In an unprecedented ruling, the Tokyo District Court on Monday ordered the state to pay a total of 190 million yen to 13 Chinese who lost relatives or suffered health problems due to weapons abandoned by the Imperial Japanese Army at the end of World War II.
It is the first time a Japanese court has recognized the government’s responsibility for wartime gas barrels abandoned in China.
The lawsuit was filed in 1996 by the 13 plaintiffs over three incidents in China’s Heilongjiang Province: leakages of poison gas in 1974 and 1982, and the explosion of an artillery shell in 1995.
The court called the abandonment of chemical weapons and shells “a positive act of creating situations dangerous to human lives and health.”
Presiding Judge Yoshihiro Katayama said the government could have predicted the dangers if it had examined documents left by the military or asked former soldiers who returned from China for information.
Katayama said the government could have prevented the accidents by providing China with relevant information or offering to search for and recover the weapons.
In May, the Tokyo District Court dismissed a similar case brought by five Chinese who had suffered from discarded weapons, ruling it was difficult for Japan to collect those weapons from a sovereign state. The plaintiffs hailed Monday’s ruling as “epoch making.”
“I am delighted that a Japanese court has followed the principles of justice and fairness and recognized our suffering,” said Li Chen, one of the plaintiffs.
Li, 58, is in Tokyo at the invitation of a support group. He developed blisters over his entire body after coming into contact with poison gas while working on a ship in 1974.
“This is a historic ruling that will contribute to enhancing the status of the court” in the eyes of the general public, said Nobuo Oikawa, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “It took in all the good things that (lawyers in similar wartime redress lawsuits) have accumulated in the courts.”
The court rejected the government’s oft-cited claim that Beijing renounced wartime repatriation from Japan when it signed the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique.
“What is at question is the government’s inaction, which has continued after each incident since the joint communique,” the judge said. “As this inaction was not a wartime act, the plaintiffs retain the right to claim damages.”
The court also exempted the 1974 incident from the 20-year statute of limitations, saying that applying the statute of limitations in this case “runs against the principle of justice and fairness.”
The abandoned weapons continue to wreak havoc.
In August, a leak of mustard gas at a construction site in Qiqihar, Heilongjian Province, killed a man and injured more than 40 others.
The incident ignited Chinese anger over Japan’s handling of discarded weapons as well as its attitude toward its wartime conduct in general.
The Japanese government plans to offer 100 million yen as a token of “sympathy” for the victims; the Chinese public is demanding official compensation and an apology.
The Japanese government estimates 700,000 poison gas shells were left in China, while Beijing puts the number at 2 million. Beijing also claims 2,000 people have been killed or wounded by these weapons since the war.
Forgotten wartime gas canisters have become a matter of concern in Japan as well.
Residents of Kamisu, Ibaraki Prefecture, have complained of health problems from drinking well water. The well has been contaminated by arsenic, which is believed to have leaked from old abandoned arms.
The government was quick to offer to pay the residents’ medical costs, despite finding no link between the arsenic and chemical weapons.