Hideki Tojo takes the stand during the Tokyo trials in Manila, Philippines (National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons).

Gary Bass’s Judgment at Tokyo assesses the trials of Japanese leaders conducted by the Allied powers after World War II—a lesser known and, in Bass’s view, less successful counterpart to the Nuremberg trials in Germany. It will surely become the standard account. Bass and his research team have plowed through more than two years of complex legal proceedings and press coverage in multiple languages. The result is unfailingly lucid and intelligent, if perhaps overly detailed. (“This a long book,” Bass warns us, “necessarily so.”) It is Bass’s third deeply researched book in the past fifteen years. His first book controversially located the origins of modern ideas of human rights in the independence movements of the nineteenth century. His second book described how the Cold War machinations of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger included permitting the Pakistani military to slaughter tens of thousands of Bengalis in 1971. 

Now Bass tackles the Tokyo trials. Twelve judges from eleven different countries, including three from Asia, supervised the proceedings. Topics adjudicated included the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, the 1940 invasion of French Indochina, the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent invasions of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and the Philippines. Much of the testimony indicted the Japanese for their treatment of Allied prisoners of war. Nine American pilots, for example, bailed out of their planes during the bombing of Chichi Jima, an island off the Japanese coast. Eight were tortured and executed; four were partially eaten. The ninth pilot, rescued by the Americans, was a twenty-one-year-old from Connecticut named George H. W. Bush.

As Bass shrewdly emphasizes, judges whose own countries had not yet abandoned Asian empires were unlikely to be viewed as making impartial assessments of Japanese colonialism. This undermined the credibility of the trials. The most famous defendant at the trial, former prime minister Tojo Hideki, declared the Pacific war “justified and righteous” because of Japan’s efforts to elevate “all the races of the Greater Asiatic powers.” Given Japan’s own colonial record, Tojo’s cynicism was breathtaking, but the delayed independence of Indonesia (from the Dutch), Vietnam (from the French), and India (from the British) made his arguments plausible. So did the legal racial segregation still marking much of the United States in the 1940s and the more general disparagement of “inferior” Asian races widespread in Europe and North America. Tojo’s animus toward the United States was spurred, at least in part, by racially motivated congressional legislation banning most immigration from Japan and other parts of Asia in 1917. The United States allowed Filipino independence in 1946, but the American firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that charges of victor’s justice had far greater potency in a defeated Japan than in a defeated Germany.

Because many Japanese contested the convictions of their leaders at the trials, and still do, Bass suggests that the liberal international order in Asia was stillborn. His subtitle—World War II on Trial and the Making of Modern Asia—reflects this emphasis. Yes, Bass concedes, the trials themselves reflected newfound interest in human rights after the Holocaust and the Second World War. And yes, the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is inconceivable without that interest. But his final sentence wistfully invokes a “more and more rare” capacity to invoke “conscience over nationalism.”

This seems too stern. After 1945, Japan became an essential part—not an antagonist—of the liberal international order. The origins and consequences of World War II still occasion intense debate across East Asia, in contrast to Germany, but if General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman had been offered the bargain of close to eighty years of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Japan, they surely would have taken it.

Admittedly, controversies surrounding so-called “comfort women”—Koreans forced to work as prostitutes in service to the Japanese army during the war—continue to unsettle relations between South Korea and Japan. Leaders outside Japan still use the Tokyo trials for propaganda purposes. Even as his armies invade Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has defended the Tokyo trials in an effort to ally Russia with China, claiming a shared status as victims of German and Japanese aggression.

The Yasukuni Shinto shrine in Tokyo remains a flashpoint, because venerating the war dead there means venerating some of the men convicted of war crimes. The government moved the remains of Tojo Hideki, executed in 1948 after his conviction, to Yasukuni thirty years later, cementing its association with right-wing Japanese politics. One of the most visited statues at Yasukuni is of the Indian judge Satyabrata Pal, who, while denouncing Western powers, refused to convict Japanese leaders for what he said was the normal give-and-take of power politics. If colonialism was a war crime, Pal added, “the entire international community would be a community of criminal races.”


Controversy over the Yasukuni shrine should be of special interest to Catholics. An incident there in 1932, described by scholars such as Klaus Schatz, SJ, and others, provides a footnote to Bass’s grand themes of human rights and international law. It can also be understood as yet another variation on the political and cultural decolonization so evident since the retreat of European empires in the mid-twentieth century.

After 1945, Japan became an essential part—not an antagonist—of the liberal international order.

The incident began when the colonel in charge of the military-cadet program at the Jesuit-run Sophia University in central Tokyo announced that the cadets would walk to the Yasukuni shrine. As they marched across the campus, some of the Catholic cadets encountered the university’s rector, Fr. Hermann Hoffmann, a German Jesuit. They queried Hoffmann: Should they participate in ceremonies at the shrine?

It was not a simple question. Visits to Shinto shrines had long been forbidden for Japanese Catholics, for the same reason that Catholics in the rest of the world were nominally prohibited from attending worship services—even funerals and weddings—in Protestant or Orthodox churches or Jewish synagogues. At best, they could participate “passively,” out of respect for the deceased or the engaged couple. Better not to show up at all. Even being present, according to strict canon lawyers and theologians, signaled that Catholicism was one among many equally valid religions, not the true faith. In 1928, Pope Pius XI had issued an encyclical declaring that ecumenical discussions between Catholics and Protestants would proceed only after recognition of the “authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successor.”

Questions about participation in the larger society were never theoretical for Japanese Catholics. Roughly ninety thousand Catholics lived in Japan in 1930, less than one percent of the population. It was one thing to forbid attendance at a Protestant wedding in, say, Milan, where such occasions were rare. Quite another to resist appearing at Shinto shrines in Tokyo. Evading opportunities to venerate Japanese war dead was even more fraught. In 1931, the Japanese army had invaded northern China, or Manchuria, and installed a puppet government. The cadets at Sophia knew they could soon be drafted into active duty. They also knew that a militarist Japanese government had begun a process of firmly tying Shintoism to the state, and restricting the rights of Buddhists, Christians, and other religious minorities.

Fr. Hoffmann told the cadets they did not have to participate in Shinto ceremonies. A handful of cadets took him at his word, and although precise accounts of what happened vary, two cadets seem to have refused to salute the shrine during the presentation of arms. Two or three cadets also declined to bow their heads. These modest defiant gestures unsettled the officers in charge. Just two days after the cadets visited the shrine, the colonel in charge of the cadets officially complained to Fr. Hoffmann, who tried to explain the Catholic viewpoint. The dissatisfied colonel then contacted high government officials. The vice minister of the Ministry of War personally called Fr. Hoffmann and told him to close the Sophia cadet program because “the spirit of the University [Sophia] does not correspond to the principles of national education.” Given this expression of government displeasure, the future of the university now seemed shaky. Enrollment at Sophia dropped precipitously.

When reports from Catholic leaders in Japan reached Rome, Vatican officials joined university leaders at Sophia and government bureaucrats at the war ministry in pondering just what obligations Sophia students owed the nation-state. They did so in a volatile context. The intense nationalism of the 1920s and ’30s disoriented Catholic leaders far beyond East Asia. Vatican officials signed treaties or concordats with Mussolini’s Italy (1929) and Hitler’s Germany (1934), although neither document protected Catholic institutions in the ways these officials had hoped. More broadly, Catholics in both Europe and Asia aimed to demonstrate that even as members of an international Church, they would remain loyal to their native homelands. 

To the relief of administrators at Sophia, local Catholic leaders and Vatican officials eventually changed course and ruled that Japanese Catholics could pay their respects to Japanese war dead at Yasukuni as a civic, and not religious, obligation. Even more significantly, in 1939, the same Vatican officials reexamined a famous 1742 ruling on Chinese rites and allowed Chinese Catholics to venerate ancestors according to Confucian tradition, again defining such veneration as civic and cultural, not religious.

In the cauldron of the 1930s, these adaptations to nationalism in Japan and China seemed sensible. Both decisions—allowing Japanese Catholics to participate in ceremonies at Shinto shrines and reassessing the Chinese rites controversy—are now understood by theologians as victories for inculturation, the idea that Catholics must build Indigenous churches, not simply transplant European Catholic practices. These issues were especially acute in Japan and China. Outsider status in these complex civilizations inhibited evangelization. Lourdes grottoes, the Latin Mass, and neo-Gothic churches could no longer constitute a Catholic vernacular. Rather, Indigenous devotions, languages, and architectural forms offered a strategy for shedding the stigma of a foreign import. Vietnamese Catholics appalled by French colonialism destroyed French-made Catholic statues in local churches in the late 1940s. A leading Filipino Jesuit wrote as early as 1952 that Catholicism must no longer be viewed as a Western import, but instead belonged “fully as much to Asia as to Europe.”

A leading Filipino Jesuit wrote as early as 1952 that Catholicism must no longer be viewed as a Western import, but instead belonged “fully as much to Asia as to Europe.”


Here is where Gary Bass’s yearning for international human rights and norms, as well as his emphasis on individual conscience, intersects with the challenges faced by religious minorities such as Japanese Catholics. Even as Japanese intellectuals denounced Western modernity for its corrupt individualism and liberalism in the 1930s, so, too, did many Catholics—and not only in Japan. Japan’s leading Catholic intellectual fit snugly within both the Catholic and the Japanese milieus when he lamented a Western focus on the “isolated and abstract individual” and urged a “new East Asian spiritual civilization.” 

Inculturation in Tokyo in the 1930s, then, could mean inculturation to a nationalist, antiliberal, and authoritarian military government. Inculturation in Germany and Italy was equally fraught. Over time, reform-minded Catholics would challenge this instinct to conform to the demands of the nation-state. The French Jesuit Henri de Lubac published one of his first essays on the distinction between patriotism (good) and nationalism (troubling). During World War II, de Lubac played a role in the French resistance and wrote against anti-Semitism and racism. He helped draft some of the documents at the Second Vatican Council, and his influence may be evident in the distinction made in Gaudium et spes (1965) between a “generous and loyal” patriotism and a “narrow-mindedness” that foreclosed identification with the “whole human family.” Bishops at the Council invoked—and Vatican officials later beatified—the Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler and who, as a result, was beheaded in the last months of the war. Jäggerstätter’s witness was deemed admirable because he would not sacrifice his conscience in service to nationalist aims.

Now nationalism seems again ascendant. Pope Francis resists this impulse at every turn, as suggested by his focus on migration issues (which cross national borders) and the environment (which knows no borders). At the same time, he also favors liturgical and cultural inculturation, in part because of his long experience with and sympathy for Indigenous peoples in Latin America.

The trick is to figure out what kind of inculturation makes sense, and when. Those Catholics now dismissive of liberalism should be wary of tying themselves, as in the 1930s, to regimes incompatible with a universal Church. Those eager to diminish distance between Catholic practices and local customs might also tread carefully. After all, too successful an absorption into any one local milieu—Japan in the 1930s or the United States in 2024—could diminish the Church’s capacity to challenge, not simply accept, the ambient culture. 

Judgment at Tokyo
World War II on Trial and the Making of Modern Asia
Gary J. Bass
Alfred A. Knopf
$46 | 912 pp.

John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents
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