A long battle
On February 26, the day Zhang Shijie's case was filed to the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing that she believed the court would handle the case according to the law.
"Forced recruitment and enslavement of labor was one of the grave crimes committed by Japan during its aggressive wars against foreign countries and the resulting colonial rule. It is an unresolved historical issue," she told reporters.
"We urge Japan to adopt a responsible attitude to history, take the issue seriously and address the concerns."
Japanese courts have rejected almost all compensation claims in the 14 lawsuits filed by forced Chinese laborers since 1995, saying that individual rights of Chinese nationals to war reparations were discarded under the 1972 Japan-China joint communiqué.
Fu Qiang, a Chinese lawyer representing forced laborers from Shandong Province of east China in several cases filed in Japan and China, said that other two most common reasons cited by Japanese courts are that the government is exempt from compensation liability for damages caused by civil servants' illegal acts and that the statute of limitations has expired.
However, many lawyers, including experts from Japan, disagree.
Xin Chongyang, a professor and international law expert from the China University of Political Science and Law, said even though the Japanese courts had rejected all the compensation claims, they acknowledged the crimes that the Japanese companies had committed against forced laborers from China.
Xin said although the Chinese Government had discarded the rights for national war reparations under the joint statement back in 1972, individual Chinese citizens still had the right to do so.
In a milestone case of two former slave laborers and three survivors against Nishimatsu Construction Co. filed in 1998, the plaintiffs lost at the Hiroshima District Court in 2002, but won a reversal from the Hiroshima High Court in 2004. However, in April 2007 the Supreme Court in Japan dismissed their claims on the grounds of the 1972 Japan-China joint statement.
"The verdict means that the door was closed for individual forced laborers trying to seek justice in Japan's judicial system," said Wang Xuan, a lawyer representing Chinese forced laborers in several cases.
To date, in spite of receiving a series of rejections for compensation by Japanese courts, former forced laborers have not given up demanding reparations.
Since the beginning of this century, forced laborers and other victims of Japanese aggression during World War II began to send litigations to China's local courts in Hebei and Zhejiang provinces and Chongqing Municipality. They were determined to seek justice, especially after having seen a series of wins by former forced laborers in South Korea in their domestic courts since 2012.
Among these rulings for forced laborers, the first legal victory was South Korea's Supreme Court ruling in favor of nine South Koreans in May 2012 who demanded Japanese firms pay them for forced labor during Japan's colonial rule of Korea.
In July 2013, in two separate cases, the Busan High Court ordered Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. Co. to pay compensation to five South Koreans for forced labor that occurred under Japan's colonial rule of the country. The Seoul High Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to pay compensation to four South Koreans for forced labor.
Many experienced lawyers representing Chinese forced laborers agreed that the acceptance of such a case by a Beijing court is a promising start for forced labor victims. Fu said that based on his years of litigation experience in Japan, forced laborers have a good chance of winning a suit against firms with operations in China in a domestic court.
"Over all these years of our work on compensation litigation for forced laborers, when we exposed the crimes committed to Chinese people during Japan's aggression, it kept us moving on. But we also desire a legal victory," said Fu.
"Forced laborers have been passing away more and more recently [due to old age]," said Lu Tangsuo, secretary general of an association of former forced laborers in Japan. The son of a forced laborer himself, Lu said that when organizing a donation for these victims in 2007, he managed to find more than 500 of them from different parts of China and only around 50 of them were still around when another fund-raising event was organized in January.
Lu said that lodging their suits in domestic courts might be the final battle for these victims in their senior years and they want justice before they leave this world.
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