The ANU Japan Institute Seminar Series showcases cutting-edge research by leading and emerging scholars based primarily in Australia and Japan. It aims to promote networking among Japan Studies scholars in the two countries and will feature innovative research on the bilateral relationship.

Japanese war crimes: An assessment

Japanese military personnel committed many war crimes in the course of the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and after Pearl Harbor (1941–1945). Some crimes resulted from the initiative of individuals, some were conducted by groups, still others were ordered by Japanese commanders. Many observers have assumed that Japanese war crimes were of a different—more atrocious—order than those of any of Japan’s contemporaries, except perhaps Nazi Germany. The perception of Japanese exceptionalism has underpinned a search for sinister elements in Japanese history and culture that might explain its apparent exceptionalism. In view of our growing knowledge of atrocities committed in the colonial wars and civil wars that drenched the middle decades of the 20th century in blood, the idea of Japanese exceptionalism is open to serious challenge.

This paper reviews the record of Japanese atrocity, identifying what has been invented or exaggerated, what is distressingly similar to the actions of other belligerents in the decades 1930–1960, and what remains as exceptional or unique. I suggest that we can best account for Japanese war crimes by looking at the extraordinary historical circumstances of the Second World War in Asia, and of Japan’s war effort.

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Sandra Wilson
Sandra Wilson

Professor Sandra Wilson

Sandra Wilson is a historian of modern Japan and is professor of History at Murdoch University. With Robert Cribb, Beatrice Trefalt and Dean Aszkielowicz, she is author of Japanese War Criminals: the Politics of Guilt after the Second World War (Columbia University Press, 2017). She has also written on politics and society in 1930s Japan and on the history of Japanese nationalism.

Contact the ANU Japan Institiute Seminar Series Convener: Dr Andrew  Levidis at





In-person: Seminar Room, China in the World, Building 188, Fellows Lane, ANU; Online: Zoom.



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