In this sequel to his popular novel "Gods of War," John Toland is quickly out of the starter's blocks. In the first few pages his chief protagonist, Prof. Frank McGlynn, returns in 1945 from a wartime Washington job to his history post at Williams College. There a phone call from a friend in the White House tells him that President Truman wants him to go to Tokyo to help Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the occupation of Japan. McGlynn, 62, is an iconoclastic old Asia hand whose prewar book had earned him enemies by showing that America shared the blame with Japan for their growing differences. McGlynn mulls the offer over, and the pull of Asia and family -- his children are there, one the widow of a Japanese diplomat -- leads him to accept. A month later he is in the rubble of Tokyo ensconced at MacArthur's headquarters in the Dai Ichi Building.

In 1945 Japan was a graveyard, soldiers returning home to find their families dead or dislocated, their wives and sisters forced to sleep with the occupiers to stave off starvation. The Americans in the first echelons were well behaved but subsequent ones were loud, lusty and violent (a whorehouse on the highway between Tokyo and Chiba held 3,000 women). Washington's decision to send MacArthur -- a man who believed that the Japanese adult had the mentality of a 12-year-old -- appeared insane to many. But it was pure genius. The putative warrior turned out to be an exceptional administrator, a shogun who disbanded the military, rebuilt cities and brought democracy to an alien people.

While giving the nation a new constitution and retooling its industry, MacArthur also moved immediately to punish Japanese war criminals. The trial of the most significant of them, covered here fictionally, is the core and strength of this novel. The proceedings of the two-year-long trial are drawn from actual court records and most of the participants are actual persons.

Was the 11-judge tribunal fair in its search for war criminals? Probably not. Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma had already been tried and executed in Manila, though he was not implicated in any crimes. MacArthur clearly wanted the matter settled quickly and wouldn't permit the defense a delay to prepare its case properly. After he agreed not to try the emperor, MacArthur's charity ended. The emperor's secretary, Marquis Kido, diplomats Shigenori Togo and Mamoru Shigemitsu, and other antiwar figures were indicted and sentenced along with war criminals. The only judge on the panel with international law experience, Radhabinad Pal of India, dissented from the judgment, saying all 25 should be acquitted. Following the trial, MacArthur upheld the sentences, including seven death sentences. Three days after the hangings, on Christmas Day 1948, he ordered the release of other prisoners awaiting trial and dissolved the tribunal.

The give and take of the trial in Toland's account is superbly entertaining. Former prime minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, despised by Japanese and Americans alike, flirts with an American stenographer, but in the end is seen by the Japanese as a man of seishin (spirit). Toland contends through a character that Tojo, too, had done his utmost to prevent war. That may have been so in the October-December 1941 period, but Tojo was executed for supervising Japan's total war effort. Toland caps the trial by quoting Dryden's line, "Ev'n victors are by victory undone," and having McGlynn's daughter ask, "Do you suppose the victors in a war could ever be tried for a crime against humanity? ... I was thinking of Nagasaki and Hiroshima."

Toland is more chronicler than novelist. His book is both brilliant and flawed. McGlynn's children, for instance, are stereotypes of goodness: Will, a member of the prosecution, is a former POW who was at Nagasaki when the second A-bomb exploded; Maggie is "the world's greatest woman war correspondent"; and Mark is a Marine officer keeping the peace while the war criminals are tried and a new Japan is created.

Toland stumbles at times. Gen. Takami was not a friend of Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger from the Russo-Japanese War (he means World War I days); "Hubba, hubba" was World War II American slang expressing appreciation for a pretty woman (it didn't mean "Hurry up!"); he says there is no Japanese equivalent for "darling" (he should try ai-jin or koi-bito); he gives Henry Chestnutt three different ranks at various times; and it is unlikely that McGlynn was driving a Model A Ford in Washington in 1945, given its age and the fact that parts for it were nearly impossible to get during the war.

But these are small quibbles. For readers whose knowledge of Japan is limited to Gilbert and Sullivan and Toyota, this is a breezy, engrossing read. And educational. Even given Toland's bias that the United States may have been more culpable in starting the war than most historians will acknowledge, his ideas, voiced through McGlynn and others, are striking and deserve attention. The reviewer, a Washington writer, was with the first Marines to occupy southern Japan in 1945.