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California and the West

Ex-POWs Sue 5 Japanese Companies

Litigation: The filing on behalf of 500 Americans claims the firms used them as slave laborers during World War II. But some defendants say they didn't exist then.

September 15, 1999|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former World War II prisoners of war and other activists stepped up their pressure against Japanese corporations in the United States, announcing Tuesday a nationwide class-action lawsuit alleging that the companies brutalized POWs and forced them to perform slave labor in Asia during the war.

The lawsuit, part of an escalating U.S. offensive to win reparations for Japanese war crimes, targets five corporate giants: Mitsubishi International Corp., Mitsui & Co. (USA) Inc., Nippon Steel, Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. and Showa Denko. The suit was filed late Monday in New Mexico on behalf of more than 500 ex-POWs who say they were beaten, denied food and water, deprived of medical care and made to perform backbreaking labor in coal mines, munitions factories and other venues during their captivity.

"Let's set history straight so people know the whole truth and this won't happen again," said Melvin Routt, 77, a Navy veteran from the San Joaquin Valley town of Tracy, who dropped more than half his weight and suffered a series of medical problems during more than three years of captivity.

The pressure on the companies is particularly intense in California, in part because the state's large Asian American population has become active in the campaign. California is the headquarters of a global network of activists working to win war reparations and is home to more than 500 Asian war victims, said Sheldon Harris, professor emeritus of Cal State Northridge and consultant to a leading law firm exploring litigation.

In addition, the state Legislature recently has passed laws extending the statute of limitations for World War II lawsuits to 2010 and a resolution urging Japan to apologize for its misdeeds and pay individual reparations. Attorneys for the victims hope those actions will help rebut the argument that issues of wartime reparations are political rather than legal matters. Two federal district judges in New Jersey cited that argument in dismissing slave labor lawsuits against European firms Monday.

Some of the Japanese firms named in the suits declined comment until they had a chance to study the lawsuits.

But spokesmen for Mitsui and Mitsubishi said the U.S.-based firms are wrongly being targeted in the mounting litigation, because they did not exist during the war and had no relationship to the Japanese wartime conglomerates accused of slave labor in the lawsuit.

"We have the deepest sympathy for the prisoners of war who filed the lawsuit," said Mitsui spokesman Shin Hirabayashi. "But the U.S. subsidiary's parent organization, Mitsui & Co. Ltd., was formed in 1947 and its 554 worldwide subsidiaries do not include Mitsui Mining Co.," which operated the coal mine where POWs were put to work.

The mounting legal attacks are drawing direct inspiration from the strategies employed in cases against German and other European corporations--including some discussion of economic boycotts and other tactics to force the Japanese to settle. They place Japanese firms in a quandary: Should they perpetuate the image of an insufficiently repentant Japan by fighting the suits or settle them as several German firms are moving to do?

So far, at least four lawsuits on behalf of ex-POWs have been filed in California and other legal maneuvers are underway. Two players active in Holocaust litigation--Los Angeles attorney Barry A. Fisher and the firm of Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach--are exploring litigation.

For such veterans as Routt, the lawsuits represent the last, best hope for justice.

In a little-known page of history, Routt said he and other Pacific War veterans had been kept from telling their stories for decades by the U.S. military, which required them to sign secrecy agreements about their brutal treatment.

In trying to fashion Japan into an Asian bulwark against communism as the Cold War began, Japan experts say, the U.S. government pardoned some of Imperial Japan's top leaders, short-circuited reparations programs, reversed the dissolution of Japanese conglomerates and waived payment of international relief funds to American POWs after the war.

The government's actions raise questions about the appropriateness of suits now against the companies, some experts in U.S.-Japanese relations argue.

"Having exonerated the top leaders, it now looks opportunistic for the U.S. to go after the shrimps simply because they've gotten rich," said Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute.

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