BEIJING – A group of Chinese experts and citizens filed suit Wednesday against two Japanese companies, seeking compensation for victims of wartime forced labor.
The group of 37 people is seeking compensation of 1 million yuan ($163,000) for each victim of wartime forced labor, as well as apologies for them and their families, from Mitsubishi Materials Corp. and Nippon Coke & Engineering Co., formerly known as Mitsui Mining Co.
The 37 plaintiffs, who include victims, lawyers and scholars from the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Peking University, filed the lawsuit with the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court.
If the court decides to hear the case, it will be the first lawsuit in China seeking compensation for victims of wartime forced labor involving Japanese companies.
“We decided to bring this case before the court as the companies did not respond constructively to us,” one of the lawyers said. “We are confident of it gaining acceptance.”
Both firms said they couldn’t comment because they had yet to see the complaint.
Until now, Chinese authorities have effectively prevented individuals from filing compensation lawsuits against Japan or Japanese entities out of concern it would hurt bilateral ties and hinder Japanese investment in China.
Japanese courts have turned down Chinese plaintiffs’ wartime compensation claims.
In 2007, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that Chinese individuals have no right to demand war reparations from Japan, noting that Beijing renounced its claims under the 1972 joint statement when Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties were normalized.
If the Beijing court accepts the lawsuit, it would mean the leadership headed by President Xi Jinping has given its approval for citizens to take war-related legal action, given that courts are under the strong influence of the ruling Communist Party.
If accepted, it is also very likely that the court would rule in favor of the plaintiffs and diplomatic and economic relations would be influenced in a profound way.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday that Japan’s liability for its wartime actions in China has already been settled by bilateral agreement.
“No outstanding problems exist” with regard to liability, including claims by individuals, following the 1972 statement that normalized relations between the two countries after World War II, Suga told a regular news conference.He declined comment on the lawsuit in detail, saying it is “a civil suit between the Chinese side and related companies.”
According to a report by the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, about 39,000 Chinese were uprooted and forced to work in Japanese coal mines and construction sites amid a great shortage of labor during the war Japan waged in China between 1937 and 1945, including some 3,700 who had to work for Mitsubishi Materials.
The Chinese group took legal action after South Korean courts ordered several Japanese firms last year to pay damages over wartime forced labor, even though Tokyo and Seoul agreed in 1965 when normalizing bilateral ties that all compensation issues had been settled.
The group’s action also comes as Beijing is stepping up its campaign at home and abroad to warn of Japan’s resurgent militarism, especially after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tokyo’s war-related Yasukuni Shrine in late December.
The group is considering filing similar lawsuits with courts in Shanghai and Chinese provinces, including Shandong and Hebei. If so, it is almost certain the number of plaintiffs will increase.
Asked about the legal action, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the forced recruitment of labor is “a severe crime” committed by the Japanese military during the war and described it as an unresolved historical issue.
“We urge the Japanese side to be responsible to history, seriously deal with relevant concerns and properly resolve relevant issues,” she said at a regular press briefing.