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It's Not Just the Japanese Government that's Turning a Blind Eye to History ... So Are Japanese Corporations

Editor's Note: This article was updated on March 30, 2006 on the website of Japan Focus to reflect recent events. Click here to read this updated article.

Just as Nazi Germany did in Europe during World War II, Imperial Japan made extensive use of forced labor across the vast area of the Asia Pacific it once occupied. Today, however, Japan’s government and corporations are dealing with the legacy of wartime forced labor very differently than their German counterparts.

This article examines the corporate counter-offensive to reparations claims for Chinese forced labor in Japan, as presented by defense lawyers for Mitsubishi Materials Corp. in a compensation lawsuit to be decided by the Fukuoka District Court on March 29. In startling closing arguments last September, Mitsubishi issued a blanket denial of historical facts routinely recognized by other Japanese courts, while heaping criticism on the Tokyo Trials and openly questioning whether Japan ever “invaded” China at all. Mitsubishi has ominously warned that a redress award for the elderly Chinese plaintiffs, or even a court finding that forced labor occurred, would saddle Japan with a “mistaken burden of the soul” for hundreds of years.

First, a look at the German approach. The “Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future” Foundation was established in 2000, with $6 billion from the federal government and more than 6,500 industrial enterprises. As redress payments drew to a close last fall, about 1.6 million forced labor victims or their heirs, residing in more than 100 countries, had received individual apologies and symbolic compensation of up to $10,000 each. Altogether, 12 million people are believed to have worked for the Nazi regime involuntarily.[1]

Commemorations and truth telling through history education are related aspects of the reparations process in which Germans have manifested a strong commitment to reconciliation. The Berlin state government has purchased an eight-acre former forced labor camp and is turning it into a memorial museum set to open in summer 2006. These latest steps in a longstanding, if sometimes fitful, pattern of atonement underscore the discontinuity between wartime and postwar Germany. Mostly non-Jews from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, forced laborers were the last major class of uncompensated victims of German war crimes. Smaller numbers of persecuted ethnic, religious and sexuality minorities were also included in the German redress fund.

“In a political and in a moral sense, this chapter will never be closed,” the redress foundation’s chairman observed last October. “What is at stake here—and this is the responsibility of our generation and future generations—is to keep these very tragic events, these human rights violations firmly in the national memory.”[2]

Chinese plaintiffs enter the Nagasaki District Courthouse in December 2004 for a lawsuit against Mitsubishi, Nagasaki Prefecture and the state. Motoshima Hitoshi, the city’s former mayor who was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt by an ultranationalist in 1990, is in the center of the group wearing a necktie.

In December 2005, for its part, the Austrian Reconciliation Fund finished paying out nearly $350 million to 132,000 workers, or their families, forced to toil for the Nazi war machine in that country. As in the German case, Austrian redress payouts were higher for “slave laborers,” whom the Nazis intended to work to death under the most horrific conditions, than for “forced laborers,” who worked under less onerous conditions and in some cases received nominal wages during the war.[3]

“Rough justice” refers to a novel legal concept employed in the late 1990s by forced labor redress activists, American class action trial lawyers, U.S. State Department officials, and European governments and corporations. Swiss and French banks and insurance companies used the same approach to settle waves of claims stemming from the looted assets of Holocaust victims. A basic consensus that a historical injustice had been committed and the political will, achieved through a combination of pressure and incentives, to rectify the wrongdoing came first. Details like determining precise numbers of slave laborers and forced laborers were hammered out only after the redress foundations were established. Rough justice aimed to compensate as many aged victims as possible, so eligibility requirements were often relaxed even when documentation was lacking.[4]

Japan's passive legalism

Japan's track record, by contrast, reveals a fundamentally different approach to coming to terms with the past. An intractable “civil war” over national memory of the colonization of Korea, aggressive warfare in China, and the military occupation of large areas of East Asia has left Japanese history textbooks the subject of continued passionate contestation today, both domestically and within the region. Commemorative prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors convicted war criminals and is symbolically linked to Japan’s Greater East Asian War, together with official support for a revisionist narrative of Japan’s past, are so bitterly opposed by Chinese and Koreans that summit meetings of top leaders have become impossible. The return of cultural and private assets looted from across Asia by Japan remains far off the agenda.

Victims of Japanese war crimes have virtually never received apologies or compensation, as Tokyo contends that peace treaties and other state-level agreements extinguished all legal claims decades ago. The 1995 Asian Women’s Fund for military sexual slavery represented a partial exception. Yet most of the so-called comfort women indignantly refused the condolence money from private sources because it was decoupled from a full admission of state responsibility. State apologies, debatably, are the lone area in which Japan has sincerely attempted to atone for its war misconduct.[5] But because these have repeatedly been negated by contrary government actions, such as the Yasukuni visits and revisionist “gaffes” by senior politicians, and because they have never been accompanied by appropriate reparations to victims, the issues continue to fester.

Whereas Germany continued to investigate its own citizens for war crimes well into the current century, Japan never held any war crimes trials, opting instead to grant early release and amnesty to Japanese convicted of such charges during the Allied Occupation. Kishi Nobusuke spent three years in Sugamo Prison as a Class A war crimes suspect before going on to occupy the prime minister’s office from 1957-60, vividly illustrating the continuity between wartime and postwar Japan.[6] Kishi was the founding father of the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party and his grandson, Abe Shinzo, is considered the front runner to replace Koizumi Junichiro as prime minister later this year.

The three main programs for forced labor in Japan involved Allied prisoners of war, Koreans and Chinese. Millions of Asians are thought to have worked against their will for the empire outside of Japan, but the historical record remains underdeveloped and is not considered here.

Aided by Japanese supporters, forced labor survivors in wheelchairs return to the Gunma Prefecture mine where they toiled without pay more than sixty years ago.

Forced labor redress efforts by former Allied POWs highlight how the United States has helped Japan sidestep war responsibility. Thousands of Allied prisoners died en route to Japan aboard the notorious “hellships,” many of them unmarked as POW ships and shot out of the water by American submarines, while systematic mistreatment and the withholding of Red Cross shipments of food and medicine contributed to high prison camp death rates. American ex-POWs received token payments from forfeited Japanese assets soon after the war, but the U.S. State Department vigorously opposed their reparations campaign from the late 1990s. Despite playing a central role in redress activities targeting Germany, and the fact that Congress as well as state legislatures were keen to aid the former POWs’ fight, the American executive branch pushed the nation’s courts to interpret the San Francisco Peace Treaty as precluding individual claims against Japanese companies.[7] Other Allied nations, having been pressured by Washington into accepting the 1951 treaty’s lenient reparations terms, have compensated their own ex-POWs with domestic funds in recent years. It appears the United States will never do so.

In her book Unjust Enrichment, in a chapter called “Mitsubishi: Empire of Exploitation,” leading researcher Linda Goetz Holmes writes: “Mitsubishi occupies a unique place in the history of corporate Japan’s use of POW slave labor during World War II. This company built, owned, and operated at least seventeen of the merchant ‘hellships’ that transported prisoners to their assigned destinations; and this company profited from prisoner labor over a larger range of territory than any other.”[8] Mitsubishi also supplied 225 miles worth of wooden crossties for the infamous Burma-Siam Railway. Regarding a large Allied POW camp near the Unit 731 site in Manchuria, Holmes says “the impression remains that the Mitsubishi facility at Mukden was the site of the most frequent and systematic incidents of medical experimentation on American prisoners of war.”[9]

In addition, Mitsubishi has faced a slew of lawsuits in Japan, the U.S. and South Korea for its extensive domestic use of Korean forced labor (KFL). Hundreds of thousands of Korean workers, including teenage girls, were conscripted and brought to Japan through various means of coercion and deception that grew more heavy-handed as the war progressed.[10] Corporations funneled their wages into mandatory “patriotic savings accounts” while withholding deductions for pensions and health insurance, and retaining full control of the relevant passbooks. Promises to send money home to families in Korea were mostly broken.

Korean workers began demanding their unpaid wages immediately after Japan’s surrender and continue to do so today. In 1946, however, the Japanese government quietly instructed companies to deposit the wages and related monies with state agencies including the Bank of Japan. Apparently, the funds were later commingled with unpaid wage deposits for Chinese laborers, but kept separate from money that was never paid out to Korean soldiers and civilians who worked for the Japanese military. The KFL-linked funds are now held by the national bank in the amount of 215 million yen (or roughly $2 million, unadjusted for six decades of interest or inflation).[11]

Instead of informing the former Korean conscripts, Tokyo withheld vital information about the KFL deposits, their unpaid wages, in the years leading up to the Japan-South Korea normalization treaty of 1965 in order to avoid taking responsibility for this conspicuous feature of colonial rule. The Seoul government, stymied in attempts to formally advance this compensation claim on behalf of its citizens, was forced to accept the intensely unpopular “economic assistance” formula that treated the unpaid wages as property claims to be waived at the time of the treaty.

In the past year, the long-running quest for KFL redress has been transformed. Under relentless pressure from South Korea’s Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under Japanese Imperialism, which continues to dispatch investigators to former worksites across the country, the Japanese government has asked corporations, municipalities and temples to cooperate in the belated search for name rosters and the repatriation of human ashes long held in communal graves. While the South Korean government is expected to eventually compensate surviving labor conscripts itself, an act that might rightly shame the Japanese government and people, Japan’s intentions regarding the large KFL wage deposits remain unclear. A handful of out-of-court settlements over the past decade have benefited only a small number of former Korean workers. Japanese law does not allow class action lawsuits.

Record of Chinese forced labor

The reparations movement for Chinese forced labor (CFL) is a useful lens for looking more closely at how the Japanese state and corporations have interacted over the past 60 years to evade accountability for their joint wartime actions.

A previous Japan Focus article described how in 1946 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and 35 corporations secretly compiled an exhaustive record of the forced labor program at 135 worksites nationwide, essentially for self-defense purposes in anticipation of war crimes prosecutions that mostly materialized.[12] The government later suppressed the five-volume Investigative Report on Working Conditions of Chinese Laborers (better known as the Foreign Ministry Report, or FMR) in order to prevent state reparations claims from China and to obstruct the determined efforts of domestic redress activists, who sought to repatriate Chinese remains and reveal the truth about the slavery-style conditions. More than one out of six (6,830 out of 38,935) Chinese men between the ages of 11 and 78 died, according to meticulous FMR statistics. At some sites fully half of all workers perished, despite having arrived in Japan during the war’s final year.

In the compensation case now before the Fukuoka District Court, the three defendants are the state, Mitsubishi and Mitsui Mining Co. Six corporations active at 16 sites in Fukuoka Prefecture, whose Chikuho coalfields fueled the domestic war machine, received 6,090 Chinese workers altogether, second only to Hokkaido. Mitsui operated three mines involved in this case and used a nationwide total of 5,696 Chinese, which was nearly 15 percent of all workers and more than any other company. Mitsubishi ran two mines involved in this case and used a nationwide total of 2,709 Chinese, or seven percent of all workers. Eighty-seven out of the 352 workers at Mitsubishi’s Katsuta worksite died. That 25 percent death rate ranked highest in the prefecture but in only twenty-eighth place overall.

During the war some 500 Koreans and 200 Chinese wer