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China backs suit over Japan's forced labor

BEIJING -- China's government accused Japan of failing to conclusively address allegations of forced labor during World War II and voiced support Wednesday for Chinese plaintiffs seeking to sue to Japanese companies in a Beijing court.

The lawsuit brought by 37 former workers and their descendants, 69 years after the end of the war, comes as China-Japan tensions rise over territorial claims and their troubled history. While aggressively pursuing claims over disputed islands, Beijing has also sought to play up Japan's wartime guilt for which it says Tokyo has never shown proper contrition.

Tokyo insists that postwar agreements settled cases of forced wartime labor, and the Japanese government spokesman said Wednesday that the plaintiffs had “no case.” But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the issue remained unresolved.

“Forced labor is a grave crime which Japanese militarists committed during their World War II aggression. It is an issue which has yet to be properly solved,” Hua said.

The lawsuit names Mitsubishi Materials Corporation and Mitsui Mining and Smelting as defendants and asks for compensation of 1 million yuan (US$163,000) for each defendant as well as apologies in the Chinese and Japanese languages to be placed with the country's major media outlets.

Beijing lawyer Kang Jian, who is representing the 37 plaintiffs, said they filed their paperwork with the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court, but did not yet know whether they would get a hearing.

Japan's wartime government systematically abducted nearly 40,000 Chinese citizens and forced them to work for Japanese companies for little or no pay to make up for a labor shortage at home. They were sent to mines, construction sites and factories operated by 135 Japanese companies, many of them among Japan's corporate giants today.

About 7,000 people died of malnutrition and mistreatment by their employers.

Dozens of similar lawsuits brought in Japan were dismissed, although some were settled outside court. The lawsuit filed Wednesday is believed to be the first such action brought before a Chinese court.

Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga, speaking to reporters at his routine morning briefing, reiterated Tokyo's position that all such claims were settled by agreements between the two governments.

“This is a matter between China and companies with China-related business, so it is a civil issue, Suga said.

“However, I can say that since such problems were included in the Japan-China communique, there is no case,” he said. “The individual rights for seeking (compensation) were included in the communique.”

Renewed frictions between Beijing and Tokyo arose in 2012 after Japan nationalized a group of tiny uninhabited islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

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