Slave worker payout could open floodgates: lawyer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 2000, 12:00am

The lawyer who won a landmark settlement for Chinese wartime slave workers against a Japanese company believes the case could open the floodgates on compensation claims.

Kajima Corporation's agreement on Wednesday to set up a 500 million yen (HK$35 million) fund to compensate Chinese victims of a labour camp in Odate, Akita prefecture, marks the first time a Japanese company has agreed to establish a compensation fund for Chinese slave labourers. It is the largest sum paid by a Japanese firm in a slave labour suit.

Takashi Niimi, 53, specialises in wartime compensation cases and is currently working on behalf of Korean claimants.

'Time is running out and settlements must be reached quickly if those who suffered are to benefit,' Mr Niimi said in Tokyo yesterday. 'There are about 3,000 victims still living in China and they must be taken care of as a matter of urgency . . .

'I believe more cases will be settled in the floodgate scenario that the Government is so worried about, but it may be too late for some people already facing their final days.'

The lawyer refused to speculate on the amounts that should be paid to individuals. 'I live in Tokyo and I cannot tell someone how much they should get to live out their days in China,' he said.

Kajima is one of the world's biggest construction companies and its officials were sentenced to death by the Yokohama War Crimes Tribunal for their role in the death of 418 Chinese workers up to December 1945. The Chinese slave workers were given the perilous task of diverting a river away from a mine run by Kajima in northern Japan.

By 1956 all the Kajima officials who had been sentenced to death were released from prison. The company was in fact compensated by the Japanese government for the repatriation of its slave labour.

'This case hinged on the fact that so many documents were available,' Mr Niimi said. 'But even so, the climate here is changing. When I first took the case some of my colleagues asked me what I was doing 'working against the system' but now a number of Japanese lawyers want to get involved with these cases and make sure some form of justice is done.' He also represents British, Dutch, Australian and New Zealand claimants.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday urged Japan to 'seriously handle' upcoming compensation cases arising from its occupation of China.

Beijing signed an agreement in 1972 declaring it would not seek compensation from Japan for wartime sufferings. However, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhang Qiyue said China supported private claims against Japanese organisations.