A Brief Survey of the Disposition of Captured Japanese Records, 1945-1962

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Within five years after the end of World War II the Japanese Government was making requests for the release of convicted war criminals and for the return of records that had been captured by US military forces. During the early 1950s the US occupation forces were quite accommodating regarding the war criminals. By the time the Japanese Peace Treaty became operational in April 1952, some 1,000 war criminals had been paroled. During the 1954-1958 time period Japanese demands for the release of the remaining confined war criminals resulted in the release of more war criminals and the Japanese increased their desire for the return of captured records. By the end of 1958 the remaining war criminals were released and most of the captured Japanese records had been returned to Japan.

The story of the release of war criminals and the return of records involves two major American foreign policy goals: a strong Japan as a bulwark against communism and a Japan reintegrated into the world community. These two themes were made perfectly clear by President Harry S. Truman at San Francisco in September 1951 during the Treaty of Peace with Japan conference. He said “it is now time to move ahead with the restoration of normal relations between Japan and the rest of the world.” He also alluded to the Korean Conflict and stated that “one of our primary concerns in making peace with Japan…is to make Japan secure against aggression…” In some respects making Japan secure was putting many World War II-related issues behind the former enemies. The release of the war criminals and the return of the records were two such issues. This paper will provide a brief review of the return of the records, with some references to the war criminal release as a means of providing context to decisions and actions.

A page from: COMSOPAC – Captured Translated Japanese Documents (NAID 78314150). World War II War Diaries, Other Operational Records and Histories, ca. 1/1/1942 – ca. 6/1/1946. Record Group 38: Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Well before the end of World War II the US military was making plans to use captured Japanese records for war crimes trials purposes as well as to exploit them for intelligence purposes. Once the war ended in August 1945, US military forces began coping with a vast quantity of captured Japanese records. Many valuable Japanese records, however, were unavailable to the US occupation authorities, having been hidden, destroyed during American bombing missions, or destroyed by the Japanese themselves. As for the extant records in Japan the legal division and other organizations of the Office of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan (SCAP) and the Army Judge Advocate General extensively reviewed the captured Japanese records in the course of identifying and prosecuting war criminals. Other American military entities exploited the records for intelligence and administrative purposes. Also, the Library of Congress, in cooperation with the Department of State and SCAP, from April 1949 to June 1951, microfilmed in Tokyo 2,100,000 pages of records [on 2,116 reels of microfilm] of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Also microfilmed as part of this effort were documentary evidence from the International Prosecution Section, GHQ, SCAP.  

The United States military in 1945, and subsequently, shipped to the Washington Document Center (WDC) in Washington, DC, well over 4,000 cu. ft. of Japanese records that had been captured. These records were part of the archives of the Japanese Army, Navy, Foreign, Home, Munitions, Commerce & Industry, the Greater East Asia, and Justice Ministries, as well as records accumulated by other Japanese entities, such as local governments and police. Also among the captured records were those, as well as organizational and operational records of the various Japanese Armies, Japanese Expeditionary Armies, and various Japanese Fleets. Also included were records of Japanese and Manchurian embassies, consulates and legations, private Japanese commercial firms and individuals, and hydrographic records. At the WDC the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) exploited these records for intelligence purposes. Other captured Japanese records were shipped back to the United States to be utilized by various government agencies.

By the end of 1947 most of the Japanese captured records had been fully exploited by the CIA. On January 9, 1948 the CIA wrote the National Archives offering to transfer to it an estimated 4,000 cubic feet of records. In the letter of offer, the CIA explained that the records “have been examined and screened for documents valuable for intelligence purposes” and that they were “no longer of any value” to the CIA. In making the offer, the CIA indicated that so far as they were concerned “these are open records and are not subject to any restrictions.” The National Archives agreed to the offer and in May an estimated 3,450 cubic feet of records were transferred to the National Archives. The CIA also shipped some records to the Library of Congress.

During the early 1950s some of the records would be returned to the Japanese Government. On the basis of requests by the Japanese Embassy for specific documents which were deposited with the National Archives, and in keeping with a State Department and Army inter-agency policy of 1951 to restore to the Japanese Government its original documents as far as possible, a small number of documents were turned over to the Japanese Embassy apparently during the 1952-1954 period. 

The remaining records were turned over to the Japanese Government in the context of the United States foreign relation policies and world events. In the wake of the Korean Conflict and the Communist threat, on October 30, 1953, the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs and the Personal Representative of the Japanese Prime Minister issued a Joint Statement on the military security and economic recovery of Japan. This statement called for greater cooperation among the two countries. The need for a strong Japan, with United States assistance, was of primary concern to the State Department during the winter of 1953-1954. To that end, in March 1954, the governments of the United States and Japan signed a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement.

Because of space concerns in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, in the latter half of 1954 the National Archives desired to store off-site the captured Japanese records. On October 15th the National Archives wrote the CIA that its policy “restricts the use of space in the National Archives building to the storage of records that have been selected for permanent retention” and that based on that policy and “since it is possible that the records…may be restituted to Japan” the National Archives was sending the records to a records center in Virginia. On December 1st, 4,105 cubic feet of records were sent to the Federal Records Center. Included in that figure was 585 archives size boxes that were loaned to the US Navy.

The First Secretary of the American Embassy in Japan on October 25, 1954 prepared a report entitled “A Preliminary Reappraisal of United States Policy with Respect to Japan.” In his recommendations he wrote “The liquidation of all World War II residues between the US and Japan should be undertaken urgently.” One of the major issues to be resolved was that of Japanese war criminals. Two days later the National Security Council issued a report on “United States Objectives and Courses of Action with Respect to Japan.” The report noted that “the continued incarceration of Japanese war criminals…remains an important source of friction between the United States and Japan and creates a psychological climate which is not conducive to full Japanese cooperation with the United States.” The report called for the expeditious handling of cases by the Board of Clemency and Parole, so that by the end of 1955 only “a hard core of prisoners who committed the most heinous crimes remain in prison.”

In early November in Washington, DC, United States Government and Japanese Government officials met to discuss various issues. Among them were Japanese assets in the United States, Japanese war criminals, Japanese reparation issues, and American nuclear testing in the Pacific. With respect to the latter, the United States representatives expressed regret over the incident on March 1 in which 23 Japanese fishermen were injured, one fatally, by the fall-out of radioactive materials following a nuclear test in the Pacific.

On November 9th Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The President told Yoshida that “it was his desire and that of the United States Government that everything possible should be done to better the relationships between Japan and the United States.” Furthermore, he said, “it was only hard-headed business sense for all of the free nations to work together in the closest harmony in the face of the constant threat of Communist aggression.” Later in the day Yoshida met with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and told him that the war criminals issue was a “very disturbing one for the Japanese public and he hoped that the United States could speed up the consideration of the cases on which the Japanese Government had made recommendations.” “We will do our best,” Dulles replied, “to speed up the process of examining the individual cases.” The following day, Eisenhower and Yoshida met and issued a Joint Statement reaffirming “the spirit of friendly cooperation characterizing the relations between the United States and Japan.”

Also on November 10th Yoshida in an Aide-Memoire to Dulles stated that “the continued incarceration of war criminals is to the Japanese public a highly emotional issue as well as a social and political problem….To leave this problem unresolved serves only to perpetuate the bitter memories of war. Speedy action is requested.” Reacting to this document the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs on December 8th wrote the State Department’s Legal Adviser that “the continued incarceration of Japanese war criminals is an important source of political and psychological friction between this Government and Japan and is inconsistent with United States policies to develop a close political and security alignment with Japan.” “This issue,” he continued, “constitutes a residue of wartime and Occupation policies which it is necessary to liquidate in order to bring United States policy toward Japan in accord with existing international realities.” He added that “this problem should be relegated to the past as rapidly as possible” and noted that “the United States will find it increasingly difficult to implement other policies toward Japan in view of the highly emotional attitude which the Japanese people hold toward the question of war criminals.” He suggested that the “early part of 1956 would thus appear the appropriate time to order a mass parole.”

In the wake of the Japanese-American discussions regarding war criminals, Robert McClurkin, the Acting Director of the State Department’s Office of Northeast Asian Affairs, in January 1955 wrote the National Archives that the Japanese were very much interested in securing the return of the captured records. If the records, he continued, “can be returned to the Japanese Government, we hope thereby to bring to a close a long-standing problem which, though minor, has proved a constantly recurring irritant in United States-Japan relations.” He concluded his letter by asking that the National Archives explore the possibilities whereby means might be found to ship the captured Japanese documents back to Japan.

Robert Bahmer, the Assistant Archivist of the United States, on February 2nd, wrote McClurkin that “we have no objections to the return of the records provided the interested agencies of the government agree that this action is desirable.” With this letter in hand, McClurkin wrote G. Bernard Noble, Chief of the State Department’s Division of Historical Policy Research, asking his opinion regarding the return of the Japanese records. McClurkin responded that “we would be happy to cooperate in any way possible to clear up the unreturned Japanese documents problem, which has caused, and will in the future continue to cause, embarrassment and irritation on both the American and Japanese sides.” 

Bahmer provided Noble in May with a very brief description of the records. The following month the CIA informed Noble that it had no objection to the return of the records as “a thorough and systematic exploitation of the documents for intelligence purposes had been completed by 1949.” Also in June, Noble contacted the Army about the return of the records. He wrote, “The Department of State has received an urgent request from the Japanese Government for the return of these documents, and would be very glad to return them if no objection is perceived by the Department of Defense or by the CIA.” 

The Army responded to Noble in early August, asking for a policy clarification on the return of the Japanese records consistent with the policy regarding the return of captured German records and reminding him that Congress would have to approve the disposition of the records. In late September Noble wrote the Army: “In the German case, a few qualifications were made of the principle of returning captured papers. The most important, in so far as they are applicable to Japan, were: (a) Documents which might, if returned, jeopardize the national security interests of our country, or of our allies, would be retained indefinitely, though time and circumstances might change conditions. (b) Documents required for the time being for purposes of official study would be returned when the official need for them was at an end. These statements of principle are equally applicable to the holdings of Japanese documents.” Noble stated that the State Department and CIA had no problems with returning the records and that “The National Archives…is also willing, if not, indeed, anxious to be rid of the papers.” He then asked the Army to have the interested Defense Department agencies look into the Japanese records and determine whether the records would be “eligible for return.” He also noted that the National Archives would immediately go to Congress to obtain approval for the return of the records once there was no longer any agency interest in them.

Japanese Foreign Minister Shigemitsu met with the Secretary of State on August 31st to discuss various issues, one being the status of the Japanese war criminals. Shigemitsu requested the release of all Japanese war criminals under United States jurisdiction. Dulles immediately referred to an announcement being made that day that 22 Japanese war criminals were being paroled and suggested “that this was at least a step in the direction desired by Japan.” Shigemitsu expressed thanks but said that he hoped for further steps. Dulles said “that it was a very difficult situation because the persons who are still in custody have committed what the Japanese would recognize as grievous crimes.” Dulles added that the United States was trying to work this problem out as best it can and noted that “it is also important to bear in mind that if there were a spectacular blanket release there would be protests by various organizations and individuals in this country and this would tend to revive anti-Japanese sentiment.” He told Shigemitsu that the United States Government “is trying to continue to handle it in a way to accomplish Japanese desires without incurring liabilities here which are not in the U.S. or Japanese interest.” “Therefore,” Dulles said, “it is not possible to promise a general parole but the U.S. Government is working in this direction with due regard to what its own people consider to be just and to averting a public outcry which could revive feelings in the U.S. which have been beneath the surface-but not far beneath.”

On October 11, 1955, the Army informed Noble that the Department of Defense agencies concurred in the return of the records, subject to three conditions. The primary condition was future access. The military desired that the right of access to the returned documents for research and/or microfilming by the military departments be definitely established. Noble then wrote the National Archives that the access condition requirement “can be met readily by inserting an ‘access clause’ in the receipt which we shall present for Japanese signature when the time comes for the actual transfer of the records.” He suggested that the National Archives proceed to obtain congressional approval. In early February 1956 the National Archives sent a draft records disposal schedule to the State Department and received its approval in early March. In early November a Japanese diplomat inquired of the State Department about the progress being made regarding the return of the records and stated that the Japanese Government would try to transport them if in doing so their return would be expedited.

In late March 1956 the National Archives requested congressional approval for the return of the records. Congress was informed that the records had been seized during and after the war largely for purposes of military and foreign intelligence and that “many of them have been found to have little or no value for purposes of military or foreign intelligence. Those that have such value have been or are being utilized by the appropriate Federal agencies and after their full utilization should be available for return to Japan.” Congress was assured that “no documents will be returned so long as they are still needed for intelligence or other research purposes.” The National Archives went on to explain that “it is the stated policy of the Department of State, arrived at in agreement with other government agencies specially interested in the seized Japanese records, that in order to promote friendly relations with the Japanese Government on a normal basis and to remove a constantly recurrent irritant in United States-Japanese relations, the seized Japanese documents should be returned to Japan.” The National Archives concluded its request by stating that “in the light of the above stated policy it is believed that when the terms of this schedule are met, the residual value of the records described in it will not outweigh the public advantage of donating them to the Japanese Government and therefore will not be sufficient to warrant their further preservation by the Government of the United States.” Congress on April 24, 1956, concurred with the return of the records to Japan.

Thus, with congressional approval, the return would apparently take place without any problem. But the Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Intelligence Division in the early summer of 1956 contacted the State Department requesting that certain records it wished to further exploit not be returned. On August 17, Noble wrote to the Corps of Engineers that the Department of State agreed that the records should be made available to the Engineers for “whatever intelligence exploitation may be necessary.”  “But,” he wrote, “it should be pointed out, however, that the Japanese Government has for some time been urging the return of all these documents, and that the Department of State, on the advice of interested agencies, has given the Japanese Embassy to understand that these documents would be returned in the immediate future.” He said that the Department of Defense had given the State Department to understand that all records “would be available for return by last January.” “Any serious delay,” he continued, “in the return of these documents would be embarrassing to our political relations with the Japanese Government.” He called on the Corps of Engineers to complete their work as quickly as possible.

The Corps of Engineers informed Noble on August 23rd that it would complete its review by early 1957. A week later Noble informed the National Archives of the Corps of Engineers’ need to further exploit certain records and that he hoped the records would start being returned in early 1957. And indeed, it appeared that planned early 1957 return of the records would take place. However, in February 1957, the Corps of Engineers notified the National Archives that they were still reviewing records and microfilming some, and that the documents they had borrowed would be returned no later than October 1st. 

To pay for shipping the records, whenever that might be, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs wrote the Assistant Secretary of Defense in April 1957 to ask that the Defense Department pay upwards of $8,000 to pack and transport to the Baltimore harbor 7,800 cubic feet of documents. The Defense Department was informed that that the “Japanese Government has been persistent in its efforts to have the records returned and we have assured them that they will be returned at an early date. Continued delay will be a source of embarrassment to the United States.”

While plans were taking place regarding the disposition of the records, in 1957 a group of scholars, learning that the records were to be returned to Japan, secured permission to microfilm a selection of the historically valuable materials and received a grant from the Ford Foundation for this purpose. Since both the time and funds available for the work were limited, only a small portion of the Japanese collection could be microfilmed. Facilities for microfilming were provided by the Library of Congress. Microfilming began in October 1957 and ended in February 1958, when work was about four-fifths completed. At that point funds were exhausted and the documents were packed for return to Japan. In all, some 400,000 pages were reproduced on 163 reels of microfilm and a positive print was given to the Library of Congress and to the National Diet Library in Tokyo.

The major collection of captured records was returned to the Japanese Government in 1958. No evidence has been discovered to indicate that when the records were turned over to the Japanese officials any provision was included for future American Government access. Also, in terms of volume, it appears that the 4,100 cubic feet held by the National Archives was augmented by records held by other agencies, making the total over 7,000 cubic feet of records.

In February 1960 Noble, then Director, Historical Office, Bureau of Public Affairs of the Department of State wrote to the Robert Bahmer, the Deputy Archivist of the United States, that the Corps of Engineers had completed its study of the captured Japanese records in its custody and were now willing to have them returned to Japan. The following month Bahmer informed Noble that the National Archives had completed arrangements with the Army for the return of the records. He told Noble that these records, together with some additional Japanese records that were interspersed with captured German records, would be sent to the U.S. Army in Japan. In April the Army Adjutant General informed Noble that the Corps of Engineers would ship the documents in its custody to Japan, along with captured Japanese embassy, consulate, and legation files that had been seized in Europe (microfilmed copies provided to the National Archives). The records, some 95 linear feet, were shipped to Japan that April. These records were turned over to Japanese officials on June 24, 1960. A Japanese Lieutenant Colonel signed a receipt for the records. The receipt has nothing on it about future access to the records. In 1961, the United States Navy arranged to return some 650 cubic feet of captured Japanese hydrographic documents to the Japanese. These records were probably returned in 1961 or 1962. 

Despite the return of the records the United States National Archives holds a substantial body of Japanese documents. Some are exhibits in war crimes-related files. Others are integrated into agency files. And there are countless hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pages that are copies or translations. These records are open to researchers and have been for many decades. One would hope that the records that were returned to Japan are also open to researchers. If Americans and the Japanese are to fully understand World War II then information contained in archival records need to be fully accessible. After all, archives are not only important for studying the past but also for the impact which a knowledge of the past has on the present and the future.


A much longer version of this blog, with footnotes, is available online under the title “A ‘Constantly Recurring Irritant’: Returning Captured and Seized Japanese Records, 1946-1961.”

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