• Kyodo

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The Fukuoka High Court on Monday overturned a landmark lower court ruling and denied redress to 15 Chinese men forced to work in Japanese coal mines during World War II and said the statute of limitations has expired in the case.

In the first-ever ruling at the high court level on a series of lawsuits filed by former Chinese slave laborers across Japan, the court acknowledged, however, that the government and Mitsui Mining Co. shared joint liability for bringing the men from China to Japan and forcing them to work in the mines.

The court rejected the government’s argument that it enjoys immunity from liability for damages stemming from the exercise of state power under the Meiji Constitution.

But the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ demand for compensation on grounds that the statute of limitations has expired.

“Even though the plaintiffs were able to leave China starting in 1986, they did not promptly file the lawsuit,” presiding Judge Takayuki Minoda said.

He applied a Civil Code provision that says the wronged party has 20 years to claim damages after an illegal offense is committed. The plaintiffs plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In the suit, each of the 15 Chinese men sought 23 million yen in compensation from the government, which authorized bringing workers from China, and the company, which operated the mines, as well as a published apology.

Commenting on diplomatic documents submitted by the plaintiffs as evidence, Judge Minoda noted that the government “continued to lie to such parties as the Diet that Foreign Ministry reports (on investigations into wartime forced labor) did not exist.”

“This was a malicious destruction of evidence,” the judge said, adding that the forcible taking of the laborers from their families through violent means was “an act that transgresses moral laws.”

The high court ruling comes after an appeal against a landmark April 2002 ruling by the Fukuoka District Court that for the first time acknowledged the liability of both the state and Mitsui Mining and ordered the firm to pay 165 million yen in compensation.

The lower court supported the notion of state immunity from damages and rejected the demand for redress.

But the district court rejected the defendant’s claim that the statute of limitations had expired, saying that applying such a provision to this case “severely contradicts the idea of justice.”

Both Mitsui Mining and the plaintiffs appealed the lower court ruling.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs issued a statement saying Monday’s ruling was unjust and “greatly steps back” from the district court ruling.

“The ruling failed to directly view the facts, such as the coverup attempts by the state and the company,” they said.

Two of the plaintiffs — Zhang Baoheng, 81, and Liu Qian, 82 — were in Japan to attend the court session. One of the 15 plaintiffs has died since the suit was filed and his family has replaced him as a plaintiff.

“We cannot let our blood and sweat come to nothing,” an anguished Liu later told a news conference. “We will fight until the final victory. We must also regain the losses of our friends who died in a foreign land.”

Zhang said he wonders why the government continues to try to shirk its responsibility.

“How long must we be tossed about by fate?” he asked.

One of their lawyers, however, said the high court ruling did determine that the forced labor itself was illegal and that it was just a matter of how to interpret the statute of limitations.

More and more district courts in recent years have ruled in favor of Chinese and Korean plaintiffs suing the government for redress for having been forced to provide labor or sex.

The Imperial Japanese Army and the Japanese-controlled government in China transported about 39,000 Chinese to Japan between 1943 and 1945 to force them to perform unpaid slave labor.

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