War Responsibility

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There are four main ways in which Japan and other aggressor nations may face responsibility:

  • justice: the prosecution of war criminals;
  • apology: words and attitudes expressed towards victims;
  • compensation: monetary or other payments to individual victims;
  • reparations: monetary or other payments made collectively to a state or victim group.

However, it is a basic truism that to make aggressors face their responsibility there must be a state or international organization wielding sufficient power to make them do so.


Japanese war guilt was established legally at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo Trials). The results of these trials were accepted by the Japanese government as part of the San Francisco Peace Treaty (Article 11). See documents relating to the trial at the Digital Collection managed by the University of Virginia Law Library.

However, the trials have been widely criticized on levels of procedure and law. The key phrase is “victors’ justice”, which is the title of the seminal book by Richard Minear (for a sample of such arguments, see the article “The Trial of Mr. Hyde” and Victors’ Justice by Richard Minear and Takeyama Michio).

Such critiques of the Trials are whole-heartedly supported by Japanese nationalists (see this review of Minear’s book by Tadashi Hama). However, there is an important distinction between criticizing the trials and denying Japanese war responsibility. Nationalists do both, see for example Watanabe Shoichi, The Tokyo Trials and the Truth of “Pal’s Judgement” , or the many critiques on the website of the nationalistic group Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact.

The Tokyo Trials were not the only trials after the war. There were B/C class war crimes trials across the former empire, trials conducted by the Soviets (the Khabarovsk Trials of Unit 731 researchers), and trials conducted by the Chinese of soldiers interned at Fushun.

The key work in English is Yuma Totani’s book Justice in Asia and the Pacific Region, 1945-1952: Allied War Crimes Prosecutions (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Tsuneishi Keiichi, Unit 731 and the Japanese Imperial Army’s Biological Warfare Program.

Kaneko Kotaro, Tokuro Inokuma and Kosuke Takahashi, Fighting for Peace After War: Japanese War Veterans recall the war and their peace activism after repatriation.


It is a common mistake to say “Japan has not apologized”. There have been many Japanese apologies, both official and individual. The problem relates to their perceived sincerity, and whether they are invalidated by other aspects of Japanese responses to war responsibility issues.

For official statements, see the WMT page Official Narratives. The Japanese government’s explanation of various responsibility issues is at the History Issues Q&A page on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

For an insightful discussion into the limitations of apologies in international relations, see:

Jennifer Lind, Memory, Apology, and International Reconciliation.


The key groups suing the Japanese government and/or corporations for compensation are forced labourers and “comfort women”. The Japanese government has turned down such claims on the basis that compensation was settled in postwar settlements (see History Issues Q&A Q4). The two most relevant bilateral treaties are with South Korea and China.

South Korea: Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (1965), particularly the Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Co-operation between Japan and the Republic of Korea (Article I and II).

China: Joint Communique of the Government of Japan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China (1972).

Since the 1990s, the issues of compensation for “comfort women” issue and forced labourers have stirred most debate. Regarding the “comfort women” issue see the Asia-Pacific Journal Feature Fact Sheet on Japanese Military “Comfort Women”. There have been various attempts to “finally resolve” this issue (see Japan’s Efforts on the Issue of the Issue of Comfort Women), including the 1995 establishment of the Asian Women’s Fund and another attempt in December 2015.

In a Japanese domestic context, the issue is deeply divisive. Compare and contrast the responses of the groups supporting the former “comfort women”, such as the Women’s Active Peace Museum and the nationalist Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact. Leading members of both these groups appear in the documentary film Shusenjo (The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue).

Official Trailer for Shusenjo (dir. Miki Dezaki)

On the issue of compensation, there is also the topic of forced labour (on which William Underwood has written many articles), and compensation claims by Japanese, notably victims of air raids and the A-bombs.


The Japanese government paid reparations to countries across Asia as part of postwar treaties. For a summary of these treaties, and also how the Japanese government has treated overseas development assistance (ODA) almost as a form of “reparations”, see the 2005 document 60 Years: The Path of a Nation Striving for Global Peace.

Imperial Responsibility

There is also considerable debate over the role of the emperor.

Probably the most famous contribution to this debate in English is by Herbert Bix: “War Responsibility and Historical Memory: Hirohito’s Apparition”

This article also gives a good overview of the issues.

Mauch: “Emperor Hirohito’s Post-Surrender Reflections”

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