William Underwood: Wartime forced labor and the future of Japan-China-Korea Relations





[William Underwood, a Japan Focus coordinator, is an independent researcher of reparations for forced labor in wartime Japan. He can be reached at kyushubill@yahoo.com.]

HNN note: The following is the introduction to "Assessing the Nishimatsu Corporate Approach to Redressing Chinese Forced Labor in Wartime Japan", Kang Jian, Arimitsu Ken and William Underwood

The Nishimatsu Settlement Controversy

Xinhua News Agency reported in October 2009 that Nishimatsu Construction Co. “secured a reconciliation” by voluntarily agreeing to compensate Chinese victims of wartime forced labor in Japan, after resisting the redress claim for more than a decade. But questions have arisen regarding the content of the settlement, and whether it might foreshadow greater Japanese willingness to address past injustices. (The Japanese text of the settlement is available.)

In the out-of-court pact finalized on October 23, Nishimatsu Construction Co. agreed to set up a trust fund of 250 million yen, or $2.5 million (based on an exchange rate of 100 yen per dollar). The money will be used to compensate the 360 Chinese men who were forcibly taken to Hiroshima Prefecture in 1944 to build a hydroelectric power plant at Nishimatsu’s Yasuno worksite—or their families, since most of the workers have already died. The amount breaks down to about 690,000 yen ($6,900) per worker, but the trust fund must also provide for erecting a memorial in Japan, holding memorial ceremonies and conducting historical investigations. Nishimatsu apologized as well.

Building on research begun by Japanese community activists, five survivors of forced labor at the Yasuno site sued Nishimatsu and the Japanese government in 1998, seeking apologies and compensation of 5.5 million yen ($55,000) each. The Hiroshima District Court rejected the claim in 2002, but two years later the Hiroshima High Court reversed that decision and ordered Nishimatsu to pay damages in full. The company appealed to the Japan Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that the treaty that restored Japan-China ties in 1972 extinguished the right of Chinese citizens to file war-related lawsuits against the Japanese state or Japanese firms. Yet the top court also stated that the defendants had jointly operated an illegal forced labor enterprise and measures to repair the plaintiffs should be expected.

The Nishimatsu Yasuno Settlement represents the response of the corporate defendant; the Japanese government has made no move toward reconciliation. At post-settlement public meetings in Hiroshima and China’s Shandong Province, elderly forced labor survivors and family members were depicted in media reports as well satisfied, speaking of personal closure and Chinese-Japanese friendship. Other participants in the Chinese forced labor redress movement, however, are more critical of the accord.

Beijing attorney Kang Jian dissects the Nishimatsu Yasuno Settlement in the first article below, calling it an insincere agreement devoid of accountability and appropriate compensation that cannot bring about authentic reconciliation. A prominent member of the All China Lawyers Association, Kang has been actively involved in most of the Chinese forced labor suits in Japan, from assisting with the initial selection of plaintiffs to making regular appearances in Japanese courtrooms. (See her previous article in The Asia-Pacific Journal on the eve of the Japan Supreme Court’s decision in the Nishimatsu case.) Kang continues to work closely with the Japan-based Lawyers Group for Chinese War Victims' Compensation Claims, which since 1995 has litigated dozens of lawsuits in Japan on a pro bono basis.

The Lawyers Group, in fact, is now in the final stages of negotiating a second compensation agreement with Nishimatsu Construction Co. stemming from forced labor by 183 Chinese at its Shinanogawa worksite in Niigata Prefecture. Nishimatsu presumably considers the recent Yasuno settlement to be the basic template for the Shinanogawa settlement that is expected by year’s end. Kang Jian and the Lawyers Group were not involved in the Nishimatsu Yasuno lawsuit or subsequent negotiations, and the Shinanogawa plaintiffs view that model as unacceptable.

Arimitsu Ken, in his commentary below, frames the Nishimatsu Yasuno approach more positively as a belated first step toward comprehensive settlement of the Chinese forced labor redress claim, and urges the Japanese government to break with its long pattern of inaction by accepting responsibility and providing fitting compensation. As executive director of the Tokyo-based Network for Redress of World War II Victims, Arimitsu interacts with reparations advocates in and out of Japan at both grassroots and legislative levels. His network aims to comprehensively address unresolved war legacies ranging from Japan’s system of military sexual slavery to the postwar internment of Japanese soldiers in Siberia. A second article by Arimitsu, reprinted from the Asahi Shimbun, makes the related case that Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s vision of an East Asian community will remain a pipedream unless his administration squarely faces Japan’s past.

However it is evaluated, the Nishimatsu settlement has important implications for the 20 or so other still-operating Japanese firms that likewise badly mistreated Chinese workers in Japan, profited from their uncompensated forced labor, and now enjoy legal immunity as a result of the Japan Supreme Court ruling. Following the 2007 ruling, even Mitsubishi Materials Corp., which earlier in the decade aggressively defended itself using revisionist historical arguments, has expressed willingness to settle claims stemming from Chinese forced labor—but only on the condition that the Japanese state participates in the process.

The Nishimatsu Settlement: Implications for Korean Forced Labor and Allied POWs

Nishimatsu’s shift from confrontation to conciliation also has meaning for backers of redress for forced labor by Koreans and Allied POWs, whose movements continue to make slow but significant progress. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were conscripted into working in Japan for private companies that typically withheld the bulk of their wages; in the late 1940s the funds were quietly deposited in the Bank of Japan and remain there today. Having waived all rights to the money under its 1965 treaty with Japan, the South Korean government now needs details about the BOJ deposits in order to provide former conscripts with the state compensation it authorized in 2007.

In spring 2009 the Korean Broadcasting System aired a 50-minute documentary called “The Secret of the 200,000,000 Yen Financial Deposits” and charged Japan with perpetrating a “60-year cover up.” Pressure on Japan to come clean about the conscription-linked cash may grow next year as the two nations observe the one-hundredth anniversary of Korea’s annexation by Japan in 1910. Meanwhile, the remains of hundreds of military and civilian conscripts are being returned to South Korea from Japan at a glacial pace. Giving preferential treatment to cases of military conscription, the Japanese government has invited Korean family members to memorial services in Tokyo and made small condolence payments on a “humanitarian” basis. Corporate Japan is not cooperating with the location, identification and return of civilian remains.

Allied POW reparations efforts got a big boost last January when, following nearly two years of evasion and denial, then-Prime Minister Aso Taro was finally forced to admit that there were POWs at Aso Mining in 1945. An Australian survivor of forced labor at Aso Mining and the British son of an Aso POW who died after the war visited Japan in June 2009, attracting heavy media coverage and meeting with a sympathetic Hatoyama. Although Prime Minister Aso refused to meet the visitors or apologize to them, his administration was pressured into issuing official apologies in the Diet to “all POWs” in February and March.

In May 2009 the Japanese ambassador to the United States apologized in Texas at the final convention of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, then waded into the audience to shake hands with wheelchair-bound survivors of the Bataan Death March. But when the head of the American POW group asked the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) for a similar gesture, citing the group’s charter on ethics and corporate social responsibility, his letter went unanswered.

Japan has announced that a new reconciliation program for American former POWs and their kin will begin in 2010. More than 1,000 British, Dutch and Australian ex-POWs and family members have been invited to Japan since 1995 through the Peace, Friendship and Exchange Initiative, while related programs have benefitted Canadians and New Zealanders. Yet these laudable initiatives and sustained attention to Allied POWs raise the bar for reconciliation with Asian forced laborers, especially since Tokyo’s relations with the West are already much smoother than those with China or Korea. Little is ever mentioned, or even known, about the millions of Asians pressed into harsh service for the Japanese empire outside of the home islands.

Chinese Forced Labor, Japanese Government Duplicity, and the Future of China-Japan Relations

The case of Chinese forced to work in Japan, the focus of this package of articles, best illustrates the extreme brutality of Japan’s wartime mobilization of labor and the basic dishonesty of the nation’s postwar approach to dealing with the aftermath.

Expecting widespread war crimes prosecutions by the Allied coalition that included the Nationalist Chinese government, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in 1946 secretly compiled the so-called Foreign Ministry Report (FMR) with the active cooperation of all 35 companies involved, essentially as a tool for government and corporate self-defense. The 646-page FMR, while attempting to portray the labor program in the best possible light, details how beginning in 1943 a total of 38,935 Chinese men between the ages of 11 and 78 were brought to Japan to toil at mines, construction sites and docks from Kyushu to Hokkaido. The FMR states that 6,830 workers died, making for a death rate of 17.5 percent (more than one in six), but at some sites half of the workforce perished.

Due to Cold War priorities only two war crimes trials involving Chinese forced labor were held, prompting the Japanese government to suppress or destroy the Foreign Ministry Report and related records. Progressive Japanese citizens pushed the state to repatriate the remains of deceased victims to China throughout the 1950s and early 1960s—and to admit the inhumane reality of the forced labor program. Records declassified by MOFA in 2002 depict how the state consistently evaded responsibility by deceiving the Diet and citizen groups about its postwar production and possession of Chinese forced labor records.

This cover up peaked during the late-1950s administration of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, who had been the wartime cabinet member formally in charge of Japan’s labor schemes and was later imprisoned for three years as a Class A war crimes suspect. Kishi as prime minister claimed the Chinese had voluntarily come to Japan and worked willingly; other postwar officials described the nature of the labor program as unknowable due to the lack of documentation.

That stance became untenable in 1993 when a Chinese civic group in Japan supplied the NHK broadcasting network with a dusty but complete copy of the Foreign Ministry Report, along with a mountain of records upon which the report was based. The documents describe worker recruitment in North China by means of deception and “laborer hunting,” which typically meant the abduction of farmers from their fields. The FMR also contains breakdowns of the large sums of money that companies received from the central government after the war as reimbursement for losses supposedly incurred while administering the program, even though workers were never paid wages. The Japanese government today concedes that the Chinese labor program was carried out in a “half-forcible” manner, using the same term it originally employed in the FMR.

Capping this pattern of insincerity, MOFA announced in 2003 that it had searched its own basement storeroom and discovered 20,000 pages of the worksite reports submitted in 1946 by the corporate users of Chinese forced labor. Prodded into checking its own in-house archives late last year, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare similarly unearthed various records confirming there were Allied POWs at Aso Mining, though the ministry cited privacy concerns in refusing to make the records public. It is hoped that Japan’s new government will reform the dysfunctional national archive system and declassify the wartime and postwar documents needed to clarify the historical record and enable redress work to proceed.

The Nishimatsu Model and the Road Ahead

Can Nishimatsu’s done deal with Chinese from the Yasuno worksite, along with the company’s pending pact with Chinese from the Shinanogawa worksite, serve as a wedge for producing greater post-LDP responsibility concerning Chinese forced labor, other classes of forced labor and perhaps the longer list of Japan’s wartime transgressions?

That seems unlikely, at least in the near term, for Japan shows few signs of following the German example. Set up in 2000 and funded in equal measure by the German federal government and corporate sector, the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future” paid out some $6 billion in compensation to 1.7 million Nazi-era forced laborers or their heirs, mostly non-Jews living in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The foundation provided robust individual apologies and continues to emphasize truth telling through educational activities. However, Germany confronted the forced labor legacy only when faced with the public relations nightmare of class-action lawsuits in the United States, and only after the U.S. government helped broker a complex deal that granted the German state and companies legal immunity.

The Chinese forced labor claim, though, has been hamstrung by weak support from the Chinese government and generally low international awareness. Beijing authorities were slow to allow victims to file compensation lawsuits in Japan and have tended to view redress activists with suspicion. State media reported in the middle of this decade that similar lawsuits against Japanese firms would be allowed in the Chinese court system. The reports even named the first prospective plaintiff and defendant (Mitsu Co.), but such suits never materialized. Yet forced labor redress supporters occasionally have been permitted to directly present their demands at the Chinese offices of Japanese companies, and last year they held their largest-ever meeting in Shandong.

The Nishimatsu model clearly represents important forward motion for the compelling and comparatively resolvable Chinese forced labor issue. If the few hundred survivors of the injustice are to obtain reparations in their lifetimes, the company’s move is likely the “last best hope for a start.” To the extent that Japan’s political and economic leaders are moved to recalculate the costs of perpetual intransigence and the potential benefits of improved relations with Asian neighbors, the Nishimatsu settlement may contribute to eventual improvement in the nation’s mostly dismal record of atoning for its war misconduct.


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