Culture and Understanding in the Singapore War Crimes Trials (1946-1948): Interpreting Arguments of the Defence

Forthcoming in International Journal of Law in Context (2016)

28 Pages Posted: 31 Oct 2016

See all articles by W.L. Cheah

W.L. Cheah

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law

Date Written: October 31, 2016


At least 60 million lay dead at the close of the Second World War (Doyle 2013, p.206). The end of hostilities and bloodshed brought not only relief but also weariness, insecurity, and a desire for justice. The Allied Powers scrambled to reoccupy territories, restore order, and implement war crimes trials. Apart from the Tokyo and Nuremberg Trials, the Allies would organise hundreds of national trials throughout Asia and Europe. In Asia, the British made Singapore the base of their war crimes trials programme. Altogether 131 trials were conducted by the British military at different locations across the island. These trials, which I will refer to as the Singapore Trials, brought together diverse participants — judges and prosecutors from the UK, India, and other Allied countries; accused persons from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan; defence counsel from Japan; and witnesses from all over Asia.

The majority of defendants in these trials did not deny their involvement in the war crimes concerned; instead, these defendants argued that their conduct was consistent with Japanese norms, beliefs and practices. How were these culturally influenced arguments of the defence interpreted by other trial participants in the Singapore Trials? This article explores the different interpretations given by trial participants to culturally influenced arguments of the defence. Many of these divergent interpretations stemmed from the cultural distance between trial participants. A number of judges did however modify their understandings after being exposed to similar defence arguments over several trials. Other Japanese participants took advantage of cultural differences and adjusted their arguments in anticipation of how they thought non-Japanese trial participants would react. In other words, while some participants were limited by cultural differences, others used such differences in a strategic manner. The Singapore Trials were thus the site of varying and contested interpretations.

Part 2 of this article positions the Singapore Trials against other multicultural trials and scholarly debates about cross-cultural interpretation issues at trial. I then introduce the reader to the historical and legal context of the Singapore Trials in Part 3. In Part 4, I analyse common culturally influenced trial arguments put forward by the defence and trial participants’ interpretations of defence arguments. I conclude by observing that though defendants were permitted to raise culturally influenced arguments in these trials, due to conflicting interpretations, this did not result in sustained discussion or improved understanding of the defendants’ motivations and conduct.

Suggested Citation

Cheah, W.L., Culture and Understanding in the Singapore War Crimes Trials (1946-1948): Interpreting Arguments of the Defence (October 31, 2016). Forthcoming in International Journal of Law in Context (2016), Available at SSRN:

W.L. Cheah (Contact Author)

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

469G Bukit Timah Road
Eu Tong Sen Building
Singapore, 259776

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