The Indian Jurist Who Tried to Save Japan’s WWII Officials

Why you should care

Seven decades later, Pal’s legacy remains divided: Was he an apologist for Japanese war criminals, or an anti-colonial crusader? 

After a 932-day trial, Australian judge William Webb read out the verdict of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, set up by Allied forces to probe top Japanese leaders and officials for atrocities committed during World War II. All guilty. But as he spoke that day, on November 12, 1948, Webb also referred to a dissenting judgment that 70 years later continues to shadow the majority verdict. Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal, one of 11 judges on the tribunal, hadn’t just disagreed with the majority of his colleagues — but had attacked the judgment as retribution.

Radhabinod pal

Radhabinod Pal

Like the others, Pal concluded that Japan had committed brutal crimes in countries it had occupied, and against prisoners of war. But the thrust of his dissenting order was a blistering criticism of European colonialism and imperialism just a year after India, his homeland, had gained independence from its British overlords. On the Japanese officials facing trial — including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who had personally ordered the Pearl Harbor attack — Pal’s judgment was equally unambiguous. “I would hold that each and every one of the accused must be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges in the indictment,” he wrote.

Such friendly fire wasn’t what the Allies had anticipated when they had set up the tribunal in the spring of 1946, to conduct what came to be known as the Tokyo Trials, along the lines of the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi officials. General Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander of post-war Japan, banned the publication of Pal’s judgment there. Some scholars have called Pal’s arguments disingenuous and dishonest. Others find his views contradictory, while still others laud his independent thinking.

There are all kinds of contradictions [in Pal’s arguments].

Latha Varadarajan, San Diego State University

But there’s little dispute over what happened when Pal’s 1235-page long order was finally published in Japan in 1952, the year the U.S. officially ended its occupation there. Pal’s arguments struck an instant chord in Japan, say researchers and diplomats. He quickly became an “icon of Japanese ultra-nationalism,” says Latha Varadarajan, a political scientist at San Diego State University who is writing a book on war crimes tribunals. Equally, he became an important figure in modern Japan-India relations.

“[Pal’s judgement] had a deep resonance at that time, when a crushed Japan was emerging from a war and became, in the overall expanse of our bilateral relationship, an important marker,” says former diplomat Hemant Krishan Singh, who was India’s longest-serving ambassador to Japan, from 2006 to 2010.

 

Born in 1886 in what is today Bangladesh, Pal studied math and law, and rose through the ranks in academia before becoming a judge at the Calcutta High Court in 1941. But his brush with fame — and controversy — would come five years later. Two other judges administering the Tokyo Trials, Bert Röling of the Netherlands and Henri Bernard of France, also issued dissenting judgments, but their arguments were strictly technical. What made Pal’s order stand out was his cocktail of legal, moral and political arguments.

Legally, he argued, Tojo and the 27 others on trial — two of whom would die before the final verdict — could not be convicted, because the crimes they had committed predated the international law surrounding war crimes that the tribunal wanted to use against them. Pal presented Japan as a bulwark against the spread of communism. But he is best remembered for arguing that Japan’s imperial expansionism was part of a chain of events that European colonialism couldn’t distance itself from.

“He was very clear in his arguments against imperialism,” says Ashis Nandy, one of India’s foremost sociologists who has researched Pal extensively for decades.

But Nandy concedes that Pal’s order became a tool that Japanese nationalists have used to underplay their country’s war crimes — something he believes Pal wouldn’t have wanted. In 1956, Pal was awarded the First Class Order of the Sacred Treasure by Japan’s Emperor. Monuments to him stand at the controversial Yakusuni Shrine in Tokyo, where more than 1,000 war criminals are also memorialized, and at the Kyoto Ryozen Gokoku Shrine in Kyoto.

And his indictment of colonialism and simultaneous refusal to condemn Japanese imperialism are hard to square. “There are all kinds of contradictions,” says Varadarajan. Pal was the only one of the 11 judges who “understood what living under imperialism and colonial aggression could look like,” she says. “But he then failed to apply those standards to what Japan did.”

In many ways, Pal’s arguments reflected a strain of thought that had existed within India for years. For many Indian thinkers living under colonialism, Japan’s rise as a modern power in the early 20th century — especially after it defeated Tsarist Russia in their 1905 war — was proof that Asian nations could challenge Europe. Pal belonged to Bengal, a part of India that was home to the Indian National Army (INA), a rebel group that sought help from the Japanese to defeat British colonialists. And Tojo’s military expansion during the war stopped in Myanmar: Since he never reached India, the nation never suffered under Japanese occupation the way East and Southeast Asia did. Still, suggests Singh, what Pal did in 1948 was remarkable. “He was an exemplar of independence in standing up against the majority view in the Tokyo Trials.”

At the time, the newly independent Indian government of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru distanced itself from Pal’s judgment, pointing out that he was an appointee of the British Indian government. The jurist, who died in 1967, is probably better known in Japan than in India, says Varadarajan, though the rise of right-wing nationalism in both countries has meant Pal is now mentioned by their leaders when they meet, as a symbol of their historically warm relations.

Globally though, Pal remains largely forgotten, in part because his dissenting order spoils the celebratory mainstream narrative on most post-war tribunals, says Vardarajan. “Between those who have ignored Pal and those who have misused him,” she says, “I think he has been shafted both ways.”

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