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Japanese Firm Must Pay War Laborers

Asia: In the first such ruling in the nation, Mitsui Mining is ordered to give $85,000 to each of 15 Chinese forced to work for it in WWII.

April 27, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — A Japanese court ordered Mitsui Mining Co. on Friday to pay about $85,000 to each of 15 Chinese forced to work for the company in Japan during World War II, the first wartime-related judgment here against a private firm.

"This is unprecedented, a real step forward," said Masamichi Mori, an attorney representing Chinese plaintiffs in another case. "Japan has finally opened the door a crack toward accepting its responsibility."

The 15 plaintiffs, who are in their 70s and 80s, demanded recognition and money from the government and the company for forcing or duping them into working in Japan in 1943 and 1944.

Japanese legal experts said the decision should encourage plaintiffs in dozens of other wartime compensation cases filed in Japan. Those seeking recourse against Japanese companies in U.S. courts also are likely to review the decision closely for any crossover impact.

The Japanese government estimates that about 40,000 people from elsewhere in Asia were forced to work in wartime Japan's mines and factories for little or no pay as the country sought to maintain its war machine. Some observers say the real number is far higher.

Almost immediately after Friday's decision was handed down in the city of Fukuoka, Mitsui Mining spokesman Minoru Sasaki said the company had filed an appeal and hopes to see the decision quickly reversed.

"It is extremely regrettable that our stance was not recognized," he said. "We'll try and make our position clear before the appeal tribunal."

Mitsui Mining shouldn't have to bear the financial responsibility, he added. "Basically, it's a matter of government policy."

The government, however, has so far denied responsibility for forcing people from other Asian nations to work in dangerous wartime industries or to serve as prostitutes for Imperial Army troops. It has argued that any obligation it might have had was absolved under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which officially ended the war between the United States and Japan.

Over the last few years, however, Japanese judges have chipped away at the nation's official wall of denial. Even though the conservative judiciary hasn't felt comfortable ruling against the government, it has edged closer to blaming companies that collaborated closely with the Imperial Army and compensating the suffering of individual Asian plaintiffs.

Another key step in this evolution occurred in late 2000 when construction firm Kajima Corp. agreed to voluntarily set up a $4.6-million fund for 986 Chinese forced laborers it used in Hanaoka during the war, ending a five-year court battle.

Reflecting this delicate balancing act over how to ascribe blame, the judge in Fukuoka on Friday rejected the plaintiffs' demand for state compensation even as he referenced the close history of corporate-government links.

"The forced labor was planned and carried out jointly by Mitsui Mining and the state," presiding Judge Motoaki Kimura said in handing down the verdict, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun daily newspaper.

Analysts cite several reasons for Japan's recent softening after decades of denial and delay. "It's partly a timing issue," said Akira Fujimoto, associate professor of law at Kwassui Women's College. "Most of the plaintiffs are now really old and only have a little time left before they die. In the next few years, we're going to see many more of these decisions."

Increasingly, the pride of the Japanese legal profession also is at stake, some attorneys say. As the U.S., Switzerland and Germany have come under growing pressure to admit and make amends for their wartime legacies, the Japanese judiciary has become more concerned that it is bucking the global trend.

"They're worried about Japan being too out of step with the rest of the world," attorney Mori said. "Thus, judges don't want to go against the government outright, but they also feel great sympathy toward the plaintiffs in their courtrooms."

Japan also seems to be lumbering toward a rough compensation standard for the thousands of Asians it exploited during the war years.

In another watershed case last year, a court awarded the survivors of the late Liu Lianren, a Chinese former slave laborer, more than $160,000 for his pain, suffering and repeated attempts to escape from wartime labor on Japan's Hokkaido island. That amount represents a probable ceiling, attorneys said, and Friday's $85,000 a probable floor. Most future settlements, they predicted, will fall between the two.

For some, however, the money is secondary.

"All we really want is an apology from Japan, which rarely admits it's wrong," said Cong Zhi Liang, a 29-year-old alternative medicine practitioner living in Japan, speaking for Chinese living here. "That said, this Fukuoka ruling is a step forward."

*

Hisako Ueno in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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