A Beijing court is set to hear what could become a landmark legal case as 40 Chinese former forced laborers and descendants of forced laborers are demanding reparations for their time spent working for two Japanese companies during the Second World War. The case comes in the midst of growing diplomatic tensions between Japan and China, and adds more hostility to the already fraught diplomatic relations even as First Lady Michelle Obama arrives in China on a state visit. If the judge rules in favor of the workers, it’s likely to spark a considerable diplomatic furor, as well as setting a distinctive legal precedent.
World War II-era Japan was a rapidly expanding empire with ever-growing labor needs as it sent more and more of its able-bodied personnel to the front. Consequently, the nation turned to the regions it was annexing, such as Manchuria, for sources of forced labor. In addition to the so-called “comfort women” drawn from regions like South Korea, companies like Mitsubishi and the Nippon Coke and Engineering Company (then Mitsui Mining), the ones involved in this case, used Chinese forced labor in their factories.
Forced labor wasn’t just used in Japan during the war; other Axis powers relied on work camps and other systems of forced and slave labor as both a tool of conquest and a way to feed their taxed war engines. The more the Axis powers stretched, the more labor they required, and the harder they pushed their sources of forced labor. For nations like South Korea and China, this has long been a source of rankling tensions—in the flurry of treaties, agreements, and war crimes trials after the Second World War, compensation for forced labor in Asia wasn’t a significant part of the discussion, and apologies weren’t forthcoming for people like the women who had been forced into sexual slavery in Japanese brothels.
This case demands that the companies involved pay approximately $161,000 to survivors and family members for terms of forced labor during the war. It comes on the heels of multiple attempts to file requests for compensation in Japan, where courts have rejected legal hearings on the grounds that China gave up the right to compensation in a 1972 agreement. Other Chinese courts have historically rejected similar cases, making this one particularly notable, and this is one reason people are paying close attention to the outcome.
A decision that compensation is merited would be a historic, watershed moment for Chinese victims of forced labor, but it would also pose a significant legal problem. The Japanese government says it owes no reparations and that cases like this are between individuals and the companies they’re suing, but a positive outcome for the plaintiffs would undoubtedly result in demands for comment from the Japanese government, which is still struggling with wartime legacies.
Furthermore, given the diplomatic tensions currently at play between the two nations, the case could be a politically-charged one as well (and this may have played a role in the court’s decision to take it on). Japan is not popular with many Chinese citizens at the moment, and a high-profile case like this one could fuel sentiments that might make it even more difficult to tender a diplomatic rapprochement between the two nations.
If these companies are forced to pay up, it’s highly likely that a flurry of similar suits will follow as other victims and their surviving family members wonder if it’s possible to right a 70-year-old wrong.