• Kyodo

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The Fukuoka District Court on Friday ordered Mitsui Mining Co. to pay 165 million yen in damages to 15 Chinese men who were forcibly brought to Japan as slave laborers during World War II.

The decision marks the first time a Japanese court has ordered a private company to pay compensation for the forcible transportation of civilians during the war. The plaintiffs had demanded a total of 345 million yen in compensation from the central government and the Tokyo-based company.

Presiding Judge Motoaki Kimura’s ruling is also the first to determine that forcibly bringing people to Japan and making them supply labor were illegal acts jointly conducted by the state and the companies.

However, the court upheld the government’s argument that under the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (the Meiji Constitution), in effect at the time, the state has no responsibility to pay compensation to individuals, even if they incurred losses due to the exercising of state authority.

Under Japan’s Civil Code, the right to compensation is forfeited 20 years after the illegal act took place. Mitsui Mining had argued that the plaintiffs are not entitled to compensation due to this statute of limitations.

But in handing down his landmark ruling, Kimura said it “goes greatly against the idea of justice” to have the rule apply to this particular suit.

Kimura also ruled that the signing of such government-level agreements as the Japan-China Joint Communique of 1972 and the China-Japan Peace and Friendship Treaty in 1978 cannot be recognized as ending the plaintiffs’ right to seek damages.

The plaintiffs were captured in 1943 and 1944 and shipped to Japan, where they were forced to work for Mitsui Mining at its Miike and Tagawa coal mines in Fukuoka Prefecture until the end of the war. The men had each sought 23 million yen in compensation from the state and the firm, and demanded they publish an apology.

Wide smiles emerged on the faces of plaintiffs Zhang Wukui, 78, and Du Zongren, 72, who were present to hear the ruling.

“While I am dissatisfied that the state’s responsibility was not recognized, there were great efforts made to come to this point,” Zhang later said.

When asked whether the prolonged court battle is taking its toll on the aging plaintiffs, Du replied, “We do not tire, and will continue to fight.”

Forced migration by the state and forced labor by the company is “a historical fact,” according to the Chinese men, and the two parties failed to fulfill their obligations to provide unpaid wages and treatment for injuries after the war caused by the labor.

Judge Kimura, however, rejected this charge.

“The plaintiffs returned (to China) after the war, and although (the compensation) may not have been sufficient, in view of the turbulence after the war’s conclusion,” the defendants did their best under the circumstances to compensate the plaintiffs, he said.

A Mitsui Mining official said the firm will appeal the ruling.

An estimated 40,000 Chinese were captured by the Japanese military during the war and forcibly brought to Japan, where they were made to work in an extremely harsh environment in coal mines and harbors. They were given little food and were often unpaid. Some 7,000 of them died due to the severe conditions and overwork, according to the plaintiffs.

According to the plaintiffs, the Japanese government and Mitsui Mining tried to cover up their forced labor practices during World War II and are in violation of the 1930 International Labor Organization Convention Concerning Forced Labor. Japan has ratified this convention.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer Toyoji Tachiki welcomed the ruling, saying it was “the first time the courts recognized the responsibility of companies that cooperated in Japan’s war of aggression.”

He noted that the court determined that individuals still have the right to claim damages, and praised the judgment as a brave one.

According to the Justice Ministry, suits involving Chinese forced laborers are being fought in Hokkaido, Niigata, Tokyo, Nagano, Kyoto and Hiroshima.

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