Siberia prisoners lose damages suit

The Supreme Court on Mar. 13 upheld lower court decisions and turned down a damages suit filed by former Japanese soldiers who were held in prison labor camps in Siberia after World War II.

The top court’s decision puts an end to the 16-year legal battle against the government by 31 former prisoners, who were subjected to forced labor under severe conditions by the former Soviet Union. They had been demanding government compensation for the labor they performed during their years of captivity.

Presiding Justice Motoo Ono said that even though the prisoners had suffered serious losses because of their captivity, the Constitution does not guarantee them special compensation. The Soviet Union is believed to have captured 575,000 Japanese soldiers at the end of World War II following Japan’s surrender. The prisoners, most of whom were seized in northeastern China, were taken to Siberia and Mongolia and subjected to forced labor. Some 53,000 reportedly died in the labor camps.

The plaintiffs filed lawsuits in four groups between 1981 and 1985, urging the Japanese government to pay compensation for unpaid wages as well as physical and mental trauma caused by the detention. Initially, there were 62 plaintiffs in the suits, seeking damages totaling 260 million yen. They argued that a 1949 Geneva treaty on the treatment of POWs requires Japan to settle claims by its POWs for unpaid wages for forced labor.

Because Japan and the Soviet Union mutually gave up their claims to war-related damages in a 1956 joint declaration, it is the Tokyo government that bears the obligation to compensate the prisoners, they added. The plaintiffs also said the constitutional guarantee of private property obliges the government to make up for the damages they suffered.

Both the Tokyo District Court and the Tokyo High Court rejected their claim, saying the prisoners are not entitled to special compensation because war-related losses should be “equally shared by all Japanese.” The lower courts also said that almost all the plaintiffs had returned to Japan before 1954, when the Geneva accord between Japan and the former Soviet Union took effect.