Lawyers representing former Chinese labourers forced to work in Japanese factories during the second world war filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the Japanese government and two companies, one of them said.
Attorney Pan Guoping said that the legal action was submitted to the Tangshan People’s Court in Hebei province and seeks 1.8 million yuan (HK$2.27 million) in total compensation, with apologies to be made in main Chinese and Japanese media.
Among the plaintiffs are three former labourers, as well as family members of nine deceased others, said Pan, who named the companies only broadly as “Mitsubishi and Mitsui”.
Japan’s Jiji Press in a report on Thursday identified them as Mitsubishi Materials and Nippon Coke and Engineering, formerly known as Mitsui Mining.
Jiji added that if the court accepts the suit it would be the first time the Japanese government had become involved in litigation in China over the issue of wartime forced labour.
Tokyo says such actions are barred by international agreement.
The case follows another suit filed late last month in Beijing by a group of almost 40 Chinese citizens, including two surviving labourers, demanding compensation and apologies from two Japanese companies. The court has yet to decide whether to accept it, a lawyer involved said on Thursday.
Previous attempts to bring such cases in China have failed.
Tens of thousands of Chinese were forcibly sent to Japan to work in factories and mines during the second world war to fill a manpower breach arising from Japan’s massive 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.
“It is our position that the right to seek compensation for war-time damages doesn’t exist after issuance of the 1972 Japan-China joint Communique, and because this is a private lawsuit the government declines to comment,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday.
A clause in the 1972 document that normalised ties between the two countries says: “The Government of the People’s Republic of China declares that in the interest of the friendship between the Chinese and the Japanese peoples, it renounces its demand for war reparation from Japan.”
The suits come amid steadily worsening relations between Beijing and Tokyo due to a row over disputed islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan and claimed by China, as well as persistent tensions over how to interpret Japan’s militarist and colonialist past in Asia.