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.