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This month marks the 67th anniversary of Japan’s declaration of war against the United States and Britain. This long span of time is one reason the Japanese people have grown oblivious to the lessons learned from defeat in war.

A typical example of this oblivion is the writings of Gen. Toshio Tamogami, the ousted chief of staff of the Air Self-Defense Force. His contest essay, in which he tried to justify Japan’s aggression in Asian countries, caused a furor. One thing he failed to touch on is the large number of war reparation lawsuits filed by non-Japanese people since the war ended.

The people of China and South Korea, in particular, suffered seriously from Japanese actions and this has been a major impediment to restoring relations of mutual trust with Japan. Now that the first-ever summit conference of the three nations has been held in Fukuoka, it is incumbent upon Tokyo to do everything in its power to resolve the postwar reparations issue.

In his essay, Gen. Tamogami asserts that five Asian countries, including Thailand, have taken the affirmative view of the “Greater East Asia War,” but makes no mention of China or South Korea, which have long warned against the revival of militarism in Japan. He thus turns a blind eye to some 1,000 victims of the war from China, South Korea and three other countries that have taken the Japanese government and Japanese corporations to court, demanding compensation for being subjected to forced labor, germ warfare, genocide, indiscriminate bombing, sex slavery (so-called comfort women services), and the abandonment of weapons containing poisonous gases.

There were about 70 such cases in the 1990s. Although rulings in favor of the plaintiffs have been handed down by some district courts and high courts, there has not been a single case in which a war victim has won a final victory before the Supreme Court. Settlements with corporations have been reached in only three cases involving South Koreans, and in two cases involving Chinese. Japan’s judiciary has cited three reasons for turning down reparation demands: • China and South Korea abandoned their rights to demand war reparations under the Japan-China joint declaration of 1972 and the peace treaty of 1978, and under the Japan-Korea agreement “Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation” of 1965. • An individual right to claim reparations is not customarily recognized by international law. • Japanese courts have ruled that even in the case of a civil wrongdoing, the right to claim compensation expires after 20 years.

Although some courts have expressed sympathy with the plight of plaintiffs, they have stopped short of expressing specific views on compensation, saying only that the matter is within the purview of the legislative branch of the government or that the Diet should enact a law to expedite compensation.

The plaintiffs in the postwar compensation lawsuits were placed at a decisive disadvantage last April when the Supreme Court ruled that Chinese citizens forcibly taken to Japan to work for Nishimatsu Construction Co. had no right to claim damages because of the terms of the Sino-Japanese joint declaration. This has led even supporters of the lawsuits to lose hope.

The Supreme Court did express the desire that Nishimatsu Construction and other parties work toward a rescue. The plaintiffs’ attorneys have interpreted this as a call to the private sector to fulfill its social responsibility by paying appropriate compensation as well as an appeal to the government to seek a political solution to the problem through such means as enacting a law to rescue the victims. Thus the campaign for securing reparations for the victims is likely to shift to the political arena.

A organization called Asian Women’s Fund was established in 1995 to channel reparation money to individual victims on behalf of the government. A sum of ¥2 million each was paid to former “comfort women” and a letter of apology was sent by the prime minister. The operating cost of this fund was borne by the government, but the fund relied on public contributions. Monetary compensation has so far gone out to nearly 300 people, but some have refused the payment since it does not constitute compensation from the state.

In 2000, the three opposition groups of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party submitted to the Diet a legislative bill for an expeditious resolution of the problems related to women forced to work at military brothels as comfort women.

This and subsequent bills failed to pass the legislature, and the three parties plan to make yet another attempt during the ordinary Diet session to convene in January. In July 2007, meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution calling upon the Japanese government to take legislative steps to resolve the comfort woman issue. The campaign toward that goal has gained momentum on a global scale as similar resolutions have subsequently been adopted by the lower houses of the Netherlands and Canada as well as by the European Parliament. That makes it all the more urgent for both the ruling coalition and the opposition camp of Japan to tackle this matter in earnest.

Last May, the Democratic Party of Japan submitted to the Diet a bill to pay special compensatory money to former Class B and C war criminals of Korean and Taiwanese origin. Denied denied the benefits paid to former Japanese military personnel and civilian workers after losing their Japanese citizenship when the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan became independent of Japan, they have since suffered from poverty and a maligned reputation.

A noteworthy proposal by Masahiko Yamada, one of the attorneys for a group of Chinese plaintiffs demanding wartime reparations — besides monetary payments to individual victims — is to have the Diet adopt a resolution to make an apology and to build tombs or monuments for victims with money from the Japanese government. He says some Chinese plaintiffs demand this approach in connection with the September 1932 massacre of Pingdingshan villagers by Japanese soldiers in the northern part of present-day Liaoning Province. He says more attention should be paid to this type of resolution, which he believes could replace cumbersome court proceedings.

It is difficult to gain support from politicians for a legislative measure for reparations to wartime victims because the issue does not win more votes. Yet, Japan cannot circumvent this problem if it is to regain international confidence lost because of the war.

China declined Japan’s offer to dispatch ASDF transport planes for rescue operations following the devastating earthquakes in Sichuan province in May, citing the Chinese people’s unfavorable sentiment toward Japan. For elevating the morale of the Self-Defense Forces personnel, it is more desirable to resolve the wartime reparations issue so that SDF members will be appreciated by China than to force upon SDF members the distorted interpretation of history contained in Gen. Tamogami’s essay.

War victims are aging. Some of those suffering from the effects of abandoned poison gas weapons are unable to pay their medical bills. Both the government and the legislature must not lose any more time in extending a helping hand.

Kiroku Hanai is a journalist and former editorial writer for Tokyo Shimbun.

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