Wartime Chinese Laborers Sue Japan For Compensation

Submitted By: Lindsay Yoshitomi

New York Times Article Summary: [Subscription to The New York Times required to read full article]

More than half a century later, Chinese men who were forced to work in Japan’s coal mines during World War II are pursuing lawsuits against the Japanese government. Many were tricked into working for the mines through false advertising, while others were abducted by Japanese soldiers. Last November, many of the laborers and their families went to Japan to recover unpaid wartime wages and compensation, neither of which has ever been offered by the Japanese government.

“The Japanese government bears responsibility for our suffering, and so do companies,” said Tang Kunyuan, a former enslaved laborer of Mitsubishi Mining which is today known as Mitsubishi Materials, a leader in metal and ceramic materials for the electronic industry. “First we want an apology, then compensation.”

Evidence of forced labor during the war has now prompted hundreds of Chinese to file lawsuits against the Japanese government and the successors of the mining companies. Japanese government data has revealed that because of labor shortages during the war, almost 40,000 Chinese men were forcibly brought to Japan to work for 35 companies, 22 which continue to do business. Three suits have successfully reached the Supreme Court, but the results have been more in favor of the defendants who received eight rulings, while the plaintiffs won four. The Japanese government and companies involved are standing behind the 20-year statute of limitations, claiming that the right to sue has expired, or that treaties between the two countries following the war has invalidated such claims. This attitude goes against international trends in recent years to ignore legalities and instead, compensate for wages involving forced labor. Mitsubishi Materials has even gone as far as to deny its involvement of forced labor.

In contrast to Japan, Germany and Austria have apologized and compensated its victims of slave labor by paying $5 billion and $350 million respectively to hundreds of thousands of individuals. Japan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, continue to promote the minimization of its military past in textbooks, thus strengthening the mood against offering reparations. Mitsubishi’s lawyers concur with Abe’s sentiments, stating that ruling in favor of the Chinese would “impose a wrong burden of the soul on future generations of our nation, possibly for the next hundred years.”

After the war, the majority of Chinese laborers were sent home without pay, while some received I.O.U.’s from defunct banks. Today, millions of dollars of unpaid wages continue to be held by the Bank of Japan and government agencies. Chinese business leaders have established a fund totaling $315,000 in contributions to help plaintiffs pursue lawsuits, an effort supported by the Chinese government. Chinese lawyers are beginning to pressure Chinese branches of Japanese businesses, many of which are reaping the benefits of China’s booming economy.


Having great grandparents and grandparents of Japanese decent who were interned in American prison camps for 3 years during World War II, I can sympathize with the Chinese laborers who were ironically enslaved by Japan. My fraternal great grandparents and grandparents, after being given 10 days notice to relocate to the internment camps, lost their dry cleaning business, their home and belongings. When they were released, they were given $50 and their freedom, a right that was worth nothing to our government. A $20,000 reparation was awarded to living individuals almost a half century later along with an apology for the unjust treatment of American citizens. Unfortunately for some, it was too little, too late. For others, it was the beginning of a healing process, though late. Discussions regarding wartime reparations have always gone two ways. There are those who say, it was war; there are always victims and atrocities….we did what we thought was best for white America. Others say, for humanity sake, we must make amends for cruel injustices and our mistakes in judgment. Right now for the Chinese who have access to wartime evidence of enforced labor, I can understand their need to close that chapter of their past.


Recognizing that Germany, Austria and the U.S. have made compensations to victims of World War II:

1) What do you think about Japan’s hardened position against making reparations to former enslaved mine workers?
2) With China emerging as a powerhouse in the global economy, how do you think this will affect the Japanese companies that having growing operations there?
3) Do you think this issue will have any effect on the rivalry between China and Japan, and their quest for leadership in Asia?

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8 Responses to Wartime Chinese Laborers Sue Japan For Compensation

  1. Chris Carr says:

    Fascinating post.

    Difficult and potentially volatile issue for China and Japan to resolve.

    My own experience, admittedly anecdotal, is that a fair bit of anti-Japanese sentiment still exists in some northeastern parts of China, while in southern China (where we will visit for part of the trip), they have buried the hatchet and have turned their attention to making money and entrepreneurism.

    I really enjoyed learning more about you and your family’s history via this post. Those must have been devastating times for your grandparents. Internment of American Japanese during WW II is a very dark wart in America’s past that, in my view, our society has dismissed and forgotten about too easily over the years. I worry that many Americans feel along the lines of “Gosh, we won’t make that mistake again.” But I am not so sure ….

  2. LONNIE says:

    Great Post Lindsay!

    You will still find a lot of hostility here in the South. TV soaps still portray any Japanese as greasy and evil. My beloved, accepting and enlightened as she is, growls some Cantonese curse every time Japan is mentioned….

    About 1 1/2 years ago there was a series of demonstrations here and in HK against the Japanese.It was in response to the Japanese government allowing the Nanjing Massacre to be downgraded to an “incident” in some Japanese textbooks. Some shops were damaged and the Japanese consulate had to beef up security.

    My rural students have nary a good word to say about them and a poll taken 2 years ago showed that 80% of young people strongly disliked or hated ( a rare word for Asians) the Japanese.

    I was in Japan when one Korean woman won reparations for forced wartime work: She was given her salary without interest for the time she worked. She was awarded less than two bucks.

    Don;t worry about trouble on your trip if you are of Japanese descent. native English speakers will be treated quite well. If you speak Japanese here it will get you stared at, but nothing will follow.

    I have posted in the past on my feelings about Japan’s refusal to shelve the treaties and laws that protect them. It would go a long way in healing some very open wounds. The part that disturbs me the most is America’s complicity in all of this: The San Francisco Accords gave many war criminals absolution in exchange for, among other things, research data collected during inhuman(e) experiments on Chinese by the Japanese. We could have led the way years ago to peaceful coexistence by, a ta minimum, forbidding known war criminals from Japan access into America and asking Japan to be accountable.


    One of the most moving exhibits I have ever seen in a museum was the display regarding Japanese internment: http://www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/military/japanese-internment.html

    Sadly, I think history has repeated itself in the detainment of Chinese Muslims at Guantanamo. We don’t seem to have learned much more than have the Japanese.

  3. Chris Carr says:

    Great stuff. Thanks for checking in, Lonnie.

    Don’t worry, Lindsay … Detective Rylant and I got your back and will look out for you in China if anybody gives you grief for your Japenese ancestory. 🙂

  4. Joe Callinan says:

    Lindsay thanks for sharing your story. It is truly unfortunate that these issues still arise with all the advancements society seems to be making. I agree with Lonnie that some concessions need to be made by the Japanese. However, I don’t think paying reparations for forced wartime work will alleviate the hostility for two reasons. First off, there is no way to quantify the pain and suffering that was endured by the Chinese. If they were to get paid, the amount would unarguably not be enough. Secondly, as Lonnie’s post shows, the pay (less interest) equated to approximately two dollars. Even with interest there is no way this could serve as fair compensation for the work that was done. While I feel for the families that were wronged, I think it is more important for the Japanese as a whole to learn from their mistakes. Accepting responsibility and making sure the past is never forgotten will provide more benefit to future generations.

  5. Lindsay Yoshitomi says:

    Thanks Lonnie for the website recommendation. One of the links went to a site that had information about Topaz, which was the camp my grandparents and great-grandparents were sent to. It was very intersting to see pictures from the camp.

    As for the rest of the posts, I hope I don’t run into trouble in China, but thanks for having my back Dr. Carr.

  6. Adib Assassi says:

    I think the attitude taken by the Japanese government and companies is very insensitive and incorigable. Yes, these crimes were committed during times of war. But does that justify them or make them excusable? I don’t think so. People might argue, where is the line drawn? Shouldn’t all victims of war be compensated for their hardships, pain and suffering? I think every nation has events in its history that it is ashamed of or that it regrets. I think that those nations which admit to their shortcomings and try to remedy their past transgressions are commendable.
    For Japan in this case, I don’t understand why it can’t issue apologies to the persons it wronged and compensate them appropriately. Germany and Austria have done it; why not Japan? Maybe they are too proud; maybe they don’t want to admit they did wrong; maybe they are too ashamed of their past. But these Chinese laborers do deserve and should receive an apology and compensation, as should so many other victims of war.
    Were Japan to follow the example set by Austria and Germany, I would imagine it would be beneficial for Japan. It would make Japan look better in the Chinese view. It would show that Japan is willing to correct its wrongs in hopes of a better future. I think it would strengthen Japanese/Chinese ties and would lubricate the gears of foreign trade between the two nations.
    The course of action that Japan has taken though, will probably only alienate the Chinese further and will create more resentment and animosity. It certainly won’t help Japanese/Chinese relations. Even though Japan has a strong economy, having China as a business partner and ally would not hurt. So I think Japan is not only being insensitive and unjust, but it is also pushing itself away from China and creating tension. But it’s not just Japan, China and everyone else in this world have wrongs that they need to apologize for and try to reconcile.

  7. B Mori says:

    After the war, Japan was forced to adopt an new constitution primarily written by Americans but agreed to by the Japanese. It is still highly controversial. and is currently being considered for revision. However, one of the results of this is that the present government created by that new constitution does not see itself as a continuation of the government in power during the war and therefore not responsible for its actions, either good or bad. How to present those years is still a problem for the Japanese. It is difficult to criticize your ancestors, especially those most recently deceased. How do you instill patriotism in the next generation if there is little you can point to that you deem honorable. So you must re-interpret it and focus on Japanese issues rather than on negative aspects. Thus the textbook controversy. It strong relates to issues of Japanese identity. Ask Vietnam vets how they are dealing with the way they and the war are presented in American society to get an idea of the deep contradictions and pain dealing with these kinds of issues generates.

  8. Chris Carr says:

    Great comments, Adib and Professor Mori (Cal Poly Prof of Sociology!).

    Barbara you raise a great point. I had not thought of this before. Thanks for dropping in. Come back and see us and comment!

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