Highlights of Forced Labor Litigation in Japan of Chinese Laborers

An International Education Conference on “History of Atrocities in the Asia-Pacific War:  1931-1945” was held on October 8-10, 2010 in Mays Landing, NJ. [1]   The conference presented an excellent program with speakers from the U.S., China, Japan, Canada, and Europe.  There were several highlights from the conference.  This article reports on one of these highlights.  It was a presentation by Kang Jian, a Chinese woman lawyer based in Beijing who was invited by the Japanese lawyers to help represent the Chinese plaintiffs in lawsuits in Japan.

Kang Jian’s account started in 1995 at the International Conference of Women in Beijing.  This was a major international conference attended by notables such as the U.S. first lady Hilary Clinton.  At this conference Kang Jian met several Japanese women lawyers, who asked Kang Jian to help in the trials in Japan that they were handling for a group of former Chinese laborers who were forced during WWII to work for Japanese corporations in Japan essentially as slave laborers. [2]  These laborers worked basically for no wage at extremely dangerous and inhumane working conditions, e.g., sometimes they were working in coal mines in tunnels with a height of only 6-8 inches.

There were also lawsuits involving sex slaves (euphemistically called “comfort women” by the Japanese government) that the Japanese lawyers were handling for former Chinese sex slaves.  When the lawsuits starting in 1995, there were 200+ forced labor Chinese plaintiffs, but now there are only 90+ who are still alive, and In 1995 there were 20+ sex slave Chinese plaintiffs, but now there are only 10+ who are still alive.  Kang Jian participated in both types of lawsuits, all gratuitously, but this article discusses only the forced labor lawsuits, 13 of them.  The Japanese lawyers were also working mostly gratuitously.

The lawsuits were against the Japanese government [2] or Japanese corporations.  The Japanese government was represented by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japanese Office of Attorney General.  Initially both the Japanese government and corporations did not make any response to the atrocity accusation (extremely dangerous and inhumane working conditions) inflicted on these laborers.  Their defense was that these lawsuits had exceeded the statue of limitations of 25 years for offenses punishable by death and 15 years for offenses punishable by life imprisonment.  On or before 2001, the judges of all these lawsuits all ruled that the statue of limitations had been exceeded.  Between 2002 and 2007, there were some confusions among the Japanese judges on this issue, e.g., in a 2002 ruling, the judges ruled that the statue of limitations should not be applied to these cases.  Some judges said that even if the statue of limitations is applicable, the Japanese government should be responsible for the relief of these laborers.

So the Japanese corporations started to respond to the atrocity accusation.  They argued that there were also Japanese laborers who worked with the Chinese laborers, and the Japanese laborers at that time also did not earn much and might not even had enough food to eat, and the Chinese laborers at least had three meals to eat per day.  The plaintiffs’ lawyers countered that the Japanese laborers who worked with the Chinese laborers were supervisors, and they did not perform similar work or in similar environments as the Chinese laborers.  They pointed out that in one site that almost all of the approximately 300 Chinese laborers got eye disease and 15 of them died within one year.

On April 27, 2007, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that the statue of limitations is not applicable and the Chinese slave laborers were horribly treated.  However, it also ruled that based on the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan (commonly known as the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty) [3], the rights of Chinese laborers to claim damages was waived.  Therefore, the case was dismissed.  After this ruling of the Japanese Supreme Court, all subsequent cases in the lower courts were using this ruling, even for cases that are still proceeding today.

However, shortly after this Supreme Court ruling, the Law Society of Japan, as well as many other organizations and lawyers in Japan and elsewhere, pointed out that this ruling has a serious problem, because China was not a party of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. [4]  Japanese and Chinese lawyers met in Beijing to discuss this issue.  They concluded that not only that the Japanese Supreme Court made a serious mistake in their ruling, these lawyers wonder whether the Japanese Supreme Court purposely left a leeway.  Many of the Japanese judges are being tortured by their own conscience.  For example, a lower court judge, after referring to the ruling of the Japanese Supreme Court and dismissed his case, muttered to himself in court loud enough for everyone to hear that “such serious atrocities should not be neglected.”  In principle, there should be judicial independence in Japan, but in practice, the Judicial Branch is being dominated by the Executive Branch.

In September 2010, Kang Jian and her Japanese lawyer partners requested the Japanese Supreme Court to have another court hearing, but the Supreme Court has not responded yet.  Recently Nishimatsu Construction Company agreed to set up a 250 million yen fund to compensate the 360 Chinese forced laborers (or their descendants) to build a hydroelectric plant in the Hiroshima Prefecture during WWII.  However, the five remaining plaintiffs rejected to accept the settlement because the settlement was under the premise that the Chinese laborers’ rights for compensation has been waived with the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique and the financial settlement is therefore considered to be of a charitable nature, and not an official reconciliation and compensation.  At the Mays Landing, NJ conference, Kang Jian reiterated that she strongly backs these five plaintiffs’ decision.  The final outcomes of all these lawsuits are still to be decided.

Due to lack of proper media coverage and rewriting their schools’ history textbooks about the true happenings during WWII, there is a fundamental misunderstanding in Japan on the history of WWII and the massive inhumane atrocities that Japan inflicted on China and other parts of Asia.  Many Japanese, instead of considering themselves as the aggressors in WWII,  consider themselves as the victims.  Therefore, it is hard to say how the next generations of Japanese people would feel or react.


[1]  The conference was sponsored by the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (GA), the NJ Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (NJ-ALPHA), the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center of Richard Stockton College of NJ, Oakcrest High School, and Brookdale Community College.

[2]  Some of the forced laborers were Chinese prisoners of war (POWs) of the Japanese army.

[3]  This was a treaty that was signed by 48 countries, out of 51 countries who were invited.  It is important to note that neither the People’s Republic of China (PRC) nor the Republic of China (ROC) was even invited to this peace conference.  So China was not represented at this conference.

[4]  For more background information and analysis of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, see this website’s article “Diao Yu Tai Student Movement:  Recollection 40 Years Later.”

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