[Photo story] The long road to justice against Japanese war criminals and collaborators

Following Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War, the horrific military atrocities were brought to light as war criminals were put on trial. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao provides descriptions and images of that period. This article may contain some visually disturbing images.
On 26 April 1947, the chief perpetrator of the Nanjing Massacre, Hisao Tani, was escorted to the execution ground at Yuhuatai by military police, where a large crowd of onlookers gathered. The next day, China’s Central Daily News (中央日报) reported: “At 11:30 am on 26 April, the defendant Hisao Tani was identified and taken to the Yuhuatai execution ground by the court, and executed by firing squad according to the law.”
On 26 April 1947, the chief perpetrator of the Nanjing Massacre, Hisao Tani, was escorted to the execution ground at Yuhuatai by military police, where a large crowd of onlookers gathered. The next day, China’s Central Daily News (中央日报) reported: “At 11:30 am on 26 April, the defendant Hisao Tani was identified and taken to the Yuhuatai execution ground by the court, and executed by firing squad according to the law.”

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao)

After Japan announced its acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, the Far East Allied Command held a surrender ceremony on 3 September 1945 aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Shortly on 9 September, the acceptance ceremony of Japan’s surrender by China was held in Nanjing.

Subsequently, the Allied headquarters issued orders to arrest war criminals. The Far East Allied Command in Tokyo arrested and prosecuted Class A war criminals, while other regions arrested and prosecuted Class B and Class C war criminals.

In the context of the Chinese theatre of war, this involved the trials of Japanese war criminals responsible for the Nanjing Massacre and collaborators from the Japanese puppet regime under President Wang Jingwei. These trials were aimed not only at bringing justice to bear, but were also a major effort in clarifying the truths of the war.

Trial for the Nanjing Massacre

After three months of intense fighting, the Japanese army occupied Shanghai in late November 1937. Subsequently, nearly 100,000 troops from the 6th, 16th, 18th and 116th Divisions launched a fierce attack on the capital of the Nationalist government along the northern and southern banks of the Yangtze River. 

On 12 December, Japanese forces entered Nanjing, where they met with determined resistance from Chinese soldiers and civilians and suffered heavy casualties, prompting retaliatory violence. Hisao Tani, commander of the Japanese 6th Division, allowed his troops to engage in mass killings, raping and looting — this two-week rampage came to be known as the infamous Nanjing Massacre that shocked the world.

In February 1946, China requested for the Far East Allied Command to arrest Tani as a Class B war criminal and extradite him to China. In September, the Nationalist government transferred Tani from Shanghai to a Nanjing prison, starting the trial for the Nanjing Massacre.

In September 1946, Hisao Tani was transported from Shanghai to Nanjing Prison. Upon disembarking, he carried a thermos flask, preparing for his trial at the war crimes tribunal.
Hisao Tani in a detention facility for war criminals with his personal belongings, September 1946. This prisoner — a "butcher" who had killed countless people in Nanjing — smiled flatteringly at the head of the detention facility Wen Ruihua.
On 25 February 1947, Shih Mei-yu, the presiding judge of the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal,  outside the military court. He would go on to conduct the interrogation of Hisao Tani.
On 28 January 1947, at the burial site of the victims outside Zhonghua Gate in Nanjing, a forensic expert Pan Yingcai explained to Shih Mei-yu the severe injuries to victims’ skulls.
On 28 January 1947, after the remains of the Nanjing Massacre victims were exhumed, a Red Cross forensic expert in Nanjing cleaned and carefully examined the skull of one of the victims to understand how they were killed by the Japanese military.
On 28 January 1947, outside Zhonghua Gate in Nanjing, Shih Mei-yu supervised the collection of the remains of the massacre victims. Zhonghua Gate was one of the areas where the Japanese military carried out the most severe killings.
In January 1947, when the temporary investigation tribunal of the War Crimes Tribunal was investigating cases related to the Nanjing Massacre, it invited the families of the victims to make statements and provide evidence.
On 10 March 1947, people interested in the Hisao Tani case listened closely to the testimony of various witnesses. While the case stretched over three sessions, it was a focal point of the War Crimes Tribunal, and the valuable information gleaned was widely cited by people in China and abroad as highly significant historical evidence.
On 10 March 1947, Shih Mei-yu pronounced the death sentence for a despondent Hisao Tani. The verdict stated, “During the course of the war, Hisao Tani participated in the mass slaughter of prisoners of war and non-combatants, as well as rape, looting and property destruction, and is sentenced to death.”
Hisao Tani was dissatisfied with the death sentence and requested an appeal. On 25 April 1947, the Nationalist government rejected the appeal, stating, “Upon investigation, it is confirmed that during Hisao Tani’s participation in the war, he participated in the mass slaughter of prisoners of war and non-combatants, as well as rape, looting and property destruction. The original sentence of the death penalty is in accordance with the law and should be upheld.”
On 26 April 1947, Hisao Tani was taken to the execution room at a detention facility for war criminals by the military police. The judicial officer, Ge Zhaorong, legally identified him and asked Tani to sign the execution order after being read it. Given the death sentence and rejected request for appeal, Tani was trembling with fear when signing the document, leaving a scrawl.
On 26 April 1947, after completing the farewell letter to his wife and signing the execution order, Hisao Tani was immediately escorted out of the Ministry of National Defense war criminal detention facility by the military police, ready to board the execution vehicle. Faced with impending death, Tani looked solemn, with his head bowed in silence during the escort.
On 26 April 1947, Hisao Tani, labelled the “Demon King” of the Nanjing Massacre by the Chinese, was finally executed. The executioner was Hong Ergen, the leader of the First Guard Regiment of the Ministry of National Defense. He fired one fatal bullet, which entered from the back of Tani’s head and exited through his face. Tani fell to the ground, with onlookers cheering and applauding.

The trial held in early 1947 was presided over by Chief Justice Shih Mei-yu of the Military Court for War Criminals of the Ministry of National Defense. Through investigations including survivor testimonies and exhumation of victims’ remains at massacre sites, the court gathered substantial evidence confirming the chilling crimes committed by Tani’s forces in Nanjing. Around 200,000 to 300,000 prisoners of war were killed, including through bayoneting, and mass executions and live burials, with about 20,000 women raped and killed. At every public hearing, the courtroom was filled with local and foreign reporters, as well as concerned citizens, to witness the sombre and solemn trial process. (NB: The number of Chinese killed in the massacre has been subject to much debate, with most estimates ranging from 100,000 to more than 300,000.)

On 26 April, the military court convicted Tani and sentenced him to be executed immediately. Tani was taken to Yuhuatai, where crowds of onlookers were gathered. After he was identified, the downcast Tani faced the firing squad, exactly ten years after his arrogantly victorious rampage in Nanjing.

Killing spree for sport

The infamous “100-man killing contest” also left a significant mark in history. On 13 December 1937, the day after the Japanese captured Nanjing, the Tokyo Nichi-Nichi Shimbun reported that Second Lieutenants Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda had engaged in a competition to kill 100 enemies before entering Nanjing. By the time they attacked Purple Mountain (Zijin Mountain, 紫金山) on 12 December, they had met their target.

At noon on 10 December, they met with notched swords in hand, and Noda said, “Hey, I’ve killed 105 people, what about you?”

Mukai replied, “I’ve killed 106!”

The two laughed. While Mukai was up by one, they did not know who had reached the 100 mark first, so they extended the target to 150 people.

The Nanjing Massacre is a profound scar in modern Chinese history, and the news of the “100-man killing contest” is the most direct evidence and symbolic of the massacre. On 13 December 1937, the Japanese newspaper Tokyo Nichi-Nichi Shimbun published a bloody report on the competition featuring the “brave” Second Lieutenants Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda, along with photos of the two holding swords, creating an image of coldness and cruelty that became a symbol of Japanese aggression.
On 18 December 1947, Japanese war criminals (from left to right) Gunkichi Tanaka, Tsuyoshi Noda and Toshiaki Mukai stood trial at the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal, exactly ten years after the Nanjing Massacre. Noda and Mukai were the protagonists of the “100-man killing contest”, while Tanaka belonged to Hisao Tani’s 6th Division and had been involved in the mass killings of over 300 civilians with the use of a sword in the western suburbs of Nanjing.
On 28 January 1948, after the military vehicles arrived at the execution ground, the three war criminals successively disembarked. Shih Mei-yu, who was present to supervise the execution, had sympathetically agreed to their request for one last smoke. The three men smoked intensely and talked ceaselessly while the Chinese military police stood by, awaiting the chief justice’s orders.
On 28 January 1948, after Gunkichi Tanaka, Tsuyoshi Noda and Toshiaki Mukai finished smoking, they were pushed to the execution ground by the military police. They were bent over and walked unsteadily while in handcuffs, appearing confused and lost.

This chilling report illustrated the brutal mindset of Japanese soldiers at the time, the praise by Japanese media for their killing spree, and the horrific consequences of the combination of these factors. Following the Japanese newspaper report, the two soldiers found sudden fame and even wrote a tome featuring their wartime atrocities, furnished with photos of the military weapons they used to kill.

Based on wartime reports in Japanese newspapers, the Nanjing military court extradited Mukai, Noda and another officer, Gunkichi Tanaka, to China for prosecution. During the trial, these Japanese officers, who had once killed without blinking, became gentle and well-mannered, hoping to gain favour from the Chinese. They vehemently denied killing innocent people, claiming that the reports in the Japanese newspapers were merely “exaggerations” and “jokes”. The court rejected their arguments, and on 28 January 1948 sentenced them to death. They were immediately transported to Yuhuatai for execution.

Expelled and marked traitor

Besides Nanjing, the Ministry of National Defense also established military courts to prosecute war criminals in various locations such as Beiping (now Beijing), Shanghai, Hankou, Guangzhou, Taiyuan, Xuzhou and Jinan. Some 700 war criminals were prosecuted, of which 149 were sentenced to death.

Apart from Japanese war criminals, the trial of collaborators was also a major part of historical justice, primarily targeting the Wang Jingwei puppet regime. An early follower of Sun Yat-sen and graduate of the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law, Wang was known for his bravery. Before the Xinhai Revolution, he had been imprisoned for attempting to assassinate a Qing prince. After the establishment of the Republic of China, he was released and served as Sun’s wendan (文胆, a person in charge of drafting proclamations, speeches, press releases and more for senior political figures). After Sun’s passing, he assumed high-ranking positions within the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Nationalist government, but his strained relationship with Chiang Kai-shek led him to participate in anti-Chiang activities.

As Chiang gradually rose to prominence within the KMT, Wang became the second most prominent figure, but his actual power was limited due to his lack of control over the military and his fluctuating political stance.

In November 1937, following the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which marked the start of the Sino-Japanese War, Wang held no hope that China could defeat Japan. Amid intense conflict between China and Japan, he proposed a stance of “friendly peace” towards Japan, differing from the Nationalist government’s stance of continued resistance. After the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, Japan declared that it would not negotiate with the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek, indicating its intention to support a puppet government.

On 5 April 1946, the Jiangsu High Court tried Chen Gongbo, the number two figure in the Wang Jingwei regime. Chen had participated in the May Fourth Movement during his early years and had embraced Marxism-Leninism. He also represented the Guangzhou Communist Group at the 1st National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, but he was later expelled from the party. In 1925, he returned from the US and joined the KMT, serving in various positions, including head of the Political Training Department of the Military Affairs Commission. He followed Wang Jingwei and became a core figure in Wang’s regime.
On 16 April 1946, Chen Bijun, the wife of Wang Jingwei, appeared before the Jiangsu High Court in Suzhou. Chen was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason, and in May 1949 she was transferred from Suzhou Prison to the Tilanqiao Prison in Shanghai. She died in prison following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
In 1947, the collaborator Yin Rugeng was sentenced to death by the Nanjing High Court and was escorted to the execution ground by law enforcement officers. Yin, a native of Pingyang, Zhejiang province, had joined the Tongmenghui during his early years while studying in Japan. He participated in the Xinhai Revolution alongside the revolutionary Huang Hsing and later returned to Japan, where he attended Waseda University. Upon returning to China, he served as a special envoy for the Nanjing government. In the winter of 1935, he was recruited by Japanese intelligence officer Kenji Doihara and established the “Jidong Autonomous Government for Defense”, becoming a tool of the Japanese military’s occupation of northern China. Yin is considered one of the prominent collaborators of that era.
In 1947, collaborators were bound and paraded in front of the public before their execution. During the Japanese occupation of China, they worked with the Kempeitai (Japanese military police) in the brutal killing of local civilians. After the war against Japan, the Nationalist government issued special regulations under the “Handling of Collaborators Act” to severely punish rogue collaborators who had leveraged the Japanese military to harm the local population.

In 1938, Wang Jingwei sent representatives to secretly contact Japanese representatives in Hong Kong. Following the capture of Wuhan in November of that year, Japan announced a peace plan, stating its intention to collaborate with a new Chinese regime. In December, Wang went to Vietnam, and from Hanoi, he issued a statement supporting Japan’s peace plan, advocating for the end of the war. On 1 January 1939, the Central Executive Committee of the Nationalist government in Chongqing passed a resolution condemning Wang’s statement, expelling him from the KMT and issuing a warrant for his arrest. Wang was widely regarded as a traitor and faced public condemnation in China.

Assigning responsibility for justice

Subsequently, Wang Jingwei went to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, where he and several other leaders of puppet organisations established a pseudo government in Nanjing in March 1940, cooperating with Japan’s policy of invading China.

By all appearances, this pseudo government had jurisdiction over the areas occupied by Japanese forces, with a cabinet, military forces and civilian administrative institutions; but in reality, it took command from the invading Japanese forces. Its intelligence department was also assisting Japanese forces in arresting and executing anti-Japanese activists, and local security patrol units became oppressive in monitoring civilian activities for the Japanese public security. These traitorous acts were deeply abhorred by the Chinese people.

At the end of 1943, Wang Jingwei sought medical treatment in Japan, but he passed away after his physical condition worsened.

After Japan surrendered in August 1945, the pseudo government was automatically dissolved, and the Nationalist government in Chongqing took control of all institutions and military forces. In September, the Nationalist government arrested members of the puppet government at all levels across the country. Despite Wang’s passing, key figures were prosecuted, and most of those in charge of diplomacy, internal affairs, police, security and propaganda were sentenced to death and swiftly executed.

Showing compassion

In the three years following the war against Japan, China conducted trials for Japanese war criminals and collaborators as a preliminary step to investigate and assign responsibility for justice. Indeed, China demonstrated magnanimity as they restricted the scope of dealing with war criminals, despite the tremendous losses China suffered due to Japanese aggression, including around 20 million casualties, incalculable economic losses, and the irreplaceable destruction of homes.

On 11 June 1947, Japanese war criminal Kiyoshi Matsumoto was sentenced to death and escorted to the Yuhuatai execution ground by the military police. During the Japanese invasion of China, Matsumoto indiscriminately killed innocent civilians and subjected non-military personnel to severe torture, exhibiting extreme cruelty and earning the nickname “Tiger of Jiashan”. At 11am that day, Matsumoto was brought to the execution ground, where a large crowd of cheering spectators had gathered. He appeared composed but showed signs of weariness.
The moment a military police officer fired a pistol at the back of the head of the kneeling Japanese war criminal Kiyoshi Matsumoto, on 11 June 1947.
In May 1946, Japanese war criminal Sakai Takashi smiled as he was brought to trial, hoping to gain some sympathy from the Chinese people. In 1941, Takashi was sent to Guangzhou, and when the Pacific War broke out, his troop was ordered to attack Hong Kong, where they carried out two months of brutal massacres, including killings, mistreatment and rape. In May 1946, the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal held a trial for Takashi, and after a second trial, he was sentenced to the death penalty and executed at Yuhuatai on 30 September 1946.
On 27 March 1947, Hisakazu Tanaka, former supreme commander of the Japanese Army, and his group were paraded on the streets of Guangzhou before their execution. Tanaka was allowed to wear his Japanese military uniform, but he appeared expressionless as he contemplated the streets of Guangzhou that he had once ruled. Tanaka was previously the governor-general of Hong Kong. During the Japanese occupation of Southern China, some American airmen who parachuted to escape capture by the Japanese were caught and executed on Tanaka’s personal orders. After the war, the Nationalist government’s Military Law Department arrested him on charges of war crimes and the murder of American airmen. In May 1946, the Guangzhou Garrison Military Court found Tanaka guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to death.

In comparison, approximately 600,000 Japanese soldiers in Manchuria were sent to Siberia by the Soviet Union for years of forced labour, leading to countless deaths. In China, over two million Japanese soldiers were safely repatriated to Japan within a year and a half, a lasting effort towards future Sino-Japanese friendship and global peace. Perhaps the following profound statement in Chiang Kai-shek’s victory speech rings true:

“My Chinese compatriots must know that ‘not dwelling on past grievances’ and ‘being kind to others’ are the noble virtues of our nation’s tradition. We consistently maintain that we recognise the militaristic warlords of Japan, and not the Japanese people, as enemies. Now that the enemy’s forces have been collectively defeated by our allied nations, we will certainly hold them accountable for faithfully carry out all the terms of surrender, but we do not intend to seek revenge.

“Furthermore, we must not humiliate innocent people. We should only express compassion for those who were deceived and coerced by the Nazi warlords, enabling them to free themselves from their errors and wrongdoings. It should be understood that responding to past violence with violence, or answering their former sense of superiority with insults, only perpetuates an endless cycle of vengeance. This is not the goal of our virtuous and righteous forces, and it is something that every one of our military and civilian compatriots should note."

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