HIROSHIMA – The Hiroshima High Court on Friday overturned a lower court ruling and awarded damages in full to a group of Chinese wartime slave laborers.
The laborers in question were forced to work under severe conditions at a construction site in Hiroshima Prefecture during World War II.
The high court overturned a July 2002 ruling by the Hiroshima District Court that rejected the lawsuit brought by Shao Yicheng, 78, and four other plaintiffs four years earlier against Nishimatsu Construction Co., a Tokyo-based construction firm.
It is the first time in a series of lawsuits involving slave laborers that a high court has ordered the defendant to pay damages to the plaintiffs.
Nishimatsu immediately filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.
In handing down Friday’s ruling, presiding Judge Satoshi Suzuki rejected Nishimatsu’s argument that the statute of limitations had expired on the firm’s violation of its obligation to ensure the safety of its workers.
“Forcibly taking people to Japan and making them work is a serious violation of human rights, and the argument (by Nishimatsu) that brings up the (10-year) statute of limitations runs counter to (the course of) justice,” Suzuki said.
The judge awarded the plaintiffs, who included relatives of now-deceased laborers, the full amount they had demanded — 5.5 million yen each — when they filed the suit with the Hiroshima District Court in January 1998.
Mirroring the district court decision, Suzuki said Nishimatsu’s actions in forcibly bringing the plaintiffs to Japan and making them work without regard to its obligation to provide them with a safe working environment resulted from a dovetailing of government policy and private companies’ desire to make a profit.
The judge also criticized the fact that Nishimatsu had continued to prosper after the war, thanks to measures such as government compensation, even though the slave laborers continued to suffer even after returning to China.
Yet whereas the lower court ruled that damages could not be claimed because the plaintiffs’ rights to compensation had expired, the high court said this position should not be taken.
However, regarding compensation for the illegal act of forcibly bringing the workers to Japan, the high court ruled that there was no reason to disregard the 20-year statute of limitations and awarded no damages.
When learning of the contents of the ruling through an interpreter, the plaintiffs present in the courtroom jumped up and joined hands, repeatedly shouting “We’ve won!” in Chinese.
Legal experts said the decision shows understanding of the position in which plaintiffs in wartime compensation lawsuits, who are all growing old, are placed.
It also serves to break down what has long been called the “barrier of time” in these lawsuits — the argument that the statute of limitations to bring the cases to court has already expired.
According to the court, the plaintiffs are among 360 Chinese forcibly brought to work in Japan in July 1944.
A majority of the laborers worked at Nishimatsu’s hydraulic power plant construction site in Hiroshima Prefecture.