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The Yamashita trial: What do we know about command accountability?

Published on 04 January 2013
Updated on 23 February 2024

In January/February 1945, acting against General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s express orders (then commanding the Japanese Army forces in the Philippines), 15,000 Japanese, mainly Navy troops, holed up within Manila to fight the American advance to the last. The obliteration of civilians and buildings in the town was comparable to that of Stalingrad or Leningrad. Throughout the Philippines, instances of unspeakable war crimes were documented.

General MacArthur put General Yamashita on trial for these war crimes and had him hanged. The recent book, Yamashita’s Ghost: War Crimes, MacArthur’s Justice, and Command Accountability, masterly details the events, the trial, and the final legal battle before the US Supreme Court. It then discusses the evolving standard of ‘command accountability’ since Yamashita. I’d recommend this book to diplomats dealing with issues of war crimes and human rights.

The Yamashita trial was a sham – a victor’s revenge (or hint of MacArthur’s guilty subconscious for abandoning the Philippines three years earlier) – and two judges of the US Supreme Court, as they reviewed the trial, said so clearly in their dissenting opinions: ‘It deprived the proceeding of any resemblance of trial as we know that institution.’

Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, second from right, faces the military commission in a courtroom in Manilla, Philippines, on Dec. 7, 1945, as he sentenced to death by hanging by Major General Russell Reynolds, seated lower left. (AP Photo)
Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, second from right, faces the military commission in a courtroom in Manilla, Philippines, on Dec. 7, 1945, as he is sentenced to death by hanging by Major General Russell Reynolds, seated lower left. (AP Photo).

It was the first time ‘due process of law’ was upheld by a US Supreme Court judge as a fundamental human right: ‘The immutable rights of the individual, including those secured by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, belong not alone to the members of those nations that excel on the battlefield or that subscribe to the democratic ideology. They belong to every person in the world, victor or vanquished, whatever may be his race, colour, or belief. […] If we are ever to develop an orderly international community based upon a recognition of human dignity, it is of the utmost importance that the necessary punishment of those guilty of atrocities is as free as possible from the ugly stigma of revenge and vindictiveness. Justice must be tempered by compassion rather than by vengeance.’

Beyond this, the trial set a ‘Yamashita standard’ for command responsibility. In the eyes of the US military commission, it did not matter that Yamashita never ordered, never condoned, and never even knew (or could have known) about the atrocities. The factual link – he was the commanding officer – was deemed sufficient to doom him. He was judged for what he was rather than what he did (or failed to do). By this standard, anyone within a chain of command – from the political leadership down to the immediate superior – is as criminally responsible for war crimes as the perpetrator.

This standard was unprecedented in the law of war and in no way supported by text or custom. It was used only in the Yamashita case. Later, international trials for war crimes lowered the standard and demanded positive proof of culpability or at least evidence of gross negligence. As for the USA, in its internal proceedings, the author blithely concludes: ‘The United States devised the Yamashita precedent, but it has never lifted the chalice to its own lips.’

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General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s trial

Behind the events lies the man, and to me, Yamashita is a fascinating personality and worth a closer look. As Allan Ryan has forsaken this in favour of dwelling upon the legal aspects of the case – after all, he is a lawyer – I’ll venture some conjectures, hoping more qualified persons may further explore Yamashita’s psychology. I rely on Yamashita’s Last Message to the Japanese People, which he dictated one hour before his death.

After apologising for the deaths of Japanese soldiers under his command, he explained why he did not commit suicide: ‘In fact, I once decided to do so when I attended the surrender ceremonies at Kiangan and Baguio, at which General Percival, whom I had defeated [in Singapore], was also present. What prevented me from committing such an egocentric act was the presence of my soldiers, who did not yet know that the war was over at that time. By refusing to take my own life, I was able to set my men free from meaningless deaths, as those stationed around Kiangan were ready to commit suicide. I really felt pain from the shame of remaining alive, in violation of the samurai’s code of “dying at the appropriate time in an appropriate place” (see Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazō Nitobe). I, therefore, can imagine how much more difficult it is for people like you to remain alive and rebuild Japan rather than being executed as a war criminal. If I were not a war criminal, I would still have chosen a difficult path, bearing shame to stay alive and atone for my sins until natural death comes, no matter how you all might despise me’ (emphasis mine).

He went on – as a Japanese citizen – to blame the political leadership for initiating and losing the war: ‘But even while being a military man, I also have a relatively strong sense as a Japanese citizen. There is no resurrection any longer for the ruined nation and the dead. From ancient times, war has always been a matter of exceptional prudence by wise rulers and sensible soldiers. It was entirely due to our military authorities’ arbitrary decisions, which were made by just a handful of people, that a large number of our people died and the rest of the nation was dragged into its present unbearable suffering’ (emphasis mine).

He went on to urge Japan to embrace defeat (which they did) and become a peace-loving country: ‘Weeds have a strong life force, and grow again when spring comes, no matter how hard they are trodden underfoot. I am confident that, with a strong determination for development, you will rebuild our nation, which is now completely destroyed, and make it a highly cultured one like Denmark. Denmark lost its fertile land in Schleswig-Holstein as the result of the German-Denmark War in 1863 but gave up rearming themselves and made their infertile areas into one of the most cultured of European nations. As a ruined people, we repent for having done wrong. I will pray for Japan’s restoration from a grave in a foreign country’ (see Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II by John W. Dower).

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Surrender in the Philippines of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, September 1945

His strategy was based on three prongs, i.e., that the Japanese should learn to:

1. Think for themselves rather than yield to authority: ‘Duty has to be fulfilled as a result of self-regulating and naturally motivated action. […] In a free society, you should nurture your own ability to make moral judgments in order to carry out your duties. Duties can only be carried out correctly by a socially mature person with an independent mind and with culture and dignity.’

2. Promote education in science: ‘To use the knowledge as the foundation to rebuild a glorious and peaceful country. However, the science that I mean is not science that leads mankind to destruction. It is science that will develop natural resources still to be tapped, that will make human life rich and will be used for peaceful purposes to free human beings from misery and poverty.’

3. Foster the education of women; in fact, the longest and most emotional part of his message is devoted to the future role of women. I suspect he was aware that with so many men dead, it would be women who’d rebuild the country (for an account of the human dimension of reconstruction in Europe, see Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II by John W. Dower). Here are some of his words: ‘The highest virtues for Japanese women used to be ‘obedience’ and ‘fidelity’. That was no different from ‘obedient allegiance’ in the military. A person who respects such castrated and slave-like virtues has been called a ‘chaste woman’ or praised as a ‘loyal and brave soldier’ (emphasis mine), and he concludes that women should educate their children ‘to be able to live independently, cope with various circumstances, love peace, appreciate cooperation with others and have a strong desire to contribute to humanity when they grow up.’

There remains an issue: at no point did Yamashita express himself on the atrocities. In the aftermath of the verdict, the judges explained the harshness of their sentence with the fact that ‘neither Yamashita nor his staff ever evidenced any horror at all the testimony produced’. Had they taken moral responsibility, ‘the commission stated that they doubted if any one of them would have voted for the death sentence.’

Yamashita did express himself, but characteristically in his private will. There, he sincerely apologised to all the people of the Philippines for the atrocities that his troops had perpetrated.

I suspect here an inner conflict between the various strands of the bushido code to which Yamashita subscribed. Buddhist, Shinto, and Confucian strands mix in bushido, and Buddhism is the personal strand. 

As a person, one could show compassion, but as a general, he was bound to giri (right reason): ‘the sense of duty which public opinion expects an incumbent to fulfil’. As a general, to admit to atrocities would have cast a shadow on the Emperor, whom MacArthur was busy whitewashing (see Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix).

When pleading before the US Supreme Court, the defence brief summed up the implicit predicament of General Yamashita: ‘A besieged and helpless human being caught in the net of overwhelming state power, whom it was the impulse of the Bill of Rights to protect.’

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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