How Tomoyuki Yamashita’s Execution in the Philippines After WWII Set a Global Precedent on War Crimes
Tomoyuki Yamashita is a name many Filipinos, particularly older generations, know all too well. Any mention of his name is tinged with distaste if not outright disgust. Besides the war loot or treasure he and the Japanese forces allegedly hid in caves and tunnels around the Philippines, Yamashita was the source of the nation’s pain and anger when the former Imperial Japanese Army raped and pillaged their way across the country. Yamashita’s eventual surrender and execution brought more than just closure and justice to the nation his army ravaged—to the world, his trial and death set a global precedent in international war crimes. His death birthed the Yamashita standard, or what many simply call command responsibility.
When World War II broke out in Asia, Yamashita was promoted to the rank of general after successfully leading the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore. His first big assignment as general was to defend the Japanese-occupied Philippines from the approaching Allied forces. Yamashita arrived in Manila just a few days before U.S. General Douglas MacArthur landed in Leyte to take back the Philippines with his army. What ensued was months of back and forth as the Japanese fought to keep their foothold in the Philippines while MacArthur and the Allied forces fought to liberate the country. In the end, it was MacArthur who won, and Yamashita, going against the Japanese code, decided to surrender to his enemy instead of die in battle.
Upon his surrender in 1945, a true trial of the century took place. Tomoyuki Yamashita became the image of every Japanese soldier who had wreaked havoc on Filipinos, and the trial became a chance to claim justice and closure against Japan’s occupation. And so, Yamashita was tried for every war crime committed by his subordinates, many of which were done without his approval or knowledge. One example was the war crimes committed during the Battle of Manila when Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi of the Imperial Navy ignored Yamashita’s orders to withdraw from the city without engaging in combat. Instead, Iwabuchi led the rape and pillage of Manila. Iwabuchi committed suicide after his defeat at the Battle of Manila, leaving Yamashita to take sole accountability.
Yamashita’s trial set a global precedent, and the result even more so. His hurried trial and execution pushed through without any concrete evidence linking Yamashita to the atrocities of his subordinates. Yamashita denied time and again that he was even aware of the war crimes being committed by his men. He defended himself saying that there was no way he could control the actions of more than 250,000 Imperial soldiers.
“The charges are completely new to me. If they had happened, and I had known about them, I would have punished the wrongdoers severely. But in war someone has to lose,” said Yamashita. “What I am really being charged with is losing the war. It could have happened to General MacArthur, you know.”
Major George Guy, one of Yamashita's appointed attorneys, defended his client: “There was not one word or one shred of credible evidence to show that General Yamashita ever ordered the commission of even one of the acts with which he was charged or he ever had any knowledge of the commission of any of these acts, either before they took place, or after their commission."
Yamashita’s six attorneys filed for appeals at both the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, which promptly turned down the request, and the United States Supreme Court, which found two critics of Yamashita’s trial. Justice Wiley Rutledge and Justice Frank Murphy criticized that the trial was being done “without regard to the due process of law” and called it “legalized lynching.”
But this argument held little weight. World War II was one of the most devastating wars of the 20th century, if not the history of the world, and the atrocities caused by the war were unprecedented. An estimated 500,000 Filipinos died during the Filipino occupation. The casualties included soldiers, deaths from forced labor, and death from war-related famine.
The Birth of Yamashita’s Standard
As a result of all the war crimes committed on Filipino soil, the judges that presided over the military commission decided that Yamashita would be held to the standard of command responsibility. As the commander in charge of his troops, he would be responsible for the atrocities his troops committed in the Philippines.
The U.S. Supreme Court described the 1946 case as "an unlawful breach of duty by [General Yamashita] as an army commander to control the operations of members of his command by 'permitting them to commit' the extensive and widespread atrocities." The Court further "presupposes that [violations of the law of war] are to be avoided through the control of the operations of war by commanders who to some extent are responsible for their subordinates."
And so the Yamashita standard was born, a new name for command responsibility that found commanders to be held accountable before the law for crimes committed by their subordinates even if they did not order them, did not stand by to allow them, did not know about them, or did not have the ability to stop them. Leaders would essentially be punished for the crimes of their men.
Tomoyuki Yamashita was hanged at Los Baños Prison Camp on February 23, 1946, almost 74 years ago from today.
A similar ruling had occurred during the Leipzig War Crime Trials during World War I by the German Supreme Court, but Yamashita’s case was the first one that prompted the incorporation of Yamashita’s standard in U.S. federal law. The harsh ruling was eventually added to the international Geneva Conventions and has since been applied to dozens of trials in the International Criminal Court. Command responsibility became a crucial part of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Tomoyuki Yamashita’s standard brings new meaning to the concept that with great power comes great responsibility. And the Philippines played a crucial role in the birth of this doctrine. Despite the terror of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, at least one thing good came out of it: a promise that all war leaders in every country would be held accountable for war crimes committed against the people.