BEIJING – A group of Chinese lawyers and experts are considering filing lawsuits against Japanese companies to seek compensation for victims of wartime forced labor, people involved in the plan said Wednesday.
The plan, if carried out, could further complicate efforts by the two countries to repair relations fraught with tension over territorial and historical issues.
Last year South Korean courts ordered several Japanese firms to pay damages over wartime forced labor. Tokyo maintains that all compensation issues were settled by a 1965 agreement normalizing bilateral ties.
The Chinese government is also stepping up its campaign at home and abroad to warn of supposed resurgent Japanese militarism following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in late December.
The visit to the Tokyo shrine, which enshrines 2.5 million war dead along with leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, particularly enraged China and South Korea, the victims of Japanese aggression before and during World War II.
The group that is considering filing the lawsuits against Mitsubishi Materials Corp. and several other companies includes lawyers and scholars from the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Peking University.
The experts, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the number of firms to be sued in China could eventually expand to about 20.
Japan’s courts have turned down Chinese plaintiffs’ wartime compensation claims.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Chinese individuals have no right to demand war reparations from Japan, noting that Beijing renounced its claims under the 1972 joint statement at the time Sino-Japanese ties were normalized.
Until now, Chinese authorities have largely prevented individuals from filing compensation lawsuits against Japan out of concern they could hurt bilateral relations and hinder China’s economic development.
It is almost certain that diplomatic relations of the two countries since 1972 will be affected in a profound way if such civil compensation claims are eventually backed by China’s top court.
The group will decide what to do with its plan by March 5, when the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, convenes its annual session, according to the experts.
But in reality this all depends on whether the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping will allow the group to launch legal action.
If allowed, they said the group will file lawsuits to seek compensation, apologies and promises to build monuments in Japan for Chinese victims of wartime forced labor and their families. The lawsuits are expected to be filed with courts in Beijing and Chinese provinces including Shandong and Hebei.
A Mitsubishi Materials representative said the company believes that wartime issues cannot be resolved “without the state’s involvement” and it will take necessary steps if the group takes legal action.
According to a report by the Foreign Ministry, about 37,000 Chinese people were taken from their homes and forced to work by Japan during the Sino-Japanese war between 1937 and 1945, out of which some 3,700 were related to Mitsubishi Materials.
China has claimed that about 35 million Chinese people were killed and wounded in the war and direct economic losses amounted to about $100 billion.