Japanese Court Orders Chinese Compensated

By Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press, Fri 26 March 2004, 11:17 AM ET

TOKYO— For the first time, a Japanese court Friday ordered both the government and a private company to pay compensation to Chinese forced to work as slave laborers during World War II.

Previously, courts have only ordered private companies to compensate such laborers.

The plaintiffs—10 survivors and two relatives of laborers who have since died—said they were taken to Niigata in northern Japan in 1944 as virtual slaves and forced to work at a port under harsh conditions. They said they were provided a meager amount of food, treated violently and given no salary. They demanded $2.6 million in compensation from the government and the company, now called Rinko Corp.

The Niigata District Court awarded them a total of $830,200.

Yojiro Nakamura, the group's chief lawyer, said the ruling was historic for recognizing that both the government and private industry should be held accountable for wartime slave labor practices.

The battle is progressing and is finally bearing fruit, he said.

Judge Noriyoshi Katano said the forced labor was an illegal act that the government adopted as a wartime national policy, Japan's public broadcaster NHK reported. The government also failed to take any measures to improve the company's harsh treatment of the laborers, the judge added, holding both the state and the firm responsible for the suffering of the Chinese.

The Foreign Ministry called the ruling severe.

We believe the court ruling was not an appropriate decision, Rinko spokesman Toshiyuki Kawasaki said. We'll examine the content with our lawyers and decide whether to appeal.

Japanese courts have recently ruled that the government and companies broke the law by using forced labor. They rarely award compensation, citing the expiration of a deadline for filing such claims—usually 20 years under Japanese law.

This is a very important ruling, said Satoshi Uesugi, a historian at Kansai University. Until now, such cases have been lost at the last moment. This one overcame all hurdles.

It's important that such an example has been established, but it doesn't necessarily mean things will go so easily from now on, said Hiroshi Tanaka, an expert on wartime labor at Kyoto's Ryukoku University. He noted the ruling could be overturned by a higher court.

In a 2002 ruling, a court in southern Japan acknowledged the government acted illegally in permitting wartime slave labor but only ordered the mining company involved, Mitsui Mining Co., to pay compensation. The court determined Japan's prewar constitution insulated the government.

That case is being appealed.

The government has claimed compensation issues were settled in postwar treaties and has generally refused to pay damages.

Japan's military shipped up to 800,000 people from China, Korea and other Asian countries to Japan before and during the war to work in coal mines and ports. Hundreds of thousands of others were forced into military service or sexual slavery for Japanese troops.