Men to Devils, Devils to Men by Barak Kushner

Men to Devils Cover

Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese war crimes and Chinese justice
by Barak Kushner
Harvard University Press, 2015

403 pages including index and notes
ISBN 978-0-674-742891-2

Review by Richard Coxford

The latest tour de force by senior Cambridge lecturer Dr Barak Kushner covers the ambiguous post-war period in East Asia where congealing Cold War divisions and power vacuums created by the absence of peace in China criss-crossed and tempered Sino-Japanese relations and the fate of Japanese war criminals. Dr Kushner is possibly the only academic brave enough to have written a book on ramen, his last work being the exciting social and food history Slurp (2012). This book is braver in a different sense, and by his own admission the preliminary context for still further planned publications coming out of the very strong ‘War Crimes and Empire’ research group he leads and a five year European Research council grant (2013-2018) to investigate the full effect of the Japanese empire’s fall in East Asia. Reviewing the treatment of ‘B’ and ‘C’ class war criminals, i.e. normal crimes in wartime, and crimes against humanity (or ‘humaneness’ as he puts it), this fills an historical gap many did not know existed by analysing the trials of Japanese Imperial ‘war criminals’ by the Guomindang (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party (CPC). China is a crucial and fascinating case study compared to the experiences of Allied or Colonial powers precisely because there the war continued; the USSR barrelling down into Manchuria and the Chinese civil war still in full swing, with one million Imperial Japanese troops lingering on. As a result both Chinese parties sought to try Japanese criminals, and to do so in a way that legitimised their international moral standing. Thus within the fresh post-war peace-making movement towards ‘durable peace’, seeking public opinion and remembering the past, Dr Kushner seeks to argue that East Asia had its own distinct variety. Taking as his starting point some real gems unearthed in recently declassified archives in China, Japan and Taiwan, he effortlessly blends the highest academic insight with literature, film, and anecdotal evidence that can sometimes bring a chill to the spine. By taking a “peripheral” rather than “metropolitan” angle to his post-imperialism, which is to say observing the empire at its fringes rather than its centre the home isles of Japan, he aims to emphasize that the Japanese empire did not vanish overnight.

In the case of the KMT, Dr Kushner outlines how Chiang Kai-Shek’s announcement, on the day Japan surrendered, “to repay malevolence with benevolence” saw good treatment and fair trials of the Japanese military, and the evacuation of those prisoners to Taiwan as the Communists began winning the civil war. Ultimately after the war, there was enough recruitment of ex-China Expeditionary force officers to train and assist the KMT that one questions whether it was truly “secret” or whether it was sanctioned by the Americans. For the Communists, proper Confucian tolerance was ordered, but Japanese PoWs provided as a gift by Stalin – in theory unsolicited – were used as part of an extensive programme of propaganda. The most famous of those PoWs, from whom the book’s title derives, were re-educated and repatriated, thereafter perennially admitting their guilt and praising CPC justice. The KMT trials fizzled out in the late 1940s, and the CPC version had ceased by 1964, but in a darkly ironic fashion, those legal experts behind the trials were themselves arraigned, or more accurately, purged. The CPC trials arguably failed because they did not placate the population suffering after Japanese invasion, and we still have no normalized relations on the matter today; similarly, the KMT trials did little for the forgotten Taiwanese. Abandoned by the Japanese empire, which was understandably occupied rebuilding the home islands, Taiwanese presented a complex entanglement of identity and involvement issues, the civil war’s competing parties fighting over the veracity of Taiwanese identity and no agency for the Taiwanese within that. As such, today this history is poorly employed by both pro-Independence and KMT supporters.

In the Rawlsian sense that an action cannot be good if it is not first just, this Asian brand of justice seems shoddy and fraudulent, because “usefulness after war” became the key factor determining defendants’ guilt. However the Chinese trials were a natural reaction to the well-known Tokyo War trials which had a thoroughly disproportionate focus on crimes committed against the Allies, and Allied recalcitrance to help the Chinese proves Dr Kushner’s point that this is competitive justice, where victory is scrambling to prosecute the worst suspects yourself first.

Somewhat appropriating the transnational approach to justice that Rana Mitter takes at Oxford, there are some very good reflections on the difficulty of assessing responsibility for colonial subjects performing roles that need differentiating between collaborator and criminal. Also of special interest are the details of Japanese treatment of their own PoWs and trials. Returning PoWs had to be publicly defended by Japanese press to ensure their smooth transition to a defeated Japan, and then handled delicately as only ex-soldiers in disbelief at their “loss” can be under a fledgling democracy. Dr Kushner’s analysis of the Japanese use of prevarication to frustrate trials in Japan even raises the scintillating tale of how the usually unsullied IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) utilised a plethora of defence mechanisms to escape opprobrium and let indictment crash down squarely on the Army.

Dr Kushner depicts the evolution of the fraught internally-generated divergences between Japan and China as China shifted from limiting their blame to the Japanese militarist clique to blaming the Japanese people as a whole, portraying the fringe of Japanese politics as representative of said people. During the same timeframe, Japan progresses fully into its narrative of victimization, with its roots in legitimate queries as to whether American fire bombing and the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were war crimes. As a result of this divergence, these trials are almost unknown in China and Japan outside of tiny academic communities, and he argues understanding has deteriorated still more in the highest echelons of Japanese PM Abe Shinzo’s government, which cannot even agree who should determine war crimes. Possible criticisms include the sense that terming Japan “bipolar” for acting differently in global and domestic politics is stating the obvious nature of democracy, and that it is only slightly overstated in Japan’s case because electoral mechanisms allow unsavoury extremists like Ishihara Shintaro to somehow flourish. Or that to say Japan never moved on from the war belies some dissatisfaction with the historical praise for leaders like Yoshida Shigeru and latterly Ikeda Hayato, whose achievements are cited but not attributed. Yet these hardly mar the argument.

Overall, this is a timely, considered and thought-provoking book that any fan of Japanese history would enjoy regardless of the connotations behind ‘war criminals’. It develops the notion of trials conforming to and shaping public opinion to build peace and is itself also a vital tool in that regard by seeking truth through historical oversight. Given the trajectory of Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese reactions, both political and public, to the evidence it is further proof that History can change the present, not just by persisting in it, but through active interaction with it. Besides those outlined in the book, and for related topics of war memory, I recommend Hugo Dobson, Kosuge Nobuko, and Philip Seaton as authors of the same calibre. I am unaware of the specification for the planned, no doubt grander in scope sequel, but Dr Kushner’s work shows there is still much academic leeway on the matter and we should all look forward to reading more.

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