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The company becomes the first in Japan to provide redress despite the nation's Supreme Court ruling that the former slave workers do not have the right to claim compensation. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.
Mitsubishi Materials Corp. has concluded an agreement with groups representing more than 3,700 Chinese who were used as forced laborers in Japan during World War II.
The settlement, reached in August last year but signed in Beijing on Wednesday, June 1, includes an apology to the former laborers and relatives of those who have died, as well as paying a lump sum of 100,000 yuan (13,625 euros, $15,000) to each individual.
The Japanese company - which is part of the giant Mitsubishi conglomerate - also committed to building memorials at coal mines operated by Mitsubishi Mining Corp., the name under which Mitsubishi Materials operated at the time.
It will also establish a fund and make a donation to support search for other former laborers who are not covered by the initial agreement.
The deal is significant because it is the first time that a Japanese company has decided to apologize and pay compensation to Chinese victims in a case involving a claim for damages already rejected by Japan's Supreme Court.
Not held liable
In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies could not be held liable for compensation payments to Chinese, as the government in Beijing had renounced its citizens' claims to redress as part of the joint communique issued in 1972 when Japan and China normalized diplomatic relations.
"This is an important move exactly because China renounced all compensation claims for the sake of the bilateral relationship in the 1970s," said Shin Hae-bong, a professor of international and human rights law at Tokyo's Aoyama Gakuin University.
"But there are so many Chinese victims with valid claims against either the Japanese government or other Japanese companies and it has taken them more than 70 years to reach this settlement; that also makes it significant," she told DW.
Professor Shin added that there is now renewed hope that more Japanese companies will decide to unilaterally provide compensation for people from the East Asian nation's former colonies who were used as forced laborers in the early decades of the last century.
Thousands of forced laborers
Around 39,000 Chinese were brought to Japan against their will between 1943 and 1945 alone, under a decision by the Japanese government to draft in workers due to a worsening shortage of labor as the war raged on. The need for laborers was most acute in coal mines, shipyards and construction sites.
The workers had little respite until the war ended, with many dying of illness, overwork or in industrial accidents. More than 6,830 of the Chinese draftees were killed.
In July 2015, Mitsubishi Materials issued the first formal apology by a Japanese firm to US prisoners of war (POWs) who were similarly forced to work in its coal mines. In total, six POW camps provided labor for Mitsubishi group companies during the war, holding 2,041 prisoners.
In a ceremony at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, executives of the company apologized to 94-year-old James Murphy, who was captured in the Philippines in 1942, and other survivors of Imperial Japan's notoriously harsh prison camps.
The following day, they also visited the National American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum, Education and Research Centre, in West Virginia, and made a donation to its education programs.