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BEIJING, May 13 (Reuters) - As relations between China and Japan plumb a new low, the descendants of hundreds of of Chinese men forced to work in wartime Japan are taking big, modern-day Japanese corporates to court. They are seeking millions in compensation.
Japan invaded China in 1937 and ruled parts of it with a brutal hand for the next eight years. Chinese historians say nearly 40,000 men were taken to Japan against their will to work in mines and construction. Survivors say living conditions were appalling. Many did not make it back to China.
In possibly the biggest class-action suit in Chinese legal history, about 700 plaintiffs lodged a case against two Japanese firms at a courthouse in eastern Shandong province in April, said Fu Qiang, a lawyer representing the families. Among the plaintiffs are several forced labourers, now in their 80s and 90s, and this might be their last chance to seek redress.
The suit was filed against Mitsubishi Corp (Qingdao) Ltd, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp, and Yantai Misubishi Cement Co, a joint venture between Mitsubishi Corp and construction firm Mitsubishi Materials Corp, Fu said.
The plaintiffs are each seeking 1 million yuan ($160,100) in compensation, a public apology in several prominent Chinese and Japanese newspapers, as well as the erection of a memorial and monument in remembrance of the forced labourers, Fu said, adding that they also want the companies to fund their legal expenses.
It is unclear whether the lawsuit, with other smaller cases, will be accepted. But lawyers say there is a good chance they will be heard after a Shanghai court last month impounded a Japanese ship over a dispute that dates back to the 1930s war between the two nations.
The lawsuits could further irritate diplomatic relations. Late last month, China released previously confidential Japanese wartime documents, including some about comfort women forced to serve in military brothels. The files also contain details of the Nanjing Massacre, a major source of debate between the countries.
The number of plaintiffs, including families and surviving forced labourers seeking redress, total at least 940, with combined claims reaching at least 865 million yuan, lawyers say.
That figure could rise further as there were nearly 8,000 forced labourers from Shandong during the war, according to Fu.
The other two Japanese companies involved in the suits are coal producer Nippon Coke and Engineering Industry Co, formerly known as Mitsui Mining Co, and stainless steel maker Nippon Yakin Kogyo, the lawyers say.
"When we took the labourers to Japan to negotiate a settlement and listened to their speeches, they moved us to tears," said Deng Jianguo, a lawyer involved in five of these lawsuits since 2007. "They (the Japanese companies) have the ability to compensate and make amends for (their) past mistakes, but they aren't doing it. I think, morally, you can't justify this."
Similar suits would be filed in central Henan and northern Hebei provinces, Deng said.
Mitsubishi Corp's spokesman Susumu Isogai said in Tokyo: "We can't make any comment as we have not received the complaint."
Takuya Kitamura, a spokesman for Mitsubishi Materials, and Masayuki Miyazaki, a spokesman for Nippon Coke, both declined to comment, saying they both had not received any complaints.
A Nippon Yakin spokesman, who declined to be identified, said the company is unaware of any new lawsuits against it.
Lawyers say they are optimistic the latest cases will be heard as the courts have asked them to provide more evidence to their claims.
In 2010, a Chinese court threw out a lawsuit filed by 1,000 forced labourers against Mitsubishi Corp (Qingdao) and Yantai Misubishi Cement Co, Fu said.
But lawyers say the impounding of the Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd ship is giving them hope.
The seizure had sparked some initial concerns that Japanese assets in China might become casualties in legal battles between Japanese corporates and activists seeking redress. Mitsui later paid about $29 million for the release of the vessel.
Several international war claims experts said it is important to note the acceptance by a Beijing court of a smaller suit in February from 40 plaintiffs demanding compensation for Chinese citizens made by the Japanese to work as forced labourers for Mitsubishi Materials Corp and Nippon Coke during World War Two, a first by a Chinese court.
The significance of the court accepting the lawsuit and the seizure of the Mitsui ship "is not wholly clear at this point, but it does suggest that compensation might be in the offing", Timothy Webster, the director of East Asian Legal Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, said in an email.
The deterioration in relations between China and Japan was a boost to activists working to win war reparations, said Tong Zeng, a veteran Chinese activist who has been leading the charge for wartime compensation from Japan.
Tong, who has also been advising the plaintiffs, said the government had previously indicated that the families should not sue for fear the legal attacks would hurt Sino-Japanese relations.
Dozens of wartime compensation suits had been filed in Japan against the Japanese government and companies associated with the country's wartime aggression in the first half of the 20th century, including World War Two. Almost all have been rejected by Japanese courts.
Japan 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. Japan's Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Chinese individuals have lost their right to claim war compensation from Japan and its companies under the 1972 Japan-China joint communique.
"I think the lawsuits have the potential to be very significant if the Chinese courts allow them to go forward," said Julian Ku, a law professor from Hofstra University in New York, who has written about the forced labour lawsuits in China.
"They would signal that Chinese courts will not read the 1972 China-Japan Communique and subsequent peace treaty as a settlement of all wartime claims," he said in emailed comments. "Of course, if the Chinese courts allow these cases to forward, it would be a serious irritant to China-Japan relations."
The families base their claim on the belief that Beijing did not forfeit the rights of individual war victims to seek compensation in the agreement signed between China and Japan in 1972, Tong said.
"German courts, interestingly enough, do not read these treaty waivers as barring such direct suits", Richard Buxbaum, a retired law professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law and an expert on international reparations, said in emailed comments. He added that the courts, however, do bar them on other grounds such as statutes of limitations and prescriptions against "old" claims.
The pressure on the firms is particularly intense at this time in China, which is sore about a row with Japan over a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit last year to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are honoured among the country's war dead.
Kang Jian, a lawyer representing the 40 people, said she and her Japanese counterparts have met with officials from Mitsubishi Materials, but talks with them have not been successful.
The plaintiffs are seeking 1 million yuan each, but Mitsubishi has made a "very, very low" counteroffer, said Kang. She declined to disclose the figure as talks are still going on. Officials from Nippon Coke have refused to meet, she said.
Liu Guolian, one of the 40 plaintiffs in a Beijing case, said her father Liu Qian had been tricked by Mitsui Mining into working in mines in Fukuoka, Japan. He spent over a year there.
Her father, who died in 2010, often went hungry and had to pick on food scraps by the roadside to survive. His Japanese supervisor even hacked at his leg with an axe once, she said.
Cui Chunping, who is suing Mitsubishi Materials in Beijing, said his father was abducted to work in a Mitsubishi mine during the war. "When the foreman disliked you, he would use a whip to hit you," Cui said. ($1=6.2455 Chinese Yuan) (Additional reporting by Yuka Obayashi in TOKYO and Norihiko Shirouzu in BEIJING; Editing by Ryan Woo)