• Kyodo

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The Kyoto District Court ordered the state Thursday to pay 45 million yen in redress to 15 South Koreans over a 1945 ship explosion that killed 524 Korean forced laborers who were returning home after Japan’s surrender, but ruled out an official apology.

Judge Satoshi Mizukami ordered the state to compensate 15 of the 80 plaintiffs who survived the tragedy and to relatives of the dead. The 80 had been seeking 3 billion yen.

Mizukami said it was confirmed the 15 survivors were actually on board the Ukishima Maru at the time of the accident but rejected claims by the other 65 plaintiffs because their presence aboard the ship could not be confirmed or because the claims from the relatives were groundless.

The court concluded that the government failed in its duty to transport the passengers safely, because a “legal relation,” similar to a legal contract between transporters and passengers, had been established between the government and the passengers at that time.

“The Japanese government was expected to return the Koreans, who were forced to come to Japan to perform labor, to their home safely,” Mizukami said.

He added that the ship could have avoided entering Maizuru port in Kyoto Prefecture, which was dangerous due to undersea mines, on the presumption that the blast was caused by a mine set by U.S. forces, as claimed by the government.

In South Korea, however, the explosion was reported as a deliberate act by Japanese crew members who feared reprisals from the Koreans when the ship reached their homeland.

The court concluded there was no evidence to support this theory.

The ruling marked the third case in which foreign war victims seeking compensation from the government were awarded payment.

Mizukami, however, rejected several of the plaintiffs’ demands, including one for an official apology from the state, reckoning that it was not clear what the plaintiffs specifically wanted.

The judge also rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that the government decision not to enact a law to compensate them was illegal.

In addition, the court denied a demand that the government return the remains of the victims, noting it is not clear whether the remains the plaintiffs sought were among those the government has entrusted to a temple in Tokyo.

The plaintiffs filed suit with the court on three occasions from 1992 to 1994, seeking an apology and about 3 billion yen.

Some expressed happiness with the ruling, but others were angry, saying their main demand was not money.

One of the plaintiffs’ supporters read out a statement that said, “We will not appeal the ruling, as we do not believe in Japanese courts or the mass media.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers accepted the ruling calmly, praising it to some extent, in part because they had feared the court would reject the claim outright.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda released a statement in the morning saying the government considers the ruling severe and will decide whether to appeal after discussing the issue with related ministries and agencies.

Masatoshi Uchida, a lawyer familiar with wartime compensation issues, praised the ruling as the “right decision,” because it admitted that the nation was obliged to safely repatriate foreigners who had been forced to Japan.

The court approached the issue from the victims’ point of view, Uchida figured. adding he hopes the ruling paves the way to resolving other war compensation claims against the government.

Ikuhiko Hata, a professor of modern history at Nippon University, said he doubts the ruling will stand, as both sides are likely to appeal.

According to the court, the former Japanese navy transport ship Ukishima Maru, carrying Koreans who had been forced laborers in military facilities in Aomori Prefecture, and their families, left Ominato port in the prefecture Aug. 22 in 1945.

The 4,730-ton ship exploded and capsized as it neared Maizuru port at around 5:20 p.m. Aug. 24, nine days after Japan’s surrender in the war.

Among the 4,000 people on board, 524 Koreans and 25 Japanese were killed, according to a government announcement at the time.

The plaintiffs claimed the government bore the responsibility to safely repatriate the Koreans. They maintained that the Ukishima Maru was operated by the Japanese government and that the state failed to take sufficient steps to investigate the cause of the accident or identify the victims.

The government contended that there was no employment relationship between the government and the Koreans that required the state to ensure their safety.

The government in January accepted a demand by some of the plaintiffs that the state return the remains of the victims to them.

However, the plaintiffs refused to receive the remains on grounds that there was no accompanying apology from the government.

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