HONG KONG — A court in Shanghai has ordered the seizure of a Japanese ship as reparation for a debt dating back to the 1930s. The move is considered the first confiscation of Japanese assets in a lawsuit over wartime compensation.
The Shanghai Maritime Court had previously ordered Japanese shipping firm Mitsui O.S.K. Lines to pay close to $30 million for having lost two ships that its predecessor, Daido Kaiun, rented from a Chinese company in 1936.
During World War II, the Japanese government expropriated the ships, which later sank at sea.
On Sunday, the court announced that it had seized the container ship Baosteel Emotion, stationed in Zhejiang province.
The court said that if Mitsui does not pay its debt the vessel will be disposed of according to the law.
Relations between Japan and China have been strained in recent years by territorial disputes and growing nationalism.
On Monday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida protested the Shanghai court's decision and warned of future diplomatic and economic fallout.
"This could even threaten the spirit of the part of the 1972 Japan-Sino joint statement which normalized diplomatic relations between Japan and China. I also feel a deep anxiety that economic activity between Japan and China will shrink because of this," said Kishida.
The Chinese foreign ministry says the case is just a regular business contract dispute and has nothing to do with wartime compensation.
More than 40 years ago, Japan and China signed an agreement to normalize relations. In it, China renounced its demands for war reparations from Japan in the interests of the friendship between the Chinese and the Japanese peoples.
The provision has caused controversy over the years, as people in China have attempted to seek compensation for crimes such as forced labor, sexual slavery and lost assets.
Lawsuits filed in Japan have been rejected, and Chinese courts have also been reluctant to accept such cases.
In a recent rare case, a court in Beijing accepted a lawsuit on behalf of Chinese laborers exploited by Japanese companies during World War II.
Liu Jiangyong, a professor of China-Japan relations at Beijing's Tsinghua University, said such litigation does not contradict China's diplomatic agreement with Japan. He said that while the Chinese government has forfeited the right to ask for reparations, there are legitimate demands from individuals who suffered losses during the war.
“The Japanese government and the companies who at that time caused the injuries should give compensation according to the law and in a humanitarian spirit," said Liu. "This is not a war reparation, this would be a civil compensation with wartime as the background of the offense.”
Many in China believe that the Japanese government has not atoned for the abuses perpetrated during its militarist past.
On Monday, in a move strongly protested by China, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent ritual offerings to the Yasukuni Shrine.
The monument honors Japanese war dead, including 14 convicted World War II war criminals.