An Age-Old Question: Optical (A)llusions, (In)Decency, and (In)Justice in the Trial of Japanese War Criminals

In: International Criminal Law Review
James Burnham Sedgwick Department of History & Classics, Acadia University, 10 Highland Avenue, Wolfville, NS, CanadaB4P 2R6,

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Timing complicates all dimensions of post conflict redress. Moving too fast suggests prejudice. Going too slow delays accountability and closure. This paper challenges the temporal logic of international justice. The prosecution of aged defendants created aesthetical dilemmas for war crimes operations in post-World War ii Asia. The unsettling optical allusions of frail perpetrators in court — shadows of their former selves — left many observers conflicted: it looked indecent, it felt unjust and underwhelming. The unseemly punishment of weak defendants undercut prosecution attempts to brand perpetrators as monsters. Disappointed reporters and trial authorities fixated on the shabby dress, waning physique, and benign senescence of once-sinister villains. Few questioned the accused’s guilt. Many felt unnerved by the optics. Ultimately, this paper shows how the staging and performance of justice impacts a court’s effectiveness. Unrelenting accountability, bringing all war criminals to justice, feels right. Yet, the aesthetic complications of prosecuting aged accused may not be worth it.

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