Mitsubishi Materials Corp. is nearing a settlement with claimants that include Chinese citizens who were forcibly brought to Japan to work during World War II, sources said.
The settlement is being crafted around a public apology by Mitsubishi Materials, then known as Mitsubishi Kogyo, and payments of 100,000 yuan (S$22,000) per person, the sources said.
The parties are working toward finalizing a settlement by the end of this month. Covering as many as 3,765 people, the total payment is expected to be the largest ever for this type of case.
Former laborers, family members of deceased laborers and others filed suit against Mitsubishi Materials in February 2014 in Beijing, seeking an apology and compensation. After the suit was accepted that March, similar petitions were filed by former laborers and others all over China.
Mitsubishi Materials is working toward an out-of-court settlement that includes it admitting liability, publicly expressing "keen remorse and deep apology" to the former laborers and the families of the dead, and cooperating in erecting a memorial, the sources said.
When asked about the case, a Mitsubishi Materials representative said, "As this matter is currently being disputed, we will refrain from commenting."
On July 19, the company issued its first apology to former American prisoners of war who were forced to work in mines in Japan during wartime.
Right to compensation
The Japanese government has sought to distance itself from the negotiations, with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida calling it a "private lawsuit."
However, it has in fact been in touch with Mitsubishi Materials about the case and is watching it carefully, the sources said. The government is fearful of reigniting debate over whether individual Chinese citizens have the right to demand compensation for wartime damage.
When Japan-China relations were normalised in 1972, the joint statement issued for the occasion stated that China "renounces its demand for war reparations from Japan."
So the Japanese government takes a stance that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has stated as: "The issue of individuals' right to make claims has been legally settled."
In 2007, the Japanese Supreme Court rejected the idea that individual Chinese have a right to demand compensation for damage incurred during wartime.
In contrast, the Chinese government has expressed understanding for the plaintiffs in this case. "Forced transportation is a serious crime. This issue has not been appropriately resolved," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.
If the claims against Mitsubishi were to be settled in court, it could bring increased attention to whether individual Chinese citizens can make claims, which could drag the Japanese and Chinese governments into the dispute. This could be avoided if a settlement among the parties can be reached, as appears to be happening in this instance.
The Japanese Supreme Court's 2007 ruling stated that, "Companies profited from forced work" which raised hopes among claimants that damages could be sought from corporations.
So far, three Japanese companies - Kajima Corp., Nippon Yakin Kogyo Co. and Nishimatsu Construction Co. - have settled with former laborers, paying from ¥21 million to ¥500 million to settle the claims.
Agreeing to settle could lead to even more suits from former laborers and other parties, though according to a Japanese government source, "Right now, this is the only method for resolving" such suits.
From 1943 to 1945 during WWII, the Japanese government is thought to have brought 38,935 Chinese citizens to Japan to supplement the wartime workforce. They were made to work in 35 industries at 135 locations, including mines and construction sites. Of them, 6,830 died.
The government in a 2003 written answer stated, "It is extremely regrettable that many Chinese people were brought to Japan under semi-compulsory means and subjected to severe labour and great suffering." Nevertheless, the government's position is that the right to claim compensation has been legally resolved.