A Japanese judge is to rule on Wednesday, March 29, in a case that could shame the nation’s leading corporation for using Nazi-style slave labor during the second world war. Yet whereas Germany long ago admitted such crimes against humanity, Japan still evades the issue.
In an extraordinary legal gambit, the giant Mitsubishi conglomerate with the famous triple-diamond logo, is denying liability for thousands of Chinese serf laborers in its coal mines. It argues that Japan never even invaded its neighbor and although millions of Chinese died, the firm’s lawyers told the judge that Japanese hostilities in Asia’s 1931-45 war "should be viewed essentially as a political dispute."
That would be like Germany claiming its wartime conquests in eastern Europe and Scandinavia were merely local disagreements over the relative importance of Teutonic culture.
A realistic and more pertinent comparison is that Mitsubishi became in imperial Japan what the Krupp steel and armaments corporation was to Germany: a fascist war machine. But whereas Krupp chief Alfried Krupp and 10 directors received three to 12 years imprisonment each in the 1947 Nuremberg trials for enslaving thousands, Mitsubishi has never even been fined.
The facts: Japan began invading China’s north-eastern territory of Manchuria in 1931. It captured the national capital, then Nanking, in 1937, when in six weeks its soldiers slaughtered an estimated 300,000 Chinese, one of the worst single wartime atrocities in history. From the mid-1930s and especially after Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japan forced millions of Asian workers (and several thousand American and allied prisoners of war) to toil in slave-like conditions in mainland Japan and Asia.
The 400-year-old Krupp company, with control over 110 firms, manufactured tanks, guns, heavy artillery, U-boats, munitions, and other armaments for Nazi aggression. The Mitsubishi zaibatsu [financial clique] founded in 1870, controlled 209 companies and made tanks, warships, heavy weapons, and the Zero fighters and Betty bombers that devastated Pearl Harbor. Although both corporations have undergone extensive changes since 1945, both continue. Krupp still makes ships, and Mitsubishi still makes weapons (and Kirin beer and Nikon cameras).
In addition to enslaving thousands, Mitsubishi owned, built and operated 17 so-called "hell ships" that carried prisoners of war and press-ganged workers to Japan and other countries, where they were forced to work in appalling conditions. They were paid a pittance that was often stolen by their employers, worked 12-15 hour days, were brutally mistreated by guards, and suffered widespread malnutrition and premature deaths. This has all been documented by numerous survivors, including Americans.
In the civil trial in Fukuoka prefecture is Mitsubishi Materials Corp., the modern name for its old mining company, and another Japanese corporate giant, Mitsui. Bringing the suit are 45 former Chinese workers or their immediate families, who argue that under international law they are entitled to compensation for being forcibly taken from China and enslaved in the Fukuoka mines in Japan’s Chikuho coal fields of Kyushu, the southern island.
Mitsubishi’s legal defense has displayed a marked move rightwards from previous cases, which depended mainly on technical points of law. These are still being exploited: that all claims were settled by a Japan-China declaration in 1972 (before slave labor became a major issue); that the 19th century Meiji constitution in force in wartime Japan precluded such suits; and that the claims are so old they retain no validity.
Now, Mitsubishi’s lawyers have gone overtly political in a reflection of current Japanese right-wing revisionist propaganda about the nation’s role in its imperial wars from 1931-45. In this argument, Japan was desperately fighting a rear-guard defense against Western aggressors and its ultimate resort to arms was to protect Asia against marauding foreigners such as the US and Britain.
Yet in a move that might surprise even General Douglas MacArthur himself, the old Pacific war warrior and ruler of occupied Japan was quoted by Mitsubishi’s defense. Even then, the remark they thought relevant came after MacArthur’s disgrace and removal in 1951.
He had told a US senate committee in May that year that Japan’s involvement in China was for self-defense rather than a hostile invasion. The lawyers also quoted a 1948 book by Helen Mears called Mirror for Americans: Japan, that was banned during the US occupation. It favorably compared Japan’s behavior in Asia with the US in Latin America.
"Evaluation of the major war in question [WWII] will also [like others before it] be left to future generations," the Mitsubishi lawyers argued. "The debate continues today. This court room is not the place to judge whether it was a war of invasion or not."
They continued to plead that Mitsubishi was not liable for financial compensation and the court should not even comment on wartime events. "When courts lose sight of the true nature of these types of so-called post-war compensation cases, the effects of their judgments will go beyond 50 or 100 years," said the lawyers. "The results will extend over hundreds of years by producing a ‘mistaken burden of the soul’ within the future people of our nation."
So although the people of Germany established a $6 billion fund and have already paid reparations to 1.6m forced labor victims or their heirs, the people of Japan — still unasked about their opinion of the Mitsubishi case, which has been scantily reported — should not "burden their souls" with any payments to its victims, says the corporation.
It is unknown how the court will rule, but if it finds Mitsubishi responsible for the gross mistreatment of thousands of coerced workers, some justice will at last be seen. "History cannot be erased," declared lawyers for the Chinese litigants. "The case before this court offers Japan and the Japanese the chance to take a historic step foward and to be once more warmly welcomed among the people of Asia."
To Tokyo’s surprise and chagrin, imperial Japan’s old unpaid debts to its neighbors are now its main obstacle to pleasant foreign relations. Based on the record so far, the Chinese victims’ chances of victory remain dubious.
CHRISTOPHER REED is a freelance journalist who lives in Japan. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org