• Kyodo

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The Kyoto District Court will hand down a ruling next week on a 3 billion yen damages suit over the mysterious explosion of a ship in 1945 that was to take wartime Korean forced laborers back to their homeland.

During the proceedings so far, the plaintiffs — survivors as well as relatives of the more than 500 Koreans killed in the accident — and the Japanese government have remained sharply at odds over where responsibility for the tragedy lies.

The Ukishima Maru, an Imperial Japanese Navy transport vessel, was carrying about 4,000 passengers — most of them Koreans who had been taken to Japan to work as forced laborers during World War II — when it exploded and sank as it was about to enter Maizuru port in Fukui Prefecture on Aug. 24, 1945, nine days after Japan’s surrender.

The government announced that the ship had hit a mine placed by U.S. forces, and that 524 Koreans and 25 Japanese aboard died in the accident. However, some South Korean media later reported, quoting testimony by Korean survivors, that the explosion was a deliberate act by the Japanese crew, who feared a riot by the Koreans.

In 1992, about 80 Koreans — survivors of the blast and relatives of those killed — filed a lawsuit seeking 3 billion yen in compensation and an official apology from the government. “The plaintiffs hold a deep-rooted grudge that Japan has done nothing for the victims. The government should offer compensation because the victims were on their way back home after the forced labor ordeal,” said Nobuyuki Ono, a Japanese lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The ruling will be handed down on Aug. 23.

The focus of the trial has so far been whether the government at that time bore legal responsibility to safely take the Koreans back to their homeland.

The Ukishima Maru was carrying Koreans who had been taken to a military facility in Aomori Prefecture during the war. Korea was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.

Right after Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, the ship departed the port of Ominato in Aomori and was to head for Korea via Maizuru.

The plaintiffs argue that the voyage was the government’s responsibility, and that the incident took place during Imperial navy operations. They accuse Tokyo of failing to sufficiently probe the cause of the explosion and not identifying the victims.

However, Japan insists that it bears no legal responsibility for compensation, saying the workers had never been “employed” by the government. Contracts would have made the government legally responsible to ensure their safe return.

Forced laborers, mobilized under wartime government policies, were nominally hired by private-sector firms that operated the plants, mines and construction sites where they were taken.

The Korean plaintiffs criticize the government for offering neither compensation nor an apology in the 56 years since the tragedy. They say Japan’s conscience concerning its war responsibility is at stake in the trial.

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