Koki Hirota was born on 14 February 1878 in Fukuoka Prefecture and graduated with a law degree from Tokyo Imperial University. He entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to become a career diplomat, and served as ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1932 before becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1933, the same year as Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations. In 1936, Emperor Hirohito named Hirota Prime Minister. He stayed in office until 2 February 1937. As Prime Minister, he led his cabinet in planning the invasions of Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, in addition to continuing the undeclared war against China.
Hirota’s government signed a first alliance treaty with Germany, but only remained in power for less than a year until early in 1937, when Hirohito named a new Prime Minister, General Hayashi, who in turn lasted only four months. The emperor then named Prince Konoe Fumimaro as Prime Minister. Hirota nevertheless remained in the position of Foreign Affairs Minister until his retirement in 1938.
It was during Hirota’s second tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs, late in 1937, that Japanese forces marched into Nanking. Thousands of innocent civilians were buried alive, used as targets for bayonet practice, shot in large groups and thrown into the Yangtze River. Rampant rapes of women ranging from age seven to over seventy were reported. The international community estimated that during the six weeks of the massacre, 20,000 women were raped, most of them subsequently murdered or mutilated and that over 300,000 people were killed, often with the most inhumane brutality.
Despite the fact that Hirota was not in charge of the army units that invaded Nanking, he was well informed about the extent of the massacre. The international community had also lodged protests with many Japanese embassies. Bates, an American professor of history at the University of Nanking during the Japanese occupation, provided evidence that the protests had been forwarded to Tokyo and discussed in great detail between Japanese officials and the U.S. Ambassador to Tokyo.
Opposition from the military forced Hirota into retirement in 1938. In 1945, however, Hirota returned to the diplomatic scene to lead Japanese peace negotiations with the Soviet Union. At the time, Japan and the USSR were still under a non-aggression pact, even though the other Allied Powers had all declared war on Japan. Hirota attempted to persuade Stalin’s government to stay out of the war, but he ultimately failed when the Soviets entered the war between the time of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Koki Hirota was tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) for war crimes, as a Class A war criminal.
He offered no defence.
Koki Hirota was found guilty under count 1 (waging wars of aggression and wars in violation of international law, between 1 January 1928 and 2 September 1945), count 27 (waging unprovoked war) and count 55 (having recklessly disregarded his duty to take adequate steps to secure the observance and prevent the breaches of the laws and customs of war).
He was sentenced to death and hanged at Sugamo Prison, on 23 December 1948.
THE INTERNATIONAL MILITARY TRIBUNAL FOR THE FAR EAST (IMTFE)
After Japan’s surrender in World War II, the victorious powers decided to a institute an International Tribunal aimed at trying those members of the Japanese establishment who were most responsible for the war of aggression waged by Japan and for other crimes perpetrated during the war. The Tribunal was established by means of a decree of the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Far East, US General Douglas MacArthur, on 19 January 1946, amended on the following 25 April.
The IMTFE Charter reproduced almost verbatim the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal. The Tribunal had jurisdiction over allegations of crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Judges and prosecutors were chosen among the nationals of States who were in war against Japan (United States, Great Britain, Soviet Union, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, France, the Philippines and China). The Tokyo Tribunal received the same criticisms moved to its German counterpart, concerning in particular the modality of its creation, the composition of the judiciary and the respect for the principle of legality. The public prosecution was lead by the American Joseph B. Keenan.
The proceedings at the Tribunal took place between 29 April 1946 and 12 November 1948. In total, 28 former Japanese generals and politicians were indicted. Remarkably, no proceedings were instituted against the then Emperor of Japan, Hirohito. Most accused were charged on counts of crimes against peace, concerning the aggressive policy implemented by Japan before and during the World War. All the defendants were convicted. Seven of them were sentenced to death, most of the others to life imprisonment.
PROCEEDINGS OTHER THAN THOSE AT THE IMTFE
A number of other proceedings were held against Japanese war criminals before courts-martial or military commissions run by each of the victorious Powers. Overall, more than 5600 Japanese nationals were prosecuted, in more than 2200 trials. About 4400 people were convicted, and about 1000 of them were subsequently executed.