses the problem of memory in a sometimes somewhat provocative but eminently interesting way. Despite the proximity of the event, Radhabinhod Pal dares to question the manichaeism of the “culprit/victim” duo still hotly debated today between the United States and Japan and with its gigantic consequences on the current governance of the world.