BEIJING - A Beijing court has for the first time agreed to hear a lawsuit by Chinese citizens demanding compensation from Japanese firms for World War II forced labour, their lawyer said, a move Japan termed "seriously" worrying.
Kang Jian, an attorney for the plaintiffs, confirmed to AFP the decision Tuesday by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, which follows several failed efforts to bring such cases in both China and Japan.
The move comes in defiance of Tokyo, which argues such cases are barred by international agreement, and with relations between the Asian giants at their lowest point in decades.
Tokyo's top spokesman re-iterated the country's apology for forced labour Wednesday and said the case could worsen ties further.
Beijing regularly accuses Japan of failing to properly acknowledge and learn from its aggression during World War II, while Tokyo says its neighbours use history as a diplomatic stick to beat it with.
Chinese courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party.
"We received a notice from the court that the case has been accepted," Kang said.
"Based on the evidence and the facts at hand, there's no reason they shouldn't rule that the companies are responsible," she added.
Two survivors and 35 people whose relatives were forced labourers filed the suit in late February against Japan's Mitsubishi Materials Corporation and Nippon Coke & Engineering Company, formerly known as Mitsui Mining.
Kang said Wednesday that an additional three relatives had joined the suit, upping the total number of plaintiffs to 40.
The labourers and their relatives are demanding one million yuan (S$204,000) in compensation for each worker, as well as apologies printed in Chinese and Japanese newspapers.