Tokyo Trial (Netflix)


Tokyo Trial is a new Netflix miniseries created in collaboration with NHK. It follows the story of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) trying the war crimes of the Japanese military post WWII. The series focuses on the Tribunal membership, the political interests revolving around the tribunal and, legal arguments that have been advanced and considered. This show is tailor made for legal historians!

The creators of the show carefully weaved the legal arguments and political influences as well as the internal battles within the tribunal. The show includes actual footage of the trial and what Japan was like at the time. The seamless movement between reality and fiction makes this show a fantastic watch as viewers get a glimpse into Japanese society at the time.

This relatively short series (only 4 episodes) was deeply thought provoking and it took me a while to gather what I wanted to say in this short review. It reminded me of what Foucault talks about in his work on Knowledge and Power. Foucault’s theory was that knowledge creates power and vice versa. Power creates knowledge in that it legitimises certain knowledge that is favourable to those in power. This dynamic plays a key role in Tokyo Trial: between the victor and the defeated; the east vs the west; the imperialists vs the colonies; the process vs the outcome; and the majority vs the dissenting.

The trial starts off with the ceremonial pomp and those in charge are determined to apply the full force of the law that had been developed after the Nuremberg trials. But how that can be legally applied as well as other intricacies of the legal arguments are quickly brushed aside. Rather, the Judges are dazzled by the international attention and become engrossed with their individual reputations and the political interests of their home nation. What follows is a sad disintegration of rule of law and a charade of “they cannot be not guilty”.

The show also subtly and beautifully portrays a broader issue facing humanity: what is modernisation and who benefits from it? A comment by the French Judge stuck in my mind: he thought that harm is justifiable if it improves people’s lives. So colonisation by western powers and the harm that occurred is justified in his mind as it was done to “improve” the lives of the people being colonised. The story gets more complicated when one of the witnesses allude to the fact that Emperor Hirohito’s plan to invade surrounding Asian nations was following the footsteps of the European countries that were able to develop and grow economically by colonising other countries: the very actions that the tribunal has set out to punish.

When you live in a world where the strong and the powerful are always right, how do you discern whether what you’re doing is in fact right? History may tell whether you were in fact right but whose perspective is that history based on? Or can you only try and hope for the best? What if your belief is based on flawed ideas? Moreover, the protagonists in the show could not conclude whether it makes sense to talk of “international” law, if the countries it applies to do not willingly enter its jurisdiction; this is the murky intersection between law and morality that no human being is able to explain, as it reaches outside the human sphere into a metaphysical one. The show leaves one with many questions to ponder around the never ending human struggle with evil and what it means to bring justice to those harmed. 

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