Researching Japanese War Crimes Records, Introductory Essays.
Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group. 2006.
“Declassifying U.S. Documents on Japanese War Crimes
Responding to these concerns, on December 6, 2000, Congress passed the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act (Public Law 106-567), which put to rest any doubt that U.S. records relating to Japanese war crimes were included under the aegis of the 1998 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act (Public Law 105-246). The implementing directive ordered the Interagency Working Group (IWG) “to locate and disclose, subject to the statute’s exceptions,” any classified U.S. government documents pertaining to
Japanese war crimes and to recommend their declassification and release to the public. President Clinton appointed IWG members from the major government agencies holding classified records as well as three outside members to represent the public. The Japanese Imperial Government Records Disclosure Act provided for a fourth public member, but none was appointed. IWG public members, Thomas H. Baer, Richard Ben-Veniste, and Elizabeth Holtzman, gave willingly of their valuable time. Their shared characteristic was a determination to make the record available to the American people. It is in large measure thanks to their efforts that the work of the IWG met with cooperation and success. It was due to their persistence that the CIA redoubled its search efforts and released additional information on Japanese war criminals. Special acknowledgment is due to Senators Mike DeWine and Dianne Feinstein and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who supported the IWG’s work in Congress and worked with the IWG to elicit the full cooperation of the CIA in the search effort. The NARA staff members who worked on the Japanese portion of the IWG project under the able direction of David Van Tassel were responsive to authors’ queries, unfailingly provided requested materials, and searched collections meticulously to identify still-classified items. In particular, without the professional expertise of Senior Archivists William Cunliffe and Richard Myers and their superior working knowledge of the massive collections, the IWG could not have accomplished its goals. The distinguished IWG Historical Advisory Panel (HAP), chaired by Gerhard Weinberg, always provided sound guidance as the IWG navigated among record groups, constituencies, and politics. Professor Carol Gluck, a member of the HAP, provided insight into Japan’s wartime experience and also suggested the substantive approach of this volume. Steven Garfinkel, chair of the IWG, unfailingly identified sensitive issues during the search period, brought them to the attention of the public members and HAP, and acted to ensure they were expeditiously addressed. Larry Taylor, IWG executive director, skillfully managed the multiple day-to-day administrative responsibilities of the IWG, ensuring it functioned smoothly.
The government agencies that reviewed their classified record holdings for documents pertinent to Japanese war crimes were the CIA, the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy, the Department of the Air Force, the FBI, NARA, the Department of State, the National Security Agency, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the non-FBI components of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Information Agency, and the National Security Council.
An estimated 8 million pages of documents were declassified under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, whereas significantly fewer pages—100,000—were released under the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act. There are many reasons for this discrepancy, most of which fall under two overarching explanations. First, the United States originally confiscated fewer documents pertinent to Japanese war crimes than to Nazi war crimes. Second, by the time the disclosure laws were signed, far fewer World War II Japanese documents than Nazi documents remained classified by U.S. agencies.
Factors Influencing the Number of Documents in U.S. Possession
U.S. government agencies held far fewer records pertaining to Japanese war crimes than to Nazi war crimes. A major reason is that at war’s end, the Japanese destroyed or concealed important documents, which dramatically reduced the amount of evidence available for confiscation by U.S. authorities. How could this happen? At the time the Third Reich surrendered in May 1945, Allied armies occupied almost every inch of Germany. Document collection teams and specialists were on the scene and already confiscating Nazi records for use in announced war crimes trials. While the Germans, beginning in 1943, did engage in substantial efforts to obliterate evidence of such crimes as mass murder, and they destroyed a great deal of potentially incriminating records in 1945, a great deal survived, in part because not each one of the multiple copies had been burned. The situation was different in Japan. Between the announcement of a ceasefire on August 15, 1945, and the arrival of small advance parties of American troops in Japan on August 28, Japanese military and civil authorities systematically destroyed military, naval, and government archives, much of which was from the period 1942–1945. Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo dispatched enciphered messages to field commands throughout the Pacific and East Asia ordering units to burn incriminating evidence of war crimes, especially offenses against prisoners of war. The director of Japan’s Military History Archives of the National Institute for Defense Studies estimated in 2003 that as much as 70 percent of the army’s wartime records were burned or otherwise destroyed.
Nevertheless, some important records survived by chance. Documents discovered in an old safe in the burned-out Navy Ministry turned out to be Imperial Navy planning and policy papers from the 1930s. The salvaged materials reposed with the Metropolitan Police Agency in Tokyo, which transferred them in 1955 to the cabinet archives. They remained there until 1968, when the Defense Agency’s National Institute for Defense Studies took control of the collection.
Japanese authorities also willfully concealed other wartime records. During the Allied occupation, former Col. Hattori Takushirō, a wartime senior staff officer at Imperial General Headquarters, ordered subordinates to conceal key policy and operational documents from occupation authorities. Once the occupiers departed, Hattori intended to write a factual history of Japan’s war based on the important concealed materials. Individuals also hid official documents or personal diaries, some of which came to light only decades later. For example, in 1989, Kaikōsha, the association of former Imperial Japanese Army officers, published a history of the Nanjing operations together with a two-volume collection of contemporary military documents pertinent to the campaign. These had not been previously available to the public. Disturbing excerpts from December 1937 entries in the diary of Lt. Gen. Nakajima Kesago, commander of the 16th Division at Nanjing, were published in a mass circulation monthly magazine in the early 1980s, with permission of the family. These enormously valuable documents, however, had never been in the possession of U.S. authorities.
The compartmentalization of the war in Asia also diminished the possibility that one nation would end up with the lion’s share of Japanese documentation. Unlike the German case, there was no one central repository for Asia-specific war crimes documentation. British Empire forces, for example, took charge of Japanese materials in Southeast Asia. Returning colonial authorities in Indochina and the Dutch East Indies gathered material for their war crimes trials. As many as 40,000 U.S. Marines garrisoned transportation centers in north China from October 1945 into 1947 and accepted the surrender of Japanese units, but otherwise there was little U.S. presence in the huge country, and U.S. units collected relatively few Japanese documents from China. The continuation of the civil war between the central government and the Communists complicated efforts to secure documentation in China. The Chinese central government confiscated Japanese material in 1945; the victorious Chinese Communists, in turn, seized it from them in 1949. The Soviet Union also captured important records about Unit 731 and the Japanese Army when it overran Japanese forces in Manchuria in August 1945. Sixty years later some of this documentation was still coming to light. In August 2005, for instance, the Chinese publicized detailed research findings based on previously unavailable Unit 731 documents, and in Japan two of Gen. Ishii’s notebooks with brief entries for August 1945 and January through November 1946 were made public. Thus, archival material remains fragmented, and while the United States might hold a large amount of Japanese navy or government archival material, many Japanese Army files apparently remained in the possession of other Allied nations or in Japanese hands concealed from the Occupation authorities.
Factors Influencing the Number of Documents Still Classified
Many records relating to the war in Asia were declassified long before the Disclosure Acts were passed, leaving fewer classified records to review. Because much of the material from the European Theater dealt with the former Soviet Union or its eastern European satellites, it was regarded as useful after the War; records that concerned intelligence sources and methods were considered indispensable during the Cold War. As a result, an enormous number of these documents remained security classified until the IWG’s review. The case in the Asia-Pacific Theaters was different. The United States perceived no immediate threat from the region in 1945. By the time perceptions changed with the Chinese Communist victory on the mainland in 1949 and the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950, the great bulk of the Japanese records had already been declassified.
A second reason is that declassification agreements with foreign governments affected the ease with which documents could be opened. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) gathered intelligence in the European Theater, often in cooperation with Allied governments. Before declassifying these documents, the CIA, as successor to the OSS, had to obtain agreement from the nations that had equities in them. However, the U.S. military—not the OSS—had control of most of the Asian Theater records. It created, captured, or confiscated records without the involvement of Allied foreign governments, which enabled the United States to declassify documents unilaterally. Most of these Japan-related records, including wartime intelligence records, were routinely declassified in the 1970s and 1980s by the Army, Navy, and other Department of Defense entities in the course of their regular review programs. In short, the United States could declassify and release Japanese records much earlier than it could German records, but the quantity and quality of the Japanese cache was also inferior to the German.
Furthermore, there were few still-classified postwar records relating to Japanese war criminals because there was not a continuing hunt for Japanese perpetrators as there was for Nazis; therefore, the Army Counterintelligence Corps, CIA, and FBI did not create dossiers on large numbers of Japanese individuals as possible intelligence assets, suspected spies, or prospective immigrants. This is not to say the U.S. Army did not employ unsavory
characters in Japan, but for intelligence about the Soviet Union the U.S. government relied less on ex-Imperial Japanese Army officers than it did on former Nazis in Europe.
Finally, the United States focused on its war against Japan at the expense of other major combat theaters in Asia, especially China. This emphasis resulted in less scrutiny of Japan’s treatment of fellow Asians and the Imperial Army’s conduct on the Asian mainland. One might compare the situation to the attention given to the Holocaust, the genocidal campaign against Jews and other “undesirables.” The enormity of these Nazi crimes stamped an indelible mark on the collective consciousness, yet Americans displayed only vague awareness of the even larger scale of the Nazi barbarities inflicted on the people of the Soviet Union beginning in June 1941. Both the Chinese and the Soviets dealt with Nazi and Japanese war criminals as they saw fit, and the United States demonstrated little concern about how they did it, unless Washington complained that the tribunals were being used as propaganda forums to embarrass the West for complicity in Axis crimes.
In sum, the U.S. government acted quickly to declassify Japanese wartime documents in its possession. By the time the IWG began its work, there were relatively few postwar records related to Japanese war criminals that remained classified.”
“Topics of Special Interest
In addition to adhering to the IWG’s guidelines when conducting their searches for
classified records pertinent to the Disclosure Acts, agencies also paid particular attention to records that might contain information about Japanese atrocities perpetrated on civilians, such as the Rape of Nanking, “comfort women,” the mistreatment of POWs and civilian internees, medical experimentation on humans, Unit 731, and records related to the U.S. decision not to prosecute Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal. It is important to note, however, that during World War II and its immediate aftermath, not all areas of Japanese war criminality were explored in depth. For example, while the “comfort women” issue is of great current importance, the U.S. government did not systematically collect or create records related to the topic during or after the war. As a consequence, there are very few documents pertaining to the topic in the archives. The same is true for records related to the Rape of Nanking.
The atrocities at Nanjing occurred four years before the United States entered the war. At that time, the U.S. government did not have a large military or diplomatic intelligence network in China. A handful of trained military or embassy personnel reported on events, sometimes second-hand; compared with the sensational press coverage, the official U.S. documentation was scant. As a result, with the exception of the records produced during the postwar Class A war crimes trial of the commanding general of Japanese forces deemed responsible for the Rape of Nanking, there are few materials on this subject at the National Archives.
Immediately after the war, American attention focused on the Japanese responsible for the Pearl Harbor attack, those involved in mistreatment of U.S. prisoners of war, and Japanese military and civilian officials implicated in war crimes, including rape (especially of Filipina women) or forced prostitution of Caucasian women. There was also knowledge of the Imperial Japanese Army’s field brothel system, as shown in scattered reports declassified during the 1960s. However, the scope of the brothel network (particularly in China) and the Japanese Army’s official sponsorship of the system were not well understood. Licensed prostitution was legal in prewar Japan, and Allied officials viewed the small part of the overseas system they uncovered as an extension of homeland practices. Prosecuting Japanese soldiers for rape, a notorious crime everywhere the army set foot, took precedence over investigating the circumstances of “comfort women,” who were seen as professional prostitutes, not as unwilling victims coerced into brothels by employees of the Japanese military. For instance, a significant document that linked the Japanese government with the military field brothel system, “Amenities in the Japanese Armed Forces,” was translated in November 1945 by ATIS and declassified in the 1960s. Although available to the public for years, it received little attention until the “comfort
women” issue focused attention on these wrongdoings in the 1990s.
As for Unit 731, researchers found no new classified evidence related to Gen. Ishii’s experiments or the unit’s treatment of POWs. The small amount of newly released material adds more evidence to the already well-documented facts about Japanese abuse of prisoners. As for the primary question of Unit 731’s alleged experimentation on captured American servicemen, multiple government agencies conducted exhaustive searches in intelligence, military, and diplomatic records but found no definitive evidence. This was not surprising, because repeated Congressional inquiries about Japan’s alleged use of American prisoners in experiments resulted in extensive examination of U.S. Army and other government agency records in the 1970s, 1980s, and again in early 1990s. In other words, Congressional interest in Japanese war crimes, especially those perpetrated against American POWs, had already opened the existing Unit 731 documents in the possession of the U.S. government and made them available to the public.
Finally, allegations arose that the U.S. government engaged in a cover-up to conceal incriminating documents pertaining to war crimes in order not to embarrass the Japanese government. Exhaustive searches by several agencies for classified materials, conducted independently of outside political interference of any sort, followed the guidelines imposed by the IWG. They found no evidence to support such assertions. There were miscarriages of justice—Ishii’s case being the most obvious and disturbing—and the question of Emperor Hirohito’s war responsibility remains a source of controversy in the United States and elsewhere. U.S. government archives, however, yielded no new information on these controversial topics. This result may not satisfy those who insist incriminating or embarrassing documents remain hidden, but disinterested parties will appreciate that the IWG has managed to open the remaining classified files pertinent to Japanese war crimes and to make that evidence available to the public. Archival holdings in Japan, China, and the former Soviet Union also offer the possibility of files that may clarify or lead to reinterpretation of our understanding of Japanese atrocities.”