In re Yamashita

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In re Yamashita was an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States by Tomiyuki Yamashita, a general of the Imperial Japanese Army convicted of war crimes by a U.S. military tribunal in Manila. [1] It argued that his trial by military commission was inappropriate, and Douglas MacArthur had exercised excessive command influence and tainted the proceedings. The Court did not examine the specific issues of the case, only its jurisdiction.

He was executed after the appeal was rejected 7-2. Yamashita himself was not directly accused of atrocities, and it was agreed that he took steps to prevent them, but he either could not communicate with subordinates or they disobeyed his orders. Precedents in the lower courtcase, dealing with command responsibility, remain an issue today.

While the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg) rejected defenses based on superior orders relieving subordinates from committing war crimes, this case dealt with the opposite situation: the responsibility of a superior officer ordering his subordinates not to commit crimes, but having them do so regardless of his orders. It was agreed, in the tribunal, that Yamashita had poor communications with his units and no ability to control them physically.


One of the best-known cases involving command responsibility, the specific example of which being called the Yamashita Doctrine, refers to the 1945 prosecution and eventual execution of Gen. Yamashita.[2] It is widely accepted that Yamashita ordered his troops not to participate in atrocities, but had poor communications with subordinate units. In at least one case, a senior subordinate commander, RADM Sanji Iwabuchi, "declined to obey" Yamashita's declaration of a Manila as an open city, refused to join Yamashita's main force in rural areas north of Manila, and massacred approximately 100,000 civilians.[3]

Terauchi had a stroke on 10 April 1945, and surrendered to Lord Mountbatten on 12th September 1945, and died in November 1945; it is not known if he was to be charged as Yamashita's commander. Yamashita also had surrendered on 2 September, at Bagio, to the representatives of the Allied forces, among whom was Gen. Arthur Percival, whom he had defeated at Singapore.

At a tribunal in Manila, he was charged with not preventing war crimes by troops under his command, even though evidence was given that he tried to prevent them, and also had poor communications with subordinates. The Yamashita Doctrine requires that a commander, even though he does not take active part in atrocities, has a positive responsibility to prevent them. It has proven inconvenient in other wars, such as the possible command responsibility of Gen. William Westmoreland for the My Lai massacre, of which Westmoreland has never been suspected of having prior knowledge.[4]

There have been questions if Douglas MacArthur exerted undue command influence over the title. It is worth noting that MacArthur granted Masaharu Homma, the Philippines commander in 1941-1942, the more "honorable" privilege of being shot, while he insisted Yamashita be hanged.


The majority opinion said,
We do not here appraise the evidence on which petitioner was convicted. We do not consider what measures, if any, petitioner took to prevent the commission, by the troops under his command, of the plain violations of the law of war detailed in the bill of particulars, or whether such measures as he may have taken were appropriate and sufficient to discharge the duty imposed upon him. These are questions within the peculiar competence of the military officers composing the commission, and were for it to decide. See Smith v. Whitney, [5] It is plain that the charge on which petitioner was tried charged him with a breach of his duty to control the operations of the members of his command, by permitting them to commit the specified atrocities. This was enough to require the commission to hear evidence tending to establish the culpable failure of petitioner to perform the duty imposed on him by the law of war, and to pass upon its sufficiency to establish guilt.
Obviously, charges of violations of the law of war triable before a military tribunal need not be stated with the precision of a common law indictment. Cf. Collins v. McDonald [6] But we conclude that the allegations of the charge, tested by any reasonable standard, adequately allege a violation of the law of war, and that the commission had authority to try and decide the issue which it raised. Cf. Dealy v. United States [7] Williamson v. United States[8] Glasser v. United States[9]


  1. In re Yamashita,  327 U.S. Harlan Stone, 1 (Supreme Court of the United States 4 February 1945)
  2. Trial of General (United States Military Commission, Manila, Oct. 8-Dec. 7, 1945) IV Law Rep. Trials War Crim. 1 (UN War Crimes Comm'n, 1948); aff'd In re Yamashita 327 US 1 (1946).
  3. Laurie Barber (September 1998), "The Yamashita War Crimes Trial Revisited", WaiMilHist, Electronic Journal of Military History within the History Department at the University of Waikato, Hamilton NZ
  4. "The Nation: Of Guilt and Precedent", Time, 18 January 1971
  5. 116 U. S. 167, 116 U. S. 178
  6. U. S. 420
  7. 152 U. S. 539
  8. 207 U. S. 425, 207 U. S. 447
  9. 315 U. S. 60, 315 U. S. 66