A Beijing court accepted a lawsuit on Wednesday demanding compensation for Chinese citizens made to work by the Japanese as forced labourers during the second world war, state media reported.
The 37 people who have lodged the suit include lawyers and academics as well as forced labourers and their families, according to Chinese media reports.
Chinese state television said the lawsuit seeks printed apologies carried in Chinese and Japanese newspapers as well as compensation from Mitsubishi Materials and another unidentified company.
“As there is no way to get justice in Japan, the Chinese victims of forced labour and their families are determined to sue in China the Japanese companies which did them harm,” Zhang Shan, a member of the class-action suit, told the official China News Service.
Dozens of wartime compensation suits have been filed previously in Japan against the Japanese government and companies associated with its aggression in the first half of the 20th century, including the second world war.
Almost all have been rejected by Japanese courts.
A Mitsubishi Materials spokesman said the company was unable to comment because it did not know the details of the latest case.
Chinese courts come under the control of the ruling Communist Party and the suit is almost certain to be won by the plaintiffs, although it is highly unlikely that the ruling could be enforced outside of China.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said he was aware of reports on the case but declined to give any detailed comment because it was a case between individuals and private companies.
“However, we believe that according to a joint declaration between Japan and China, the [right] to make these claims does not exist,” he told reporters.
The Japanese government insists that the issue of war reparations was settled by the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which formally ended the war, and by later bilateral treaties.
It says all wartime compensation issues concerning China were settled by a 1972 joint statement establishing diplomatic ties.
China’s ties with Japan have long been poisoned by what China sees as Japan’s failure to atone for its occupation of parts of China before and during the second world war.
Deteriorating relations have been fuelled by a row over a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Ships from both countries frequently shadow each other around the islets, raising fears of a clash.
Ties have worsened since China’s creation of an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s December visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine honouring war criminals among Japan’s war dead.
The Chinese lawsuit came just a day after a Jewish community in Greece sued Germany at the European Court of Human Rights, demanding compensation for a forced ransom of 2.5 million drachmas (equivalent today to around US$61 million) paid to Nazi occupation forces in 1942 to secure the release of thousands of Jewish men submitted to brutal forced labour.
The same day, on Tuesday, an association of black rights groups sued France and the Spie construction group for crimes against humanity over the use of forced labour – a practice later outlawed in France – to build a 500-kilometre railway line in Congo in the 1920s.
They used conscripted labour and about 17,000 people are estimated to have died during the construction due to a combination of accidents, poor work conditions and diseases such as malaria.
With additional reporting from AFP