Mock Trial: Emperor Hirohito

Nowadays one of the most important tasks of education is the teaching of skills like critical thinking, researching, and collaborating. Sometimes it is difficult to fully focus on these important competences, since the curriculum is full and expectations high. One of the topics of the IB history exam is the “Move to Global War”, for which the Japanese expansion between 1931-1945 is a case study. I designed a mock trial based on an imaginary prosecution of the Japanese emperor Hirohito to focus on as well skills as content. 

Handouts about procedure of a mock trial

A mock trial is an imitation trial, during which students act as attorneys and witnesses. Mock trials are a famous phenomenon in the United States, thus a lot of schools participating in competitions. In The Netherlands, mock trials are not common even though student engagement is high. I gave the students handouts with clear instructions about trial procedures, in order to introduce the structure of a mock trial. In this case, I divided the different roles myself, but you can also let the students choose.

Explanation of procedure and roles

The students worked in two groups for three weeks: the prosecution vs defense. The students had to prepare their case by thinking of arguments that would be presented by the attorneys during their examination of the different witnesses. After some initial research about the different witnesses, the students formulated compelling arguments, based on which they hoped to win the case. These arguments would be presented in the opening statement and repeated in the closing statement of the attorneys. Each attorney had to work together with his/her witnesses to develop an examination that would support the overall argumentation. The work that both teams eventually produced was impressive, as they thought about how they could present their case most convincing.

Excerpt opening statement defense team:

Your honour and most esteemed presiding judge, […] Our client has been unjustly accused as a war criminal and for being the man responsible for Japan’s aggressions between 1936-1945. Yet, that is not the complete story. No– when it comes to criminal cases, the motive behind every action is incredibly important. Over the course of the trial, my team and I will attempt to convince you of the fact that the motive behind what Emperor Hirohito did, and the reasons behind his placidity during the years of the war were, in fact, more important that his actions itself.

During the late 1920s, there were several domestic issues and civil infighting within Japan that led to a politically volatile country. The military began to gain more power, while that of the Emperor and the central government were diminished. During this time, Emperor Hirohito realised what was happening and ordered Prime Minister Tanaka to exercise control over the military. But it was too late. The bombing of the South Manchurian Railway by the Kwantung Army in 1931 was the beginning of a
power struggle between the Emperor and the Army that he was sure to lose.
Japan, before the Second World War, had a lot of economic problems. The depression caused by the Wall Street crash was felt throughout all of Japan as each citizen felt the doors of trade closing in on them. Trade sanctions from the US had an especially important effect on Japanese production which produced mostly luxury goods. Widespread poverty and suffering looked like the future of Japan. In this
climate, Emperor Hirohito had no choice but to agree to what many were calling for: territorial expansion. […]

The different witnesses were key factors in the potential success of the trial, therefore I chose specific witnesses. This directed the trial towards content that was important for the paper 1 case study, in which specific attention is given to the role of China and the initial isolationist position of the United States. Some of the witnesses in this trial were therefore Lin Biao, Hideki Tojo and President Harry Truman.

The person on trial was emperor Hirohito for committing war crimes during Japanese aggression between 1937 – 1945. In reality, the emperor was never prosecuted in contrast to other high officials during the International Tribunal of the Far East (Tokyo Trials). Therefore, students can find resources about the actual trial and arguments put forward in that case. The question here, however, is the responsibility of the emperor rather than military leaders or representatives of the government.

For this assignment, students received a grade which was based upon the paperwork submitted before the trial. The paperwork included a reasoning behind the examination of witness, or formulated argumentation based on character research, plus an evaluation of a primary source related to the character. IB history students have to evaluate sources in as well their exam as their internal assessment, called an OPCVL.

During the actual trial, students were requested to dress appropriately to make the court case seem more real. The students prepared their statements very well, however I could have given more information about the “game” an attorney and judge can play during a mock trial. This could have been realised by showing more videos of actual court cases hereby focussing on moments of interaction between judge and attorney, or focus more explicit on the appropriate vocabulary. The eventual mock trial took about 90 minutes, which was equivalent to a double period. This was long enough because students had to listen to each other once their own statement was finished.

Example of exciting court room moment from movie

The purpose of this project was to have students collaborate, while using their critical thinking skills. Moreover, students processed the necessary information related to the prescribed syllabus in a more exciting and meaningful manner.


Good resources to get more information about mock trials:

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