SAPPORO – The Sapporo District Court on Tuesday rejected an 860 million yen damages suit against the government and six companies filed by 43 Chinese nationals enslaved to work at coal mines and construction sites in Hokkaido during World War II.
Presiding Judge Masaaki Okuda acknowledged that the plaintiffs were forced to perform hard labor under poor conditions, but ruled in favor of the government and the firms, which argued the statute of limitations had expired.
Okuda said government reparations do not apply to cases occurring before the 1947 creation of the State Redress Law. Tokyo had argued that the government was excused from having to compensate those harmed in the exercise of state power before the legislation.
The judge said the statute of limitations also applies to the firms, citing the expiration of relevant statutes of limitation in the Civil Code. Under the Civil Code, a wronged party’s right to claim damages expires 20 years after offenses are committed.
The six companies are Mitsui Mining Co., Sumitomo Coal Mining Co., Kumagai Gumi Co., Nippon Steel Corp., Mitsubishi Materials Corp. — all based in Tokyo — and Sapporo-based Chizaki Kogyo Co.
The companies said the plaintiffs did not have the right to seek compensation when they filed the suit in 1999. Seven of the 43 Chinese have since died.
The plaintiffs, who also sought an apology, called the claims about statutes of limitation an “abuse of power.”
The government also invoked the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique, which normalized bilateral ties, and its argument that the Meiji Constitution excused the government from having to compensate those harmed in the exercise of state power.
The current Constitution provides the right to compensation based on laws such as the State Redress Law.
The plaintiffs said they plan to appeal Tuesday’s ruling.
“This ruling is unfair,” said plaintiff Zhao Zongren, 73. “Responsibility lies with the Japanese government. Why did we lose?”
Zhao said he was brought to Japan at the age of 14 without being told where or what he would be doing. Nine of his companions died due to illness and other reasons within 18 months of arriving in Japan.
“They were all mere children,” he said. “We were used by Japan.”
Takafumi Tanaka, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said Tuesday’s ruling was “the worst and most disgusting verdict in history.”
“It is an extremely unjust ruling that runs counter to all the decisions (on similar cases) accumulated around the country,” he said.
The plaintiffs were forcibly brought to Japan during the war and made to work at factories, coal mines and other places under harsh conditions.
During the war, about 39,000 Chinese were brought to Japan as slave laborers. Of them, some 16,000 were forced to work in Hokkaido. About 3,000 died in Hokkaido after the war while waiting to be returned to China.
In a similar lawsuit, the Fukuoka District Court in 2002 ruled for the first time that the government and companies both committed a crime in using wartime slave labor. But the court only ordered the companies to pay compensation and excluded the government, agreeing with the government’s argument that it cannot be held responsible.
Similar lawsuits had not produced any ruling that ordered compensation from both the government and companies. There are currently 11 slave labor lawsuits by Chinese nationals pending before Japanese courts.