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.
Tens of thousands of Chinese were forcibly sent to Japan to work in factories and mines to fill a manpower breach arising from Japan's massive World War II military mobilisation.
Japan had invaded China during the 1930s and the Asian mainland was a major front in the broader global conflict.
Japanese courts have rejected numerous similar cases filed there over the years, with the country's Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that individual Chinese cannot demand compensation from Japan.
The court said China gave up its right to make such claims when the countries normalised relations more than four decades ago.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Japan's top government spokesman, on Wednesday expressed remorse over forced labour, but maintained that a 1972 joint communique nullified Chinese rights to demand war-related compensation.
"Regarding the forced recruitment and labour of Chinese people, the government cannot deny that many people fell into unfortunate situations in those days," Suga told reporters.
"We think it was extremely regrettable that (Japan) caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for many people, even though it was in the abnormal situation of war." But he said the court case raised troubling questions.
"We cannot help worrying seriously about the possible impact on the war settlement between Japan and China and bilateral economic relations as it could trigger similar cases in China," Suga said.
The Beijing court's acceptance of the case follows a separate lawsuit filed against both companies as well as the Japanese government earlier this month in Hebei province.
Zhang Yang, the son of one of the surviving labourers, said at a news conference in Beijing that the court's decision meant his father "finally has something to look forward to", according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
"At the age of 88, he still remembers when, where and how he was captured," Zhang said. "He still remembers the look of the coal mine he was forced to work at and many other details."