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Why China and Japan Are Still Fighting Over World War II

When Chinese officials and elites berate Japan, as they frequently do these days, they often pointedly mention the atrocities that Imperial Japan committed after invading their country in the 1930s. In March, Qin Gang, then China’s foreign minister, warned the Japanese that forgetting their history meant denying crimes that they then might repeat. China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, uses the memory of World War II to justify the present-day bluster of a rising global power. “Chinese people who have made such a great sacrifice,” Xi said in 2014, “will not waver in protecting a history written in sacrifice and blood.” When nationalistic Japanese politicians such as Shinzo Abe and Junichiro Koizumi have paid their respects at a Tokyo shrine whose honorees include convicted war criminals, Chinese patriots have exploded with state-sanctioned rage.

One reason that East Asia’s two greatest economic powers are still sparring about a bygone war is that the most important international attempt to confront that past—the Tokyo war-crimes trial after World War II—failed to promote a common understanding of who was guilty of what. The trial of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg has taken on an almost sacred status in democratic Germany and its neighbors. By contrast, the Tokyo proceedings left behind ambiguities and grievances more than sufficient to fuel not only geopolitical struggles in Asia but also political intrigue within China itself.

This article is adapted from Bass’s new book.

From 1946 to 1948, the victorious Allies prosecuted General Hideki Tojo and 27 other top Japanese leaders for aggression and war crimes. Although General Douglas MacArthur, the American potentate who ran the occupation of Japan, originally proposed to try Japanese leaders before a U.S. military commission only for attacking Pearl Harbor, the Tokyo tribunal was strikingly international. Its prosecutors and judges were drawn from 11 different Allied countries, among them important Asia-Pacific powers including China, India, the Philippines, and Australia, as well as Japanese and American defense lawyers. Spectators heard harrowing testimony from Chinese and American eyewitnesses to massacre and rape at Nanjing, Filipinos who saw slaughter in Manila and elsewhere, American survivors of the Bataan Death March, and Australians forced to build the notorious Burma-Thailand death railway.

The Chinese judge, Mei Ruao, insisted that his colleagues put Asian suffering at the center of their deliberations and, amid fierce battles among the judges about whether aggressive war was a crime under international law, fervently supported the tribunal’s jurisdiction over Japan’s wartime leaders. The tribunal ultimately voted to send Tojo and six other top officials to the gallows, an outcome that Mei subsequently described as a “source of satisfaction and comfort to those [who] suffered from Japanese aggression, particularly the Chinese who suffered the most.”

But, fatefully, the Tokyo judgment was far from unanimous. To Mei’s horror, the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed American defense lawyers to challenge the verdicts in fiery oral arguments before the justices in Washington. The Philippine judge and the Australian chief judge had concurred with the convictions but filed separate opinions; the Dutch and French judges had written dissents; and the Indian judge had voted to acquit all defendants, including Tojo himself. Although his massive dissent, which portrayed the trial as victors’ justice by colonial powers, is utterly forgotten in the United States, it resonates today in Japan and also in Asian nations with bitter memories of British, French, Dutch, and American imperialism.

Ever since, memories of the trial have pulled China—the only non-Western and anticolonial country in the first rank of Allied powers—in opposite directions. Xi himself extolled the Tokyo convictions in a major speech in 2014, as well as China’s own military tribunals for lower-level Japanese war criminals: “The righteous nature of the trials is unshakeable and unassailable!” But the Chinese Communist Party that Xi leads didn’t always feel that way, as Mei’s own experiences after the trial demonstrated.

Born in 1904 in a suburban village near Nanchang, the eldest son of a farmer, Mei at age 12 won a coveted place at Tsinghua College in Beijing—now China’s premier engineering university. Next he went to Stanford University, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and followed that with a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1928.

He had good reasons to be wary of the United States. Like predatory European empires, the United States had held extraterritorial rights in China. Chinese people had been explicitly barred by nationality from the United States in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which remained in effect well into World War II. Yet Mei’s American sojourn left him with an abiding fondness for the country, its constitutional system, and its people, whom he saw as friendly, fair, well educated, democratic, scientific, and efficient, although sometimes childishly naive. (Chinese remembrances of him today blot out the politically awkward fact of his American affections.)

Mei believed in accountable, progressive government under law. Yet when he returned to China in 1929, it was in turmoil. The last emperor had been overthrown more than a decade earlier, and the Republic of China had been declared, but the government headquartered in Nanjing struggled to unify the country. Imperial Japan marched troops into Manchuria in September 1931, and then in 1937 launched a massive invasion of the rest of China. At least 14 million Chinese would die in the war; some scholars put the toll at 20 million to 30 million. Perhaps 80 million were displaced from their homes.

In 1934, despite some private misgivings, Mei joined Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s ruling National People’s Party. Mei served at the Ministry of Judicial Administration, was appointed legal adviser to the Interior Ministry, and became a legislator in Nanjing. Soon before Japanese troops stormed the city in December 1937 and began the notorious massacres and rapes there, he fled inland with the remainder of the Nationalist government to the wartime provisional capital at Chongqing, in the humid mountains of Sichuan province. Swollen with desperate hordes of displaced people, Chongqing suffered some of the worst Japanese aerial bombardment of the war. Some 12,000 Chinese were killed, almost all of them civilians.

Chiang’s Nationalists weren’t just fighting Japan; their bitter contest against the Chinese Communists was spiraling toward civil war. The Communists, led by Mao Zedong and others, demanded revenge for Japanese atrocities, but were not about to bother with anything so bourgeois or slow-moving as war-crimes trials. Referring to a feudal warrior who had chivalrously refused to attack a vulnerable enemy force, Mao once declared, “We are not Duke Xiang of Song and have no use for his idiotic virtue and morality.”

After Japan finally surrendered in 1945, the Allies resolved on an international military tribunal for the top Japanese leadership. Despite Mei’s lack of practical judicial experience, Chiang’s government, wanting someone familiar to American lawyers, chose Mei as its judge.

Judges in the Tokyo war-crimes trial
Judges in the Tokyo war-crimes trial. Mei Ruao, the Chinese judge, is second from right in the front row. (Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho / Getty)

As the trial opened, Mei glared at the defendants with patriotic rage. Although he was privately worried that the debilitated Chinese authorities had not managed to gather enough evidence of Japanese atrocities in places other than Nanjing, he pressed his fellow judges for a stern verdict. He insisted that aggressive war was already a war crime, not a new offense willed into existence by the Allied powers. He bristled at the fact that Emperor Hirohito kept his throne even as his underlings and his closest aide went to trial. “From a purely legal perspective,” Mei wrote in his diary, “I can’t see how the emperor could take no responsibility for Japan’s war of aggression.”

After the trial ended in November 1948, the obviously crumbling Nationalist government offered Mei a lofty position as justice minister. Yet rather than following his Nationalist patrons into exile on Taiwan, he joined the Communists as they neared their victory on the mainland in 1949. “He has hope in the Chinese Communist Party’s governance,” his son told me years later. Praised by Zhou Enlai himself, the premier and foreign minister of the revolutionary new People’s Republic of China, Mei was appointed as a Foreign Ministry adviser and later became a member of the People’s Congress. Abandoning his elegant English and fondness for the United States, he now adopted the stock jargon of Maoist propaganda, reviling “the American imperialists’ single-handed domination over Japan and their ambition to rule the world.”

He still could not fit in with Mao’s new order. In 1957, Mei was branded as a “rightist” after politely suggesting that the Communist Party should give the People’s Congress more power and defer less to the Soviet Union. And as Communist China sought to normalize relations with Japan, Mei’s well-known resentment of Japanese war crimes became a distinct political liability. The Communist Party insisted that only a small clique of Japanese imperialists had caused the war, casting the Japanese masses as innocent victims. “You have apologized,” Mao told visiting Japanese legislators in 1955, in an astonishingly conciliatory statement that no Chinese cadre could say today. “You cannot apologize every day, can you? It is not good for a nation to sulk.”

In 1962, Mei dared to challenge that party line. He boldly wrote an article for a government journal that excoriated Japanese leaders and troops for the Nanjing massacre. For that, he was accused of stirring up national hatred and revenge against the Japanese. A few years later, during the Cultural Revolution—Mao’s bloody mass political campaign, beginning in 1966, to break the power of bureaucracy, intellectuals, and professionals—Red Guards came to his home to search for anti-revolutionary materials. Because his article about the Nanjing massacre had warned against forgetting past suffering, he was denounced for “slandering the party as being forgetful.” He was forced to perform self-criticism, endlessly denouncing his own reactionary and bourgeois tendencies and promising to remake himself as a better Communist. He was put to forced labor, meant both to make him understand the working classes and to humiliate him: a Stanford-educated lawyer cleaning offices and scrubbing toilets.

Mei despaired. He was rocked by terrible news of old colleagues being killed and old friends committing suicide. He smoked too much—it was the one thing he liked that he could still do. His health deteriorated; he suffered from hypertension and heart disease. He was too sick to write. On April 23, 1973, he died at 69.

After Mao died and the Cultural Revolution came to an end, Mei was written out of Chinese history. Yet his reputation was revived more than a decade later under Deng Xiaoping, when Chinese elites went through a searing introspection about the Cultural Revolution. In 1985, Mei was reintroduced to the Chinese public in a long magazine profile.

Since then, his legend has grown. His devoted children have looked after his legacy, getting his works published posthumously. Newspapers run admiring stories about his achievements at the Tokyo trial. Disdainful of the trial at the time, the Communist Party now celebrates it as an act of historic justice, thereby rebuking Japan’s conservative governments. In 2006, to mark the 75th anniversary of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, a big-budget Chinese film called The Tokyo Trial was released in major theater chains, telling the story from his viewpoint. The bookish Mei was played by a dashing Hong Kong action-movie star, Damian Lau, who usually plays assassins or cops. “Mei Ruao is a person with a strong sense of ethics and national pride,” Lau said in a story for Chinese state radio. “I really respect him.”

Today the Chinese government is preoccupied with history. Since taking power, Xi has established two official days of commemoration for the war. As the Chinese Communist Party embraces a xenophobic nationalism, Mei’s star has risen as an anti-Japanese champion. His anti-Japanese sentiments, so ruinous for him during the Cultural Revolution, have now become the basis for his posthumous renown. As tensions rise between China and Japan, and as wars rage in Ukraine and in Israel and Gaza, upholding the laws of war promoted at Nuremberg and Tokyo has a fresh urgency.

Yet for an authoritarian government, the memory of historical wrongs can also provide a welcome distraction. Xi and his underlings would rather call public attention to Imperial Japanese cruelty than to the social and economic failings of their own governance. At a lavish museum and memorial to the massacre in Nanjing, Mei is extolled for the very words that got him in such trouble when he wrote them in 1962, about the need not “to forget the suffering of the past.”

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