• Kyodo

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The Kyoto District Court on Wednesday rejected a suit filed by former wartime Chinese laborers and the family of one who died, who were seeking compensation from a steel producer and the government for forcibly bringing them to Japan in 1944 to work in nickel mines.

Five former laborers, including Liu Zonggen, 72, and relatives of a former laborer now deceased, were together demanding 130 million yen in compensation from the government and Nippon Yakin Kogyo Co., as well as an apology.

The plaintiffs said they were forced to work at the Tokyo-based firm’s nickel factory at the Oeyama mines in Kaya, Kyoto Prefecture, after being forcibly brought from China.

Although presiding Judge Shin Kusumoto acknowledged that the government and the firm had acted illegally, he rejected the plaintiffs’ demand for compensation, saying their right to claim redress had expired under a 20-year statute of limitations.

At the same time, the judge rejected the government’s argument that the prewar Meiji Constitution, which was in effect from 1890 to 1947, spared the government from having to compensate individuals damaged by the exercise of state power.

Kusumoto said forcibly taking laborers and putting them to work was not an exercise of state power but purely “a systematic act by the former Japanese military based on its superior power, and had no legal basis.” It is the first time for a court to reject this line of argument in a war redress suit.

The plaintiffs and their lawyers praised the ruling on that point, calling it “a groundbreaking decision,” because the argument that the government could not be held responsible under the Meiji Constitution has been the biggest obstacle in such lawsuits.

Legal experts said that although the plaintiffs lost the suit, the ruling itself extends the recent trend by the nation’s district courts to seek to chart out a path to provide some form of redress.

Liu, who was 14 when he was brought to Japan, told reporters after the ruling that he would fight to the end.

“This ruling lacks humanity. How could such a ruling be handed down?” he asked angrily. “I do not think I will lose. I have spoken only the truth before the court, following my conscience.”

The suit was filed in August 1998 and the court had recommended a settlement in July 2001. The government and the firm refused, citing the expired statute of limitations.

The plaintiffs said they had been snatched by pro-Japanese Chinese soldiers when they where working in the fields of Henan Province in China in 1944 and taken to Japan, where they were forced to toil for 14-hour days.

They were beaten if they did not meet their quotas, and were not paid any wages, the suit claimed.

The laborers were provided only with thin blankets in the winter, were given one soybean bun for each meal and were left unattended if they were injured or fell ill, according to the plaintiffs.

Among the 200 people forcibly brought to the factory, 12 died from lack of proper care, they said.

They were released after Japan’s surrender and returned to China in December 1945, but said they were not aware that they could sue the Japanese government until over 50 years had passed and they happened to be contacted by Japanese lawyers who were visiting China to study war compensation issues.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers said they will appeal the decision to a higher court.

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