Ruling on Chinese Forced Labor in Japan Contrary to International Law
John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)
On May 24, 2004, the Fukuoka High Court overturned an earlier ruling handed down by the Fukuoka District Court, which in April 2002 had judged in favor of compensation claims for 15 Chinese forced into labor by the Japanese government and Mitsui Mining Co. during World War II. Although acknowledging that the plaintiffs were subjected to government sponsored torture and enslavement, judge Takayuki Minoda dismissed demands for damages citing the twenty year statute of limitations. This decision has certainly elated Mitsui Mining Co. and the Japanese government. However, the verdict has also drawn international criticism and has been raised as yet another example of the intransigence of those responsible for atrocities in Japan to own up to their crimes.
According to the Kyodo News, approximately 3,000 Chinese were sent to work at Mitsui Mines in Fukuoka and Kumamoto between July 1943 and March 1945. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs admits that these were among a total of 39,000 Chinese shipped as slaves by the Japanese government to work at 135 mines and construction sites throughout Japan.
The importance of the Fukuoka High Court ruling was that it recognized beyond any doubt that acts of forced relocation and labor were government policy between 1943-45. Judge Minoda ruled that the government and the coal mine operator "brought those people to a different country against their will" and that "these acts were an outrage against humanity" (International Herald Tribune, May 25). The judge further acknowledged that under normal circumstances the central government and the coal mine operator had a responsibility to pay compensation.
Unfortunately, Minoda let the perpetrators off the hook stating that the right to request reparation vanished when 20 years had passed since an illegal act was perpetrated. The judge conceded that Japan and China did not establish relations until 1972, making it impossible for the laborers to request compensation before the 20-year statute of limitations had expired. He also condemned the Japanese government's effort to conceal evidence as malicious. Nevertheless, these facts did not affect his final judgment, which claimed that the plaintiffs should have taken action immediately after the Chinese government allowed people to go overseas in 1986. The case was only filed in 2000.
International reaction has been condemnatory with most criticism coming from China. The China Daily came out with successive articles on May 24-26 denouncing the judgment as another attempt by the Japanese to whitewash their history. However, there has also been disapproval voiced in Japan. The most outspoken source being the Asahi Shimbun, which published an editorial on May 26 calling for a special law to compensate victims. After recognizing the statute of limitations argument, the editorial responded stating that, "Japan cannot brush off the serious violations of human rights committed in connection with its national policy." Upon suggesting that Japan should emulate Germany, the editorial insisted on the importance of redressing Japan's wartime past arguing that, "Japan cannot win the trust of its Asian neighbors if it ignores their pleas."
Currently there are another ten such labor cases being processed in Japanese courts throughout the country. The Mainichi Shimbun also criticized the outcome noting that Mitsui Mining Co. had won due to a legal "loophole" (May 24).
The ruling of the Fukuoka High Court is particularly deplorable considering that under international law there is no statute of limitations to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.N. Convention of the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, which was passed in the General Assembly on 26 November 1968, went into force on the 11 November 1970. This convention specifically states that, "no statutory limitations shall apply to war crimes and crimes against humanity, irrespective of the date of their commission." Crimes of forced labor and relocation presented in the Fukuoka case clearly fall under the purview of crimes against humanity as specified in this convention and more concretely in the Agreement for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis and Charter of the International Military Tribunal sitting at Nuremberg and subsequently at Tokyo. This agreement states that crimes against humanity include, "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts committed against civilian populations, before or during the war."
Although Japan is lamentably not signatory to this convention, the judgment of Takayuki Minoda goes against established international law and highlights the Japanese government's unwillingness to support international justice. That the statute of limitations has become the shield behind which the perpetrators of the "gravest crimes of international law" (U.N.) hide is particularly disturbing considering that the Japanese government has annulled the statute of limitations in a number of cases that it has pursued in the past, most notably those involving the Japanese Red Army. Just as the Japanese government has lobbied for statute of limitations to be suspended in the cases of highjacking and mass murder perpetrated by the Japanese Red Army, so too should it adhere to international law in cases of crimes against humanity.