Last month, on October 23, the Nishimatsu Construction Company reached an agreement in the Tokyo Summary Court to set up a trust fund for Chinese who had been forced into labor in Japan during World War II. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the trust fund—worth ¥250 million—will compensate 360 Chinese citizens who were compelled to work at a hydroelectric power plant in Hiroshima Prefecture. Under the terms of the summary settlement, Nishimatsu acknowledged that these Chinese workers were forcibly brought to Japan and apologized for their suffering.This outcome was both overdue and unexpected, particularly since Japan's Supreme Court in 2007 rejected the original lawsuit that five Chinese plaintiffs brought against the construction company in 1998. Nishimatsu officials maintain that they want to set a new precedent for "social responsibility" in the wake of the corporation's recent scandal involving political donations. The timing of Nishimatsu's decision coincides with the rise of the new Hatoyama administration, which has promised to improve Japan's relations with China and other Asian neighbors.
Former forced laborers and their bereaved families have pursued litigation against the Japanese government and the corporations that employed them, not only in Japan but also in the United States. The Hayden Bill, which passed the California State Senate in July 1999, opened the door for Chinese and Korean victims to sue Japanese corporations and demand compensation for their hard labor in inhumane working conditions. Although the U.S. Supreme Court thus far has rejected such cases, the unresolved issue of Asian forced labor redress has now been introduced into the U.S. legal system, indicating that the United States has become involved in Japan’s historical disputes.
In fact, the United States was intimately involved in the issue of Asian forced laborers during the Allied Occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1952. U.S. Occupation forces initially attempted to retain Korean coal miners until Japanese repatriates replaced them, but riots in Hokkaido and elsewhere forced authorities to abandon this policy in November 1945. Responding to strong Korean demands, in May 1946 a military government team in Hokkaido gathered over ¥3 million worth of wages, bonuses, and death benefits owed to Korean miners. This amount was but a small fraction of the more than ¥215 million that corporations throughout Japan deposited into an account at the Bank of Japan by 1948. Occupation authorities made several unsuccessful attempts to persuade unwilling Japanese officials to pay back the financial assets owed to Koreans, while U.S. policy gradually changed to oppose reparations demands against Japan. Article 14(b) of the American-drafted San Francisco Peace Treaty signed in September 1951 waived all reparations claims, and the unpaid wage deposits of forced laborers remained a well-kept secret of the Japanese government.
When former forced laborers from South Korea and China began appearing in Japanese courts in the 1990s, their lawsuits helped to clarify the historical record of wartime abuse and postwar cover-up. Lawyers, journalists, and researchers supporting the redress movement dug up hidden official documents, such as the voluminous reports by the Foreign Ministry on Chinese forced labor and by the Welfare Ministry on the unpaid financial deposits of Korean laborers, both compiled in 1946. Although the Japanese government refuses to make such ministry reports public, the Tokyo High Court in 2005 confirmed that the state continues to hold the ¥215 million deposits, which have never been disbursed. While Japanese records remain largely closed, declassified American records can help to answer important questions, including how closely the United States was involved in the process of postwar Japan’s forgetting and neglecting Asian victims of forced labor.
An Asahi Shimbun editorial on October 24, 2009 admonished the Japanese state to take action in the wake of Nishimatsu settlement, since other corporations facing litigation have vowed not to pay reparations unless the government becomes involved. The new Hatoyama administration should first make an unambiguous apology, the editorial contends, then propose a new framework whereby the government and corporations can establish a joint trust fund to compensate former forced laborers and bereaved families. The United States can support this reconciliation process by revisiting the unresolved issue of forced labor—which also included Allied POWs—and reinterpreting the San Francisco Peace Treaty to enable these victims to file legal claims in American and international courts. Proactive U.S. involvement at the government level should also be matched by an enhanced effort toward nongovernmental cooperation between researchers in the United States and Northeast Asia. Shorenstein APARC has been contributing to this effort through its Divided Memories and Reconciliation research project, now in its third year. The Center will also host a colloquium series titled “The American Role in Northeast Asian Reconciliation” during the 2010 winter quarter.
Shorenstein APARC Dispatches are regular bulletins designed exclusively for our friends and supporters. Written by center faculty and scholars, Shorenstein APARC Dispatches deliver timely, succinct analysis on current events and trends in Asia, often discussing their potential implications for business.