Post-Second World War British Trials in Singapore: Lost in Translation at the Car Nicobar Spy Case

30 Pages Posted: 24 Dec 2014

See all articles by W.L. Cheah

W.L. Cheah

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law

Date Written: October 22, 2014


This paper is a detailed case study of the trial of Itzuki Toshio and others, one of the many war crimes trials conducted by the British military in Singapore after the Second World War. The main focus is on the communication problems encountered by trial participants during the trial. The criminal trial is increasingly viewed as today’s preferred response to wartime atrocities, regardless of the crime’s location or the people involved. Debates focus on improving the effectiveness of these trials but do not question their foundational assumptions. One such assumption of the Western adversarial trial is that the prosecution and defence are operating on a level playing field, both equally equipped to argue their respective positions at trial. The criminal trial as conceived from a Western legal tradition assumes that the accused is given a chance to publicly counter the case of the prosecution and the unfavourable testimony of witnesses. The accused is to be a participant rather than an “object of proceedings”. At the most basic level this requires participants to share the same language or be supported by adequate interpretation and translation services. The case of Itzuki Toshio and others demonstrates how participant expectations and judicial fact-finding may be frustrated when trial participants speak a multitude of languages. In this case these problems were further complicated by the trial’s broader political context. The islands where these crimes were committed played an important role in the independence strategies of Indian nationalists who sided with the Japanese during the Second World War to overthrow British colonial rule. For the British organisers of the trial there must have been high political stakes in ensuring the trial’s “success” regardless of the obvious communication problems plaguing it.

This chapter also attempts to give the reader an idea of how the trial proceeded, how witnesses were called, the type of questions asked and the answers given. This trial looks very different from present-day war crimes trials. But like the trial of Itzuki Toshio and others, trials conducted in our globalised world today often involve judges hearing defendants and witnesses with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Researchers working on domestic trials have been studying problems of communication that arise in these multicultural contexts for quite some time. However, these problems have only received sustained attention of late from researchers working in international criminal law and transitional justice. This chapter thus hopes to add to the growing scholarship on communication problems in war crimes trials by demonstrating that these problems are not new. They were similarly encountered in historical trials.

Keywords: International criminal law, war crimes trials, communication problems, historical research

Suggested Citation

Cheah, W.L., Post-Second World War British Trials in Singapore: Lost in Translation at the Car Nicobar Spy Case (October 22, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

W.L. Cheah (Contact Author)

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law ( email )

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Eu Tong Sen Building
Singapore, 259776

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