TOKYO, Aug. 30 — An Indian judge, remembered by fewer and fewer of his own countrymen 40 years after his death, is still big in Japan.
In recent weeks alone, NHK, the public broadcaster, devoted 55 minutes of prime time to his life, and a scholar came out with a 309-page book exploring his thinking and its impact on Japan. Capping it all, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during a visit to India last week, paid tribute to him in a speech to the Indian Parliament in New Delhi and then traveled to Calcutta to meet the judge’s 81-year-old son.
A monument to the judge — erected two years ago at the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan’s war dead and a rallying point for Japanese nationalists — provides a clue to his identity: Radhabinod Pal, the only one out of 11 Allied justices who handed down a not guilty verdict for Japan’s top wartime leaders at the post-World War II International Military Tribunal for the Far East, or the Tokyo trials.
“Justice Pal is highly respected even today by many Japanese for the noble spirit of courage he exhibited during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East,” Mr. Abe told the Indian Parliament.
Indeed, many of postwar Japan’s nationalist leaders and thinkers have long upheld Judge Pal as a hero, seizing on — and often distorting — his dissenting opinion at the Tokyo trials to argue that Japan did not wage a war of aggression in Asia but one of self-defense and liberation. As nationalist politicians like Mr. Abe have gained power in recent years, and as like-minded academics and journalists have pushed forward a revisionist view of Japan’s wartime history, Judge Pal has stepped back into the spotlight, where he remains a touchstone of the culture wars surrounding the Tokyo trials.
Mr. Abe, who has cast doubt on the validity of the Tokyo trials in the past, avoided elaborating on his views in the Indian Parliament or during his 20-minute meeting with Judge Pal’s son, Prasanta. But the meeting’s subtext was not lost on some Japanese newspapers, which warned that it would hardly help repair Japan’s poor image among its neighbors.
After the war, conventional war crimes by the Japanese, categorized as Class B and Class C, were handled in local trials throughout Asia. Twenty-five top leaders were charged with Class A crimes — of waging aggressive wars and committing crimes against peace and humanity, categories created by the Allies after the war — and tried in Tokyo by justices from 11 countries.
It was not clear why the British and American authorities selected Judge Pal, who had served in Calcutta’s high court and strongly sympathized with the anticolonial struggle in India. As an Asian nationalist, he saw things very differently from the other judges.
In colonizing parts of Asia, Japan had merely aped the Western powers, he said. He rejected the charges of crimes against peace and humanity as ex post facto laws, and wrote in a long dissent that they were a “sham employment of legal process for the satisfaction of a thirst for revenge.” While he fully acknowledged Japan’s war atrocities — including the Nanjing massacre — he said they were covered in the Class B and Class C trials.
“I would hold that each and every one of the accused must be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted of all those charges,” Judge Pal wrote of the 25 Japanese defendants, who were convicted by the rest of the justices.
Judge Pal also described the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States as the worst atrocities of the war, comparable with Nazi crimes.
The American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, after Tokyo signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and accepted the Tokyo trials’ verdict. But the end of the occupation also lifted a ban on the publication of Judge Pal’s 1,235-page dissent, which Japanese nationalists brandished and began using as the basis of their argument that the Tokyo trials were a sham.
Takeshi Nakajima, an associate professor at the Hokkaido University Public Policy School whose book “Judge Pal” was published last month, said that Japanese critics of the trials selectively chose passages from his dissent.
“Pal was very hard on Japan, though he of course spoke very severely of the United States,” Mr. Nakajima said. “All imperialist powers were part of the same gang to him. His attitude was consistent.”
Casting subtleties aside, postwar politicians invited Judge Pal to Japan several times and showered him with honors. One of his strongest backers was Nobusuke Kishi, a prime minister in the late 1950s who had been a Class A war criminal suspect but was never charged. Kishi is Mr. Abe’s grandfather and political role model.
“For us, we were extremely grateful for Judge Pal’s presence — there was no other foreigner who said so clearly that Japan wasn’t the only country that had done wrong,” said Hideaki Kase, chairman of the Japan-India Goodwill Association, an organization founded in part because of Judge Pal’s legacy.
But Mr. Kase, who once served as an adviser to Yasuhiro Nakasone, the former prime minister, said that he disagreed with certain parts of Judge Pal’s conclusions, including his acknowledgment of the Nanjing massacre. Describing the massacre as a “complete lie,” Mr. Kase said that Judge Pal had fallen victim to “Chinese and Allied propaganda.”
In many ways, Judge Pal seemed to share the mixed feelings that many Indian anticolonialists had of Japan. As an Asian nation competing with the Western powers, Japan inspired admiration, but also consternation for its colonization of Asia, said Sugata Bose, a historian of South Asia at Harvard.
Mr. Bose said his great-uncle Subhash Chandra Bose, the Indian independence movement leader, criticized Japan’s invasion of China but allied himself with Japan against the British.
“It is a complex view from South and Southeast Asia,” Mr. Bose said. “There is some degree of gratitude for the help that the Japanese provided, to the extent that such help was provided. At the same time, there was also grave suspicion of Japan.”
Still, Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army, a popular armed force formed by Indian anticolonialists, accepted assistance from Japan.
“Judge Pal, as an Indian, would have known all about this,” Mr. Bose said. “And it may have indirectly influenced his views.”