Genocide Studies Program Working Paper No. 18, 2001

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Justice Done?

Criminal and Moral Responsibility Issues

In the Chinese Massacres Trial

Singapore, 1947

Genocide Studies Program

Working Paper No. 18, 2001


Wai Keng Kwok

Branford College

Advisor: Professor Benedict Kiernan

Yale University

April 11, 2001


The Japanese Occupation of Singapore from February 1942 to August 1945 was a particularly momentous period of loss and sacrifice for the Chinese population as compared to other ethnicities, because they were the targets of brutal Japanese military policies. During a month of screening procedures and indiscriminate massacres in 1942 known as sook ching, or cleansing operations, an undetermined number of civilians were separated from their families and friends and suffered uncertain fates. In many cases, the last time relatives saw loved ones was at a screening center before the unlucky victims were driven away in trucks to unknown destinations. After the war, when it became clear that the Japanese Army had committed atrocities in Singapore, a British crown colony at the time, the British legal system conducted an investigation and a trial in order to administer justice in 1947. Although the court considered the case closed, the matter was never fully settled in the eyes of the public and a question remained as to whether justice had been adequately rendered.

The Singapore massacres are not as familiar to Western scholars as the Nanking and Manila Massacres although all three involved civilian populations. The thousands killed in Singapore are by no means insignificant and should rightfully claim their space among the Japanese war atrocities committed during WWII. The investigation into this event also adds to the body of knowledge on Japanese military administration in Southeast Asia. This thesis draws upon archival material at the Singapore National Archives and the Public Records Office (PRO) in Kew, London for eyewitness testimonies of the atrocities and the transcript of the Chinese Massacres trial respectively. Although a few other historians and scholars have referred to both collections, this paper is the first attempt to draw on both simultaneously in order to understand the chain of events leading to the decision for sook ching and subsequently, to determine responsibility for the affair.

The investigation into the affair revealed a massacre of mostly Chinese civilians numbering in the thousands. Through a supposedly systematic screening process whose official goal was to weed out anti-Japanese elements, the Japanese army killed at least five thousand people between February and March 1942. In reality, the selection process was unselective and random which led to deaths of innocent Chinese civilians. Procedures differed at each center. At certain locations, the men waited for several days before the screenings started. Screenings could consist of interviews by a Japanese officer and a local interpreter or they could include as little as walking in single file past the officers. Many families reported male members taken away by trucks to undisclosed locations. Contemporary eyewitness accounts later confirmed the rumors that soldiers had massacred groups of men but little physical evidence was discovered until the 1960s.

The killing of civilians in wartime equaled a war crime. After the Japanese surrender, the British established procedures for war crimes trials both in the European as well as in the Pacific theatre. The British arrested seven Japanese officers and charged them with: “Committing a war crime in that at Singapore Island between the 18th February and 3rd March 1942, the accused … being all responsible for the lives and safety of civilian inhabitants were, in violation of the laws and usages of war, together concerned in the massacre of Chinese residents of Singapore Island…,” thereby following the precedent set at Nuremberg and Tokyo.1

Although the trial put seven Japanese military personnel to the task of defending their actions during the massacres, the court identified and dismissed two other guilty parties. They were the Emperor Hirohito and General Yamashita of the Twenty-Fifth Army, from whom the orders for the screenings originated. This paper explores both the emperor’s and the general’s guilt in order to create a more complex picture of accountability for the massacres.

Hirohito’s general war guilt in WWII was and remains a topic of interest for both scholars and public opinion internationally. However, this thesis will focus on the arguments for his innocence as presented in the Chinese Massacres trial. In brief, neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to indict him for reasons because to do so would involve issues such as legal and historical precedent and divine sanctity.

General Yamashita was a different story. He had already been executed for crimes committed in the Philippines. The defense was therefore eager to place all responsibility on him by using the plea of superior orders, in essence arguing that the court should sentence only the superior who had issued the original orders. Subordinate officers, the defense argued, had no choice but to follow orders and therefore should not be held responsible. The prosecution countered with tenets of international law relating to command responsibility, stating that all officers were responsible for their actions and for those of their subordinates.

In this way, the prosecution placed the blame squarely on the defendants. It argued that the orders the defendants implemented ran counter to both international and Japanese law. In addition, the screenings were premeditated and thus nullified the defense’s plea of immediate military necessity that claimed that the screenings were used to maintain domestic security during the Occupation by eradicating only anti-Japanese influence. Another essential point was that the officers allowed the soldiers in their command to commit these atrocities with full knowledge that the screenings were beyond the specific scope of the original orders.

The prosecution’s argument was a compelling one and the court sentenced two officers to death and the remaining five to life imprisonment. Nonetheless, public opinion split on this affair. Portions of the surviving Chinese population remained unsatisfied and called for further retribution by demanding further investigations and trials of more officers. A more moderate stance, on the other hand, called for leniency by attributing responsibility to the entire Japanese military ideology, thus removing accountability from individuals.

This paper presents the arguments for and against the culpability of each of the three parties, namely Emperor Hirohito, General Yamashita and the seven defendants on trial in 1947 for the Chinese massacres. It is not meant as a definitive judgment on who ultimately was responsible, for the very nature of the crime creates an immense number of potential culprits. Rather, it is an attempt to go beyond the purely descriptive function of the archival material to analyze the legal arguments within the trial that survivor accounts corroborate. The thesis will argue that the trial, though successfully prosecuting and convicting the defendants, was unsuccessful in convincing the public that justice had been done, which leads to a larger question; can legal proceedings for cases of mass atrocity ever create that sense of justice and closure.

An interesting aspect of the trial is that it did not provide a solid sense of punishment and therefore justice to the Chinese population in Singapore. Scholars have argued that war crimes trials begin a long process of peace and reconciliation with the past. If nothing is done to condemn war crimes, not only will a culture of impunity arise that may encourage future crimes, but cycles of deep resentment in the victimized population may lead to further conflict.2 Trials reject the notion of collective guilt by publicizing individual guilty defendants and attempt to convey a notion of justice served.3 The Chinese Massacres trial, however, while demonstrating guilt of individual officers, did not satisfy the Chinese population who continued to demand retribution well into the 1960s and in decreasing recurrence until the 1990s. However, the demands shifted from those of criminal indictment to ones of monetary compensation and official apology—from individual to collective responsibility. In effect, justice may have been served within the courtroom, but it was seen not to have been done, thus rendering the case still open in the minds of the public.

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