A secretive temple where the ashes of seven of Japan’s most notorious war criminals have been quietly buried is becoming a point of convergence for a new generation of Japanese nationalists.
01 Apr 2010
Photo: AFP/GETTY IMAGES
The seven wartime leaders were executed 61 years ago and some of their remains later surreptitiously transferred to the Koa Kannon temple, overlooking the coastal resort of Atami, 90 miles southwest of Tokyo.
The priestess of the temple says it is a place to contemplate peace, but the photo on the altar is of General Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister who sanctioned the attack on Pearl Harbor, and a painting in an adjoining building shows Japanese soldiers standing guard over a group of Chinese labourers.
In December 1948, the seven men were cremated in Yokohama before most of their ashes were scattered at sea. The Allied occupation authorities hoped to ensure their burial site could never become a rallying point for the extreme right. That effort failed and more people are beginning to ask questions about Japan’s imperial past.
“This is a symbolic place for us Japanese and it is becoming an important place for thinking people in their 20s, 30s and 40s to visit,” said Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, a senior member of the nationalist Issuikai organisation. “All we are taught in school and hear about from the media is that Japan is bad, the Japanese are bad, and more and more people want to know the truth.
“Japan was trying to free other Asian nations and the reasons for the war are misunderstood,” he said. “We are bowing to the Chinese too much now. It’s about time that someone stood up for Japan and told the truth about the past.”
Wilting flowers are in a pot before a 3-metre tall statue of the goddess of mercy, while the stone monument dedicated to the “seven warriors” still bears the marks of left-wing extremists who blew it up in 1971. The five pieces of the original slab have been concreted together again and it is near here that the urn containing the remains of the seven men – including Tojo, prime minister from the outbreak of the war to July 1944, and General Iwane Matsui, who masterminded the 1937 Rape of Nanjing – was buried.
Three days after the men were cremated, the manager of the crematorium and the representative of Kuniaki Koiso, a former prime minister convicted as a war criminal and sentenced to life in prison, secretly collected the remaining ashes and gave them to Ninrei Itami for safekeeping.
A decade later, he buried them at Koa Kannon and erected a stone monument on the spot.
Itami’s daughter, Myojo, is the Buddhist priestess who today oversees the temple and performed a memorial service for the seven war criminals on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II.
She declined to be interviewed by The Telegraph, but told the Asahi newspaper shortly after the anniversary that, “There are no such words as ’war criminals’ here. There is no right or left. This is a venue for giving prayers to ponder peace.”
The wooden shrine has an offerings box and two rising sun flags flank the entrance. Incense is burning on the altar and traditional offerings of fruit have been placed in front of a picture of General Tojo in uniform. Justice Radhabinod Pal, the Indian judge who protested Japan’s innocence at the Tokyo war crimes trials and is revered by the far right here, is awarded a similar honour.
As well as Tojo and Matsui, the political and military leaders remembered at the temple include General Seishiro Itagaki, who stepped up Japan’s military aggression in China in 1931, General Kenji Doihara, who created the puppet state of Manchukuo in China, and General Heitaro Kimura, who fought the British in Burma.
The remaining two executed for their part in the conflict were Lieutenant General Akira Muto, who argued for escalating the war against China and attacking the United States, and Koki Hirota, the former prime minister who signed the Japan-Germany Anti-Commintern Pact in 1936.
Relatives of all seven of the men who were executed have reportedly paid their respects at the temple, a far more private place than Yasukuni Shrine, in central Tokyo, that is regarded as the last resting place of all the men and women who have died in the service of the emperor.
Justice Radhabinod Pal was born in 1886 (...) He became a judge of Calcutta High Court in 1941 and Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta in 1944. The Indian government installed him as a legal adviser in 1927 and dispatched him to the Tokyo Trials in 1946. (...) He delivered one of the three dissenting opinions of the Tribunal. He found all the defendants not guilty of Class A war crimes, even though he condemned the Japanese war-time conduct as "devilish and fiendish". He was highly critical of conspiracy and he was unable to apply such a new crime as waging aggressive wars and committing crimes against peace and humanity—Class A war crimes created by the Allies after the war—ex post facto. His reasoning influenced the dissenting opinions of the judges for the Netherlands and France.
While finding that 'the evidence is still overwhelming that atrocities were perpetrated by the members of the Japanese armed forces against the civilian population of some of the territories occupied by them as also against the prisoners of war', he produced a judgment questioning the legitimacy of the tribunal and its rulings. He held the view that the legitimacy of the tribunal was suspect and questionable as the spirit of retribution, and not impartial justice, was the underlying criterion for passing the judgment.
- "I would hold that every one of the accused must be found not guilty of every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted on all those charges."
He never intended to offer a juridical argument on whether a sentence of not guilty would have been a correct one. However he argued that the United States had clearly provoked the war with Japan and expected Japan to act (Zinn, 411).
He believed that the Tokyo Trial was incapable of passing a just sentence. He considered the trial to be unjust and unreasonable trial, contributing nothing to lasting peace. According to his view, the trial was the judgment of the vanquished by the victors; such proceedings, even if clothed in the garb of law, resulted in nothing but the satisfaction of the desire for vengeance. In his lone dissent, he refers to the trial as a "sham employment of legal process for the satisfaction of a thirst for revenge." While he fully acknowledged Japan’s war atrocities — including the Nanjing massacre — he said they were covered in the Class B and Class C trials. 
Further, he believed that the exclusion of Western colonialism and the use of the atom bomb by the United States from the list of crimes, and judges from the vanquished nations on the bench, signified the "failure of the Tribunal to provide anything other than the opportunity for the victors to retaliate."  In this he was not alone among Indian jurists of the time, one prominent Calcutta barrister writing that the Tribunal was little more than "a sword in a wig". Fear of American nuclear power was widespread among foe and friends following Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Judge Pal's typewritten book-length opposition to the decision was formally prohibited from publication by the Occupation forces and was released in 1952 after the occupation ended and a treaty recognizing the legitimacy of the Tokyo Trials was signed by Japan. Pal's publication had also been prohibited in Great Britain, and it remained unpublished in the United States as well. However, a portion of his "original" judgment and copies of the original text in modern editions are available for sale online.
The American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, after Tokyo signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and accepted the Tokyo trials' verdict. The end of the occupation also lifted a ban on the publication of Judge Pal’s 1,235-page dissent, which Japanese nationalists brandished and began using as the basis of their argument that the Tokyo trials were a sham by selectively choosing passages from his dissent. Even though Pal believed that the Japanese committed atrocities during World War II, his dissenting opinion has been used by Japanese nationalists as evidence that the crimes had never happened. 
Pal's lone dissenting opinion that Japan did not wage an aggressive, therefore illegal, war and its leaders cannot be prosecuted as war criminals was surprising and dismissed as a political ploy by his contemporaries. Pal was also an admirer of the Indian National Army (INA), an Indian army which collaborated with Japan to fight against Great Britain and liberate India from British colonization. Deeply entrenched with this anti-imperialist and anti-West politics, Pal then used legal arguments to excuse the charges against Japan's leaders. Pal also believed that the Tokyo Trials was an exercise in victor's justice and that the Allies were equally culpable in acts such as strategic bombings of civilian targets. In 1966, Pal visited Japan and openly said that he had admired Japan from a young age for being the only Asian nation that "stood up against the West." Regardless of his political opinion, his legal reasoning was a landmark in international law and should more or less balance the charge that his dissent was politically charged. 
In 1966, the Emperor of Japan conferred upon Pal the First Class of the Order of the Sacred Treasure. Pal is revered by Japanese nationalists and a monument dedicated to him stands on the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine, seen as a symbol of Japan's wartime militarism. The monument was erected after Pal's death.
Justice Pal's dissent is frequently mentioned by Indian diplomats and political leaders in the context of Indo-Japanese friendship and solidarity. For example, on 29 April 2005 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to it as follows, in his remarks at a banquet in New Delhi in honor of the visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi:
- "It is a noteworthy fact that though we have gone through various phases in our relationship, in times of difficulty, we have stood by each other. It is important to recall that India refused to attend the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951 and signed a separate Peace Treaty with Japan in 1952". This, Pandit Nehru felt, gave to Japan a proper position of honour and equality among the community of free nations. In that Peace Treaty, India waived all reparation claims against Japan. The dissenting judgement of Justice Radhabinod Pal is well-known to the Japanese people and will always symbolize the affection and regard our people have for your country."
- "The principled judgment of Justice Radhabinod Pal after the War is remembered even today in Japan. Ladies and Gentlemen. These events reflect the depth of our friendship and the fact that we have stood by each other at critical moments in our history."
"Questions of law are not decided in an intellectual quarantine area in which legal doctrine and the local history of the dispute alone are retained and all else is forcibly excluded. We cannot afford to be ignorant of the world in which disputes arise."
"Even contemporary historians could think that 'as for the present war, the Principality of Monaco, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, would have taken up arms against the United States on receipt of such a note (Hull note) as the State Department sent the Japanese Government on the eve of Pearl Harbor.'"
On November 26, 1941, Hull presented the Japanese ambassador with the Hull note, which as one of its conditions demanded the complete withdrawal of all Japanese troops from French Indochina and China. It did not refer to Manchukuo, in which hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were already living. Japanese Prime Minister Tojo Hideki said to his cabinet, "this is an ultimatum."