Courting controversy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 October, 2003, 12:00am

The Japanese government's decision to appeal against a Tokyo district court ruling that ordered it to pay US$1.7 million to 13 Chinese plaintiffs is logical from a legal standpoint. The award was made for deaths and injuries resulting from chemical weapons that Japan abandoned in China at the end of the second world war.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry explained that there was a 'discrepancy' between the September 29 ruling and a ruling in May by the same court in a similar case. In the earlier case, which also involved injuries caused by chemical weapons the Japanese military left in China, the court said that Japan had illegally abandoned weapons in China. But it ruled that the government was not liable for damages because it was difficult for Japan to recover weapons in China.

The Chinese plaintiffs in that case are appealing, so it is logical for the Japanese government also to appeal. In fact, it may be possible for the two cases to be consolidated when the Tokyo High Court hears them. Failure on the part of the Japanese government to appeal could have been cited by the Chinese plaintiffs in support of their cause when their appeal is heard. Although the move is understandable and even logical from a legal standpoint, it is deplorable that the Japanese government decided to lodge an appeal. This case has already been going on for seven years, and an appeal will simply prolong the pain of the plaintiffs, one of whom, Xiao Qingwu, died before hearing the September 29 judgment.

As the Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial, the Japanese government 'should not even think of trying to play some legal game by appealing [against] the ruling' but simply 'abide by the plaintiffs' plea for justice in earnest and close the case in line with the court's ruling'.

Unfortunately, Tokyo is more concerned with its potential legal liabilities than with its moral responsibility to compensate victims of the 700,000 chemical weapons the Japanese military left behind in China. No doubt, a legal victory by Chinese plaintiffs would encourage additional legal action by other victims and their survivors.

Already, the widow of Li Guizhen, a 33-year-old scrap collector who died from mustard-gas poisoning in Qiqihar has decided to take legal action. Li died after opening a barrel that turned out to contain mustard gas in August. More than 30 people were injured in that incident, and many of them also want to sue the Japanese government. But Japan should simply accept its duty and pay compensation instead of continually trying to shirk its responsibility.

Japan claims that because China waived war reparations when the two governments established diplomatic relations in the 1970s, it should be immune from such claims.

However, the deaths and injuries in question arose many years after the war ended. In fact, several thousand Chinese have died from weapons that Japan abandoned, and these postwar incidents cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered part of the Sino-Japanese war, unless Japan considers itself still at war with China.

Otherwise, we would have the ridiculous situation of Japan insisting that China gave it a blank cheque and that all Chinese casualties and losses into the 21st century are somehow covered by this.

The truth is that the Japanese government has been negligent and failed to do its utmost to recover the weapons it left behind in China, regardless of the danger they posed to Chinese lives. It is revealing that when similar cases occurred in Japan, with people injured by weapons abandoned during the war, the Japanese government has been willing to provide compensation to the Japanese victims.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator