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Posted July 2, 2012

UVA Law Library's Digital Exhibit Reveals Little-Known Details of Tokyo War Crimes Trial

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The law library's Tokyo War Crimes trial collection includes this photograph of the prosecution team, including Frank Stacy Tavenner Jr., a 1927 graduate of the Law School whose papers make up the heart of the collection. Tavenner is standing in the front row, in the middle, on the left.

Frank Stacy Tavenner Jr., a 1927 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and assistant chief prosecutor of the Tokyo War Crimes trial, stood at the lectern on April 16, 1948, and delivered the final summation in the case against 28 Japanese defendants who stood accused of starting an illegal war, atrocities and crimes against humanity committed during World War II.

Contact: Brian McNeill

"These defendants were not mere automatons, they were not replaceable cogwheels in a machine, they were not playthings of fate caught in a maelstrom of destiny from which there was no extrication," Tavenner said. "These men were the brains of an empire, they were the leaders of the nation's destiny.

"It was theirs to choose whether their nation would lead an honored life in the family of nations, willing to settle differences that might arise in an amicable and lawful manner," he continued. "Or whether their nation would embark upon a program of aggrandizement and war against the other members of the family of nations, and would become a symbol of evil throughout the world."

A video of Tavenner's summation argument is now online as part of a massive digital exhibition of materials related to the Tokyo War Crimes trial posted by the Virginia Law library. At the heart of the collection is a treasure trove of more than 20,500 original documents donated to the Law School by Tavenner's family in 1978.

Diary of a Dean

Frank S. Tavenner

"These are the primary documents. So if you wanted to come [to the law library] to search through these papers, now you can do it online, using keyword searches," said Elizabeth Ladner, a digital fellow at the library and director of the project. "The hope is to really create a portal for people who are interested in war crimes and allow them to have the full experience online."

After World War II ended, Allied forces established the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, known informally as the Tokyo War Crimes trial, to prosecute the Japanese officials involved with launching the war. The trial took place from April 1946 to November 1948 and resulted in death sentences for seven of the defendants and prison terms for the remaining war criminals.

While not as well known today as the Nuremberg trials that prosecuted Nazi war criminals, the Tokyo War Crimes trial set an important precedent in establishing the basis for prosecuting the crime of "aggressive war" by a foreign country.

"The Tokyo War Crimes project is the law library's first major initiative to create a research portal for the use of scholars through the digitization of unique documents from our collection," said Taylor Fitchett, director of the law library. "We are currently working with several other institutions to add documents on the trials from their manuscript collections to our site with the long-term goal of designing a research network among libraries holding similar information." 

Ladner said the site is meant to be "informative and interactive so that people who are interested in the Tokyo War Crimes trials learn something even if they know nothing about the trials."

"Most people don't even know that they even occurred," she added. "They know about Nuremburg, but they don't know about this."


As part of the library's digital exhibition on the Tokyo War Crimes trial, there are in-depth sections on women's involvement in the prosecution, the Pearl Harbor attack and Japanese experiments with biological warfare.

In the future, Ladner said, the project will include an interactive map of the courtroom that displays key information about each participant, a detailed timeline of the trial and a section on relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union delegations.

"The Cold War is heating up, and yet the U.S. and the Soviet Union are trying to prosecute the Japanese together," she said. "There's a lot of back-and-forth, and, in fact, there are a number of documents where the Russian [officials] will write to Tavenner and say, 'We were unhappy with what you did today.' There's definitely a lot of antagonism going on."

In addition to the Tavenner archive, the library's collection also includes materials from Tavenner's fellow prosecutors Roy L. Morgan and C.J. Phelps and defense lawyer G. Carrington Williams.

The library is in the process of digitizing Morgan's documents. And, in January, it acquired two massive scrapbooks compiled by Phelps filled with trial documents, photos of the prosecution team, mugshots of the defendants, military maps and various mementos, such as Japanese propaganda used as evidence, a spectator's pass for the trial and Stars and Stripes newspaper clippings.

"In the course of doing research, I found out that they were available for sale at a bookseller in Connecticut," Ladner said. "I went up there and realized they were pretty clearly his scrapbooks, and that he probably put them together after the war. It was a pretty cool find."

Along with the documents, the digital exhibition features photos, videos and biographies for the prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants and judges.

Tavenner, as the site explains, was appointed assistant prosecutor to Joseph P. Keenan, the chief counsel for the International Prosecution Team, and traveled to Japan on a cargo plane packed with a shipment of smallpox serum. During the trial, he stepped in as acting chief prosecutor when Keenan was away, sometimes for stretches as long as eight months.

A native of Woodstock, Va., Tavenner declined a possible nomination to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia because he felt obligated to finish his duties in Japan. The website also describes how, to mark Tavenner's 51st birthday during an interlude in the trial, "Mrs. Kiyooka, a highly educated Japanese woman, and daughter of the authoress of 'Daughter of the Samurai,' sang 'Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,'" as described in a 1946 article in The Washington Post.