The settlement that Mitsubishi Materials Corp. reached this month with Chinese groups seeking redress for forced labor during World War II should serve as a model for efforts toward reconciliation over wartime damage that, more than 70 years after the end of the war, can get entangled by legal and diplomatic constraints. The case also testifies to the many unresolved war-related issues that still lie between Japan and its East Asian neighbors seven decades on.

In 1942, the government, in response to requests from the industrial sectors, decided to bring in workers from China, with which Japan was at war, to make up for a domestic labor shortage. About 39,000 Chinese were subjected to forced labor at mines and construction sites across Japan, 6,830 of whom died under the brutal conditions. In the 1990s, former forced laborers filed a series of lawsuits against the Japanese government and businesses seeking compensation.

The government has taken the position that under the 1972 Japan-China joint statement that normalized diplomatic ties, China renounced its rights to seek state as well as individual compensation for wartime harm. Although Japanese courts recognized the facts about forced labor, a 2007 Supreme Court decision that the victims’ rights to seek individual compensation had been relinquished in the 1972 communique ruled out a judicial settlement to the former workers’ demands for damages. In view of the hardships experienced by the former forced laborers, however, the top court urged voluntary efforts by the parties concerned for relief to the victims.

Mitsubishi Materials’ predecessor, Mitsubishi Mining Corp., was among the more than 30 Japanese firms that used Chinese forced laborers during the war. Thousands of Chinese workers were sent to the mines of the company and its affiliates, including sites in Hokkaido and Fukuoka Prefecture. The settlement formally signed on June 1 covered 3,765 Chinese workers, more than 700 of whom reportedly died amid the harsh conditions. That only about a dozen of the workers are confirmed to be alive — and that relatives of only about 1,000 have been located — testifies to the time that has elapsed since the war without relief for the victims.

Under the settlement, Mitsubishi Materials acknowledged its “historic responsibility” for the pain and suffering of the Chinese workers and apologized to the victims who were forcibly taken to the mines in Japan, where they experienced “violation of human rights” due to the forced labor under cruel conditions. It will provide 100,000 yuan (about ¥1.7 million) to each of the victims, erect a memorial for the victims at a cost of ¥100 million and spend ¥200 million in efforts to locate the victims who have yet to be found. The total amount of its spending will reach ¥7 billion.

It is a historic settlement representing voluntary efforts by a private-sector business to resolve a war-related dispute in the absence of a court decision. Past settlements reached between Japanese firms that used Chinese forced laborers during the war and the surviving victims have been mediated by Japanese courts. Mitsubishi’s negotiations since 2014 with the Chinese groups representing the victims of forced labor were apparently aimed at averting the legal risk of damages suits filed in China against the firm, which would have threatened the company’s business interests in the country. Still, Mitsubishi Materials’ efforts to voluntarily settle the dispute by sincerely addressing the damage it caused more than seven decades ago should be lauded.

The Japanese government has said it would not comment on a voluntary settlement between private-sector parties. It’s not clear how Mitsubishi’s decision will affect other Japanese firms that are known to have used forced laborers from China. They should look to their own past deeds and explore what actions they should take.

Seven decades after the war’s end, Japan’s reconciliation with its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, is far from over, and wartime issues continue to haunt bilateral relations. Disputes also linger over the wartime mobilization of Korean workers, but the Japanese government and companies do not recognize them as forced laborers on the grounds that the people from Korea — then under Japan’s colonial rule — were mobilized under the same condition as Japanese workers. A 1965 accord between Japan and South Korea, signed along with the basic treaty that normalized Tokyo-Seoul ties, said individual claims by South Koreans over damages deriving from the colonial rule were settled “completely and finally” as Japan provided $800 million in economic aid and loans. However, South Korea’s top court ruled in 2012 that the rights of individuals to seek damages had not expired, prompting a series of legal action by the former workers against Japanese firms.

There are legal issues that will be hard to settle at the government level. But efforts by the private sectors and at grass-roots levels, such as the settlement over the wartime forced laborer, will certainly contribute to reconciliation between the people of Japan and those in neighboring countries.

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