japan defends its invasion of nanjing -- 10/30/23

Today's selection -- from Judgement at Tokyo by Gary J. Bass. In the post-World War two trial of the Japanese, Japan presented its defense of its invasion of China, aided in the interest of fairness by a court-appointed Marine Corps lawyer:

“Marine Corps lawyer, Lieutenant Aristides Lazarus. The U.S. lieutenant to say that a glance at the map showed why Japanese leaders were afraid of the Soviet Union—referring to the invasion of Finland, the dismemberment of Poland, and the annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. To explain Japanese fears about the Chinese Communists, he wanted to include an anti-Communist statement by Truman. Webb exploded, ‘do not take advantage of the great tolerance displayed by Allied Court to indulge in what might be termed enemy propaganda.’

“The defense counsel retorted that it was hard to see the words of Harry Truman as Japanese propaganda. Webb shot back that the defense lawyer had been permitted ‘to attack the great United States of America when it was relevant, as well as Britain and the Soviet Union, but "you appear to take a sheer delight in insulting Allied countries.’ He barred the American lawyer from uttering the unremarkable sentence about t map, even though everyone in the courtroom had a pretty good mental image of what the Soviet Union had done to its neighbors. Webb suffered

a patriotic explosion: ‘Through it all I remain a British judge, an Australian judge, and I will never be anything else. And I will not stand for gratuitous insults to my country or any other country represented in this Court. I have no higher loyalty than that to my own country. If American counsel think they have a higher loyalty than their loyalty to their own country, they are at liberty to indulge it.’ 

“This was jarring. Did the chief judge have no higher loyalty to justice or the law? If he as chief judge was primarily an Australian patriot, what kind of objectivity could the accused expect from him—or from the Chinese, Philippine, U.S., or Soviet judges?

“It fell to the American defense lawyer to vindicate the integrity of the court. He chided Webb that defending his client did not mean attacking his own country, while denying any grudge against the Soviets: ‘I never forget that we fought on the same side and that it may be due to the fact that some Russian officers and soldiers fought as hard as they did that today, am alive to appear in this courtroom.’ The Marine gave a basic explanation of a fair trial that should have gone without saying: ‘You must remember, please, sir, that much of this might be distasteful to us personally; but, as attorneys appointed by the United States at the request of this Tribunal to help defend these people, we have a high duty: We must present all the evidence available. Please understand that, sir.’

“With that awkward beginning, Lazarus launched into his case. In this opening statement and the subsequent parade of Japanese military officers and government officials called as witnesses, the defense contended that Chinese had no one to blame but themselves for driving the Japanese invading their country. Lazarus flatly said, ‘Japan did not attack China.’

Iwane Matsui enters Nanjing.

“Japan, the defense held, had been defending itself against an existential threat from international Communism. ‘Japan had reason to fear, and in fact did fear, that the spread of Communism in China, and then in Japan itself meant Japan's destruction,’ said Lazarus. ‘The Chinese Communist Party was the armed vanguard of the world Communist movement.’The Chinese Communists, covertly aided by the ruling Nationalists, had whipped up anti-Japanese hatred until it exploded into unlawful violence .

“As the defense framed it, Japan had had every legal right to station ops in north China. In the clash at the Marco Polo Bridge on the fateful day of July 7, 1937, unoffending Japanese soldiers had been exercising their right to go on maneuvers when they were fired upon by Chinese forces. After insufferable Chinese provocations, the Japanese garrison had felt it had no alternative but to fight. While Japan had tried to keep the incident localized, the defense claimed, the Nationalist government had poured troops northward, forcing Japan to send three divisions to China: ‘China had expanded a series of local incidents into an armed conflict tantamount to war on a large scale." To explain the creation of puppet regimes, the defense said that since China was so impoverished and chaotic, Japan had supported authentic, autonomous governments to bring stability to the occupied areas. As for opium, the defense faulted the Chinese government for never managing to solve its national drug problem.

“As the defense reached the Nanjing massacre, its claims turned more extreme, trying to deny what had happened. For all the flaws of the Chinese prosecution evidence, the defense's was noticeably weaker. The defense could only point to the orders given by Japanese commanders before their troops entered a Chinese city and to a relatively small number of courts-martial for offenses against civilians. But since these efforts clearly had not prevented a slew of atrocities, defense lawyers turned to outright denial.

“Arguing the bad brief he had been handed, Lazarus told the court of ‘the exaggeration of stories of atrocities in some places, the non-existence of atrocities in others, and atrocities by Chinese which were charged to the Japanese.’ As a fallback position—what lawyers call arguing in the alternative—he argued that if there had been killings, they were justifiable. The dead Chinese, he declared in an assertion that was dubious as both fact and law, had been ‘bandits, irregulars, guerrillas, and others who cannot claim the status of soldiers and whom international law  pronounces outlaws and beyond the protection accorded combatants." 

“All in all, the defense case tracked the official Japanese line during the war: there had been a provocative attack by Chinese soldiers; Japan had tried to localize it; then Japanese troops had had to act in self-defense throughout, Japanese troops had been respectful to the Chinese populace.  Lazarus summed it up, ‘the accused did not enter into any conspiracy, did not plan and initiate a war of aggression against China, did not use opium to debauch its people and to raise funds for war, nor did they foist upon China a puppet government."

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Gary J. Bass


Judgment at Tokyo: World War II on Trial and the Making of Modern Asia




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