Class-action lawsuits against Japanese corporations will soon be filed by former forced laborers in Chinese courts, marking the first-ever litigation in China stemming from Japan's war conduct. The Beijing government is raising the ante by permitting the lawsuits because the 14 forced-labor cases filed in Japanese courts over the past decade have failed to produce the desired apologies and monetary damages.
China's new resolve in pressing the issue follows two major defeats in Japanese courtrooms in March. District courts in Fukuoka and Nagano rejected redress claims against the Japanese state and six corporations on the grounds that the statute of limitations expired years ago.
Yet as in previous decisions, judges in both cases found that the state and private companies jointly engaged in illegal conduct by forcibly bringing the Chinese plaintiffs to Japan and then forcing them into brutal labor at mines, docks and construction sites between 1943 and 1945. The Japanese government's own records, concealed until the mid-1990s, confirm that 38,935 men between the ages of 11 and 78 were violently dragooned from war-torn North China.
Food, clothing and shelter were provided at -- and in many cases below -- survival threshold levels. The overall death rate was 17.5 percent, but at some of the 135 corporate worksites fully half of all laborers perished. In 1946, remarkably, Japanese companies became "double winners" by receiving generous payouts from state coffers to make up for losses supposedly incurred through their unpaid use of Chinese workers.
Most of the firms involved are still in business, among them well-known names like Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Kajima, Sumitomo and Nippon Steel. The Tokyo government today concedes that the labor program was "half-forced," but insists all compensation claims were extinguished by the 1972 accord that restored diplomatic relations with China. Beijing has come to dispute that interpretation partly in reaction to rising Japanese nationalism, now holding that individual claims by Chinese citizens remain open.
The March 29 decision by the Fukuoka District Court was closely watched, in China and elsewhere, because Mitsubishi Materials Corp. mounted a brazen defense based on revisionist historical arguments. Corporate lawyers denied there had been forced labor or any mistreatment at its local coal mines, despite fatality rates of 25 percent, according to Japanese government documents.
Mitsubishi also heaped criticism on the American-led Tokyo war crimes trials of 1946-48, and openly questioned whether Japan ever "invaded" China at all. The company warned that a redress award for the elderly Chinese plaintiffs would saddle Japan with a "mistaken burden of the soul" for hundreds of years.
The Fukuoka court affirmed the historical record of forced labor, but declined to penalize Mitsubishi. In unusual remarks at the Nagano District Court on March 10, the judge expressed his personal desire that Chinese forced labor victims be compensated through non-judicial means. Germany provides the obvious example for settling WWII forced labor accounts.
The "Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future" Foundation was established in 2000, with funding of some $6 billion provided by the German federal government and more than 6,500 industrial enterprises. As reparations payments drew to a close in late 2005, about 1.6 million forced labor victims or their heirs had received individual apologies and symbolic compensation of up to $10,000. Similarly, the Austrian Reconciliation Fund recently finished paying out nearly $350 million to 132,000 workers, or their families, forced to toil for the Nazi war machine in that country.
Forced labor lawsuits in Chinese courts might eventually push Japanese government and industry leaders into enacting a German-style compensation fund based on self-interest, if a shifting calculus of costs and benefits makes reparations less painful than perpetual intransigence.
Chinese consumer boycotts fueled by negative publicity could devastate Japanese corporate balance sheets, especially in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. And unless China drops its objections, Tokyo's keen desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council will remain blocked.
The center of gravity for the forced-labor redress campaign is clearly shifting to China, where activists appear both patient and determined. Chinese individuals and corporations alike have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a special fund to support China-side litigation efforts.
"This fight will continue for generations," an 81-year-old plaintiff vowed outside the Fukuoka courthouse. "We will never give up."
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April 27, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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