Dates: 1 – 4 May 2018
Over a week in May scholars and graduate students from China, Japan and the UK gathered at Cambridge University to share their most recent research on the history of war crimes trials and the postwar in East Asia. Topics covered the KMT war crimes trials, the CCP trials, the political ramifications of both sets of trials within Sino-Japanese relations, as well as the role of Taiwan, how postwar violence was resolved, and related subjects. The group planned in detail how to proceed with further archival gathering missions to sites in China, how to advance the war crimes website which continues to expand in production, and other related activities. Drs Chang and Kushner also proceeded in discussions concerning further applications to UK and Chinese funding agencies to support finalization of the website project and to consider the next step in research. Conference papers and discussions were mainly held in Chinese and Japanese.
The keynote presentation was given by Dr. Yan Hai-jian, an associate professor in the Department of History at Nanjing Normal University. His analysis focused on the Japanese war crimes trials held by the Nationalist government led by the Chinese Nationalist Party/Kuomintang (KMT) after the Sino-Japanese War ended in 1945. The presentation began with the origin of the principles of the Japanese war crimes trials, inherited from the St. James Declaration signed on 13 January 1942 in London concerning punishment of German war crimes responsible for criminal acts.
Dr. Yan also mentioned that the uniqueness of the prosecution in the Japanese war crimes in China which included subverting sovereignty, running casinos, selling opium, and indiscriminate bombing, etc. He further compared the Japanese war crimes trials in Asia and the German war crimes trials in Europe and argued that the former, though held in Asia, were still mainly led by the Western powers. Dr. Yan stressed the fact that the Nationalist government’s war crimes trial principles followed the revealed a ‘weak-nation mentality’, where the KMT believed itself unable to fully manifest a proper outcome due to a variety of factors.
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The presentation concluded with Dr. Yan outlining the three main deficiencies of the trials in China. First, the incomplete information about the Japanese military establishment, poor population statistics, and a lack of intelligence about the enemy resulted in a high acquittal rate (350 out of 883 people) due to the ultimate lack of evidence. Second, financial constraints, as seen from the reliance on the US military for extradition and transport, also affected the Nationalist government’s performance on investigations. Finally, Chiang Kai-shek initial list of only twelve war criminals, who were mainly staff officers and China experts, was also controversial. Overall, the controversy of the results of the trials can be attributed to the Nationalist regime’s lack of capability at mustering the nuts and bolts of being a modern sovereign nation-state.
The talk was followed by a Q&A session, where some of the questions concerned the reasons why Chiang Kaishek, regardless of the financial constraints, still engaged in these time and money consuming trials. Others also touched upon the reasons for the difficulties of the trials (compared to rather successful repatriations of Japanese soldiers and civilians under the assistance of the US and UNRRA) and whether the trials were rather ‘symbolic’. Other questions concerned the progress of research on war crimes trials in China. The presentation and lively discussion proceeded and proved to be very informative and useful in expanding scope on relevant fields. The lecture and the Q&A session were both in Chinese.