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The Tokyo District Court on Tuesday rejected an 840 million yen lawsuit filed by 42 Chinese nationals over labor they were forced to perform during World War II.

The suit, filed in September 1997, sought damages and unpaid wages from the government and 10 Japanese companies.

Presiding Judge Mariko Watabiki said the plaintiffs lost their right to demand compensation when 20 years had passed since the illegal act.

“There are no special circumstances to take into account (in this case),” she said, “and so the (plaintiffs’) right to seek redress has expired.”

However, Watabiki also rejected the legal argument that the state bore no responsibility for the actions of civil servants that occurred before enactment of the State Redress Law.

“It cannot be said that there is no room to apply the concept of employer responsibility under the Civil Code,” she said.

In the suit, the plaintiffs also demanded that an apology be printed in newspapers in Japan and China.

The plaintiffs said they were forcibly brought to Japan between 1944 and 1945 and made to work under harsh conditions in mines, at construction sites and other locations operated by the 10 companies.

The companies named as defendants are Hazama Corp., Nishimatsu Construction Co., Tekken Corp., Nittetsu Mining Co., Japan Energy Corp., Furukawa Co., Ube Industries Ltd., Dowa Mining Co., Tobishima Corp. and Mitsubishi Materials Corp.

The plaintiffs said the state and firms worked together to abduct them to Japan for forced labor in violation of international law. They also argued that the defendants violated their duties to ensure worker safety and thus are obliged to pay damages based on China’s civil law at the time.

The state and companies argued that Chinese law cannot be applied in Japan and that the plaintiffs had no right to damages because the 20-year statute of limitations had expired.

Watabiki said that while general theory and past precedents dictate that the state does not bear responsibility for actions that took place before the State Redress Law was enacted, “the legal basis for this is not exactly clear, and it is not justifiable or rational at this point in time.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers praised the rejection of this theory but are expected to file an appeal. They said the ruling is the worst so far concerning lawsuits over forced Chinese labor in Japan, because the court totally dismissed the claims.

“How can the state be absolved of all responsibility for something it did under government policy just because of the passage of time?” asked Toru Takahashi, who heads the plaintiffs’ lawyer team.

According to Foreign Ministry documents, nearly 39,000 Chinese were used as forced laborers from 1943 to 1945 at 135 locations and for 35 companies. The documents show some 6,800 of the laborers have died.

According to lawyer groups, 11 cases of compensation demands for wartime forced labor have been brought before the nation’s courts, and another five are pending. District court rulings have already been handed down in six cases, including Tuesday’s; one has been settled out of court.

In most of the rulings, the plaintiffs’ demands have been partially recognized but the content of the decisions have all differed.

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