BEIJING — As relations between China and Japan plummet to a new low, the descendants of nearly one thousand Chinese men forced to work in wartime Japan are taking big, modern-day Japanese companies to court, seeking millions in compensation.
Japan invaded China in 1937 in a bloody war and ruled it with a brutal hand for the next eight years. Chinese historians say nearly 40,000 men were taken to Japan against their will to work in mines and perform construction work. Survivors say living conditions were appalling. Many did not make it back to China.
Last month, China impounded a ship owned by Japan's Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd over a dispute that dates back to the war between the countries. The seizure had sparked some initial concerns that Japanese assets in China might become casualties in legal battles between Japanese companies and activists seeking redress.
In March, a Chinese court in Beijing accepted a case against Japanese companies for forced labor in World War II for the first time. Since then, nearly 1000 families seeking compensation have joined similar lawsuits against large Japanese corporations, such as Mitsubishi Materials Co, Nippon Coke and Engineering Co and Nippon Yakin Kogyo.
The lawsuits arrive at a sore point in China-Japan ties and could further irritate diplomatic relations. Late last month, China released previously confidential Japanese wartime documents, including some about comfort women forced to serve in military brothels. The files also contain details of the Nanjing Massacre, a major source of heated debate between the countries.
It is unclear whether the lawsuits will be accepted by the Chinese courts, but lawyers say they are optimistic because the courts have asked them to provide more evidence to their claims.
Kang Jian, the lawyer for Liu Guolian, the daughter of a former forced laborer named Liu Qian, who died in 2010, said Liu, as well as 39 other plaintiffs, are owed 1 million yuan each, but Mitsubishi has made a “very, very low” counteroffer. She declined to disclose the figure as talks are still ongoing. Officials from Nippon Coke have refused to meet, she said.
“Actually, we filed suit in Japan [first], in order make it easier to thoroughly investigate the facts. Now, in reality, it also gave the Japanese government and the relevant Japanese companies an opportunity to resolve this on their own accord. But what's extremely unfortunate is, the Japanese government and the relevant Japanese companies are not very smart. They themselves gave up, and lost, this opportunity,” she said.
Japan insists that the issue of compensation was settled by the framework of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which formally ended the war, and by later bilateral treaties.
Many of the former forced laborers have died in the more than half century since the war.
“The Japanese government has put off a resolution all along, and now the forced laborers have passed away, one by one. So this time in the lawsuit, out of the 40 plaintiffs, there are only 2 survivors. However, our lawsuit can still be filed smoothly, because with more than ten years of litigation means we have, in practice, already clearly investigated the facts about the victims. We've kept a detailed record of the investigation, and the evidence is basically complete, so this time, our Beijing lawsuit shouldn't face any obstacles related to this issue,” Kang said.
Liu Guolian said her father spent over a year as a forced laborer of Mitsui Mining, now Nippon Coke, to work in their mines in Fukuoka, Japan. She said he often went hungry and had to pick on food scraps by the roadside to survive. His Japanese supervisor had even used an axe to hit his leg, causing him permanent injury.
“He said, 'I'm very lucky.' At the time, he was right in the prime of his life, 20-something years old. He said there were some who were older than him, or there were some kids in their teens - they had them all. He said there were some who didn't come back,” she said.
During the war, 7,000 Chinese men who worked for 35 Japanese firms died, state news agency Xinhua said.
“You get humiliated, you face so much hardship, you get no apology, or even any wages, who would accept that? To his dying breath, he still said, ‘If you have the chance, you have to settle this account with them,’” Liu said.
Spokesmen for Nippon Coke and Mitsubishi Materials both declined to comment. A Nippon Yakin spokesman said the company is unaware of any new lawsuits against it.
The pressure on the firms is particularly intense at this time in China, which is sore about a row with Japan over a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit last year to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war criminals are honored among the country's war dead.