A Brief Account of Chinese War Victims’ Lawsuits Seeking Compensation from the Japanese Government and the Japanese Corporations Involved


Speech at Asia Regional Conference at 2006 World Peace Forum

By Attorney Kang Jian

June 23, 2006


It is open knowledge that the war of invasion to China launched by Japanese militarists brought atrocities to the Chinese people. From 1995, some of the Chinese war victims started to sue the Japanese government and some Japanese corporations in Japanese courts, seeking to bring the perpetrators to acknowledge the facts, to publicly apologize and to provide compensation to victims through legal procedures.


I )         The war of Invasion and the atrocities brought onto the Chinese people


On September 18, 1931, the Japanese militarists provoked war and the invasion of China began. In mid-August 1945, Japan surrendered, ending the war after 15 years. According to experts, during this war of invasion the  Imperial Japanese Army occupied 26 Chinese provinces, over 1,500 cities and counties. The Chinese military and civilians suffered casualties of 30 million.


During the war, the Imperial Japanese Army completely ignored international laws and committed atrocious crimes against Chinese civilians.  They can be categorized into:

1.      Slaughtering and persecuting non-combatant persons;

2.      Indiscriminate bombing of cities and towns;

3.      Forcing Chinese civilians or prisoners-of-war into slave labor (sending them to slave in the occupied territories of Manchuria, Mongolia, Southeast Asian countries and Japan);

4.      Forcing Chinese women into Japanese military sexual slavery, i.e. forcing them to be “comfort women”;

5.      Using Chinese as human subjects for biological warfare experiments as well as making and using biological warfare weapons;

6.      Using chemical weapons and abandoning large quantities of chemical shells and bombs inside China.


II)         Cases of lawsuits Seeking Compensation from Japan


In the early 1990s, compensation lawsuits have been filed in different Japanese district courts by some Chinese victims and families of deceased victims who suffered severe physical, mental and property damages due to atrocious war crimes committed by the Imperial Japanese Army.  These atrocities were committed against international laws.  The Japanese government and some Japanese corporations are named as the perpetrators legally liable.  The total number of these suits has reached 25 so far and can be grouped into several categories.




1.      Cases on Massacres


Since its invasion of China in 1931, the Imperial Japanese Army recklessly killed tens of millions of common folks and committed many massacres. In September 1932, at a village in Pingdingshan, Liaoning Province, the Japanese army opened machine gun fire on the villagers and then poured gasoline and set the bodies on fire. Over 1000 civilians were killed just that incident alone.  Three small children survived that massacre. They were able to escape death because they were sheltered under their parents’ bodies. These three survivors and the survivors of Nanjing Massacre filed their suits at Tokyo District Court in August 1996 and August 1995 respectively, naming the Japanese government as the defendant. On September 22, 1999, judgment was made by the district court on the case of Nanjing Massacre. The judgment vaguely stated part of the facts and then ruled against the plaintiffs using the pretext of competency of individual as subject in law to sue the Japanese government and that the statutory time limit had expired. In June 2002, the plaintiffs of Pingdingshan massacre also lost the case in the district court.  While the verdict ascertained that the Imperial Japanese Army did commit the massacre, it was ruled that the Japanese government did not have any responsibility because of competence of individual as subject in the lawsuit and expiry of time limitation.



2.      Cases of Indiscriminate Bombing


From the time the Imperial Japanese Army invaded China, they bombed many places in China, especially cities such as Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Lanzhou, Changsha, Xian, Kunming, Chongqing, etc. The Japanese planes opened fire at crowds, dropped incendiary bombs, or carried out indiscriminate bombings. Many innocent civilians were killed by the Imperial Japanese Army and some cities were almost reduced to rubbles. Take the bombing of Chongqing for example. The Imperial Japanese Army bombed the city for three years.  Some Japanese scholars researched on the bombing of Chongqing and their data revealed that there were 218 bombing raids, 21,513 bombs were dropped, causing more than 35,000 casualties and 10,000 buildings ruined.


Indiscriminate bombing survivor Gao Xiongfei sued against the Japanese government seeking compensation. The Tokyo District Court ascertained the facts but ruled Gao lost the case under the pretext of statutory time limit had expired and competency of individual as subject in law to sue the Japanese government.


3.      Cases of Forced Labor


Ever since Japan invaded the three northeastern provinces of China (Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin provinces) in 1931, in order to speed up the plundering of resources from China, it started the planned abduction of laborers from provinces south of the Great Wall to these northeastern provinces to slave work in mines and military constructions. Records show that millions of Chinese laborers slaved in such projects alone.


As the war of invasion dragged on, the Japanese government realized its severe shortage of labor in Japan. To solve this problem, it abducted over 40,000 people from China and shipped them to Japan in batches to become slave labors.  These laborers were assigned to 35 Japanese corporations in 135 work sites. These Chinese laborers were treated with inhuman cruelty in severe working conditions. The Japanese corporations assigned numbers to the laborers, or called them by “slaves from a conquered country” or “coolie,” never by their Chinese names.


The Chinese forced laborers worked everyday for at least 10-12 hours continuously, the longest being 18 hours. They did not have holidays or days off and had no medical care.  About 7000 Chinese laborers died in Japan due to maltreatment within two years. In my research, every forced labor survivor talked about the unbearable starvation. The laborers performed heavy physical work but ate only moldy food mixed with bran and grits plus a few pieces of preserved vegetables. They were so hungry that when they passed garbage dumpsters on their way to and from work, they would pick up trashes discarded by the Japanese such as orange peels, rotten vegetable leaves, or plucked weeds from the roadside to eat. Some ate the fish guts discarded by Japanese people and  undigested corns found in cow dung. If they were caught doing this by the Japanese supervisors, they would receive severe beatings. They had no warm clothes for winter. The laborers used brown paper or the blanket they slept in to cover themselves and tied straw around their feet as shoes. Many suffered frostbites. Even for those who survived, they suffer from many illnesses and diseases for the rest of their lives.


The Japanese government and the corporations involved had amassed enormous riches from the Chinese forced laborers whose wages have yet to be paid. Over the years more than two hundred Chinese forced labor survivors have filed lawsuits at several district courts in Japan.


4.      Cases of “Comfort Women”


The Japanese government and military established the evil system of “comfort women” in order to boost the fighting morale of Imperial Japanese Army and to sustain its war of invasion in China. By analyzing the setting up criteria of “comfort stations” and the wide geographical distribution of Japanese occupied territories, scholars concluded that the Japanese government had forced hundreds of thousands of women to be “comfort women”. I conducted an investigation with over twenty survivors of sexual violence, i.e. the former “comfort women,” and found that all were kept in “comfort stations” controlled by the Imperial Japanese Army.  The Japanese soldiers violently assaulted the victims sexually and incessantly.  According to survivors, their suffering in the “comfort stations” was excruciating and some victims became insane right on the spot. The “comfort women” who survived the ordeal all had wounds and disabilities.  Some lost the ability to bear children.


Among the four Chinese “comfort women” cases accepted by Tokyo District Court (not including the suits filed by victims from Taiwan), three cases have reached the Supreme Court of Japan and one of which had the final verdict in December 2005. All existing verdicts acknowledged the fact of organized sexual violence against Chinese women by the Imperial Japanese Army but they all exempted the Japanese government from bearing any responsibilities using excuses such as statutory time limit had expired.


5.      Cases of Abandoned Chemical Weapons and Biological Warfare


During its invasion of China, the Imperial Japanese Army had been secretly researching and making chemical and BW weapons for a long period of time. They used the chemical and germ weapons long banned internationally in China. After they lost the war, they deliberately abandoned these forbidden chemical weapons in China. As a result, though the war had ended for years, Chinese people continues to suffer injuries from the chemical weapons abandoned by the Imperial Japanese Army. For example, chemical bombs retrieved during the dredging project of Songhua River claimed lives and caused injuries.  A bomb buried under a construction site in Heilongjiang Province exploded and claimed more lives and caused more injuries. Two groups of victims of chemical weapons had filed lawsuits in the Tokyo District Court and both had received verdict from the court. Facts of similar nature rendered plaintiffs of one case the winner and the other the loser.  The reason for losing the case was again excuses of competency of individual as subject to sue the Japanese government and that statutory time limit had expired.


Using germs to kill Chinese soldiers and civilians was one of the war crimes committed by the Japanese military. Unit 731 and several other units were established by the Imperial Japanese Army for the purpose of carrying out biological warfare. They used Chinese as test subjects for biological warfare experiments and then used the results of the human experiments to make BW weapons to kill more Chinese soldiers and civilians. For example, the Imperial Japanese Army conducted biological warfare in Quzhou and Ningbo of Zhejiang Province in 1940; in Changde of Hunan Province in 1941. In Yiwu and Chongshan of Zhejiang Province, germs were planted and spread by the Imperial Japanese Army to induce outbreaks of epidemic diseases. Some of the survivors and families of deceased victims have filed a lawsuit at Tokyo District Court and the Japanese judges rejected the claims with similar excuses of statutory time limitations, etc. Now the case is in the Supreme Court of Japan.


III)         Attitude of the Japanese Government toward War responsibilities


(1)   Burning and hiding evidences


a)     In August 1945, the Japanese emperor announced Japan’s surrender and the war was over. However, before this took place, the Japanese government already realized that things were not going the direction they expected and started to destroy documents in China,  kill the abducted Chinese laborers working on military constructions,  and those POWs and civilians who were used as testing subjects for the biological warfare experiments.


b)     To use the Chinese forced laborers as an example. Not long after Japan lost the war, the International Military Tribunal of the Far East was established. The Japanese government, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organized a special taskforce to produce a report that glossed over the abuses of Chinese forced laborers, in case the Chinese government might conduct investigations on the illegal acts of abducting Chinese to be slave laborers in Japan. Later, out of consideration for political interests of the U.S., the International Military Tribunal for the Fast East just rushed through the trials and did not systematically go after the war responsibilities of the Japanese government toward the Chinese forced laborers. Immediately afterwards, the Japanese government ordered the destruction of this manufactured report. But one of the copies, though incomplete, of the report was sneaked out to Tokyo Overseas Chinese Federation by some conscientious Japanese. This document played an important role in our seeking accountability of the Japanese government and the Japanese corporations involved.



(2)   Openly lying and fabricating information


  1. The Chinese peasant Liu Lianren was forcibly brought to Japan in 1944 by the Imperial Japanese Army to work in a Hokkaido mine as a slave laborer. Unable to bear the harsh treatment by the Japanese corporation, Liu ran away and hid in the deep mountains of Hokkaido, living like a wild man in the wilderness for 13 years. It caused a sensation in Japan when he was found by accident in 1958. The Japanese government officials knew well that Liu Lianren was a forced laborer abducted from China.  Because the Japanese government firmly believed that all documents of the forced laborers had been destroyed, they wanted to treat Liu Lianren’s case as that of an illegal immigrant so as to avoid responsibility. With the help of overseas Chinese in Hokkaido, Liu Lianren’s identity was confirmed. The then Japanese Prime Minister. Kishi Nobusuke (Note: he was the wartime Minister of Industry and Commerce and was directly involved in the decision to import Chinese forced laborers) said at a parliamentary meeting that the government had no detailed information of the period and had no way now to verify if he (Liu Lianren) was abducted to Japan or if he had given his consent.


  1. While the Japanese government was hiding information with regard to Chinese forced laborers, it lied to conscientious Japanese people who inquired about this issue, claiming no data was available. In July 2003, under increasing pressure, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was forced to disclose some of the information. But by then the war had been over for 58 years. The explanation offered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was that these files were kept at the basement archive and were not found in time. What pale words!


(3)   Finding excuses and shedding responsibilities


In the lawsuits brought against the Japanese government by the Chinese wartime victims, it never faced squarely and responded to the facts submitted by the plaintiffs.  Instead the Japanese government tried to avoid its responsibilities using excuses of statutory time limit had expired or “state immunity.” I will discuss these issues in the section “Attitude of the Japanese judges” and therefore will not elaborate here.


IV)       Attitude of Japanese Corporations toward their illegal Acts and Responsibilities


The Japanese government launched the war under the banner of “protecting Japan and protecting Asia” and it mobilized all Japanese nationals to join in the war efforts.  As its battlefront expanded, the shortage of domestic labor became more prominent. In order to sustain the war of aggression, Japanese corporations as represented by Mitsubishi(三菱), Mitsui(三井)and Kajima(鹿岛) and business associations representing corporations in coal, metal and construction industries proposed to the Japanese government to import “Chinese laborers.” Joined by the Japanese government and the military, these corporations and industries conducted a field study together on the targeted regions and laborers of the program. In November 1942, the Japanese cabinet passed the resolution to import “Chinese laborers.” Existing documents and data reveal that from 1943 when the organized abduction and transportation of the Chinese laborers to Japan began, to 1945 when Japan was defeated, 40,000 Chinese were forcibly sent to Japan to work as slave laborers for 35 Japanese corporations in 135 working sites. Today, 24 of the 35 corporations of that time are still operating. Except for Mitsui Ship Building Co(三井造船公司), all 23 corporations have been sued in court.


Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Kajima, Sumitomo(住友) and the rest of the 23 Japanese corporations held basically similar attitudes during the court trials. That is, at the initial stage, they all denied what happened by saying things such as “not knowing” the abuse the plaintiffs suffered, “this was something happened in the past, irrelevant to the present,” “the time limits for filing claims have expired a long time ago and so there is no need to investigate the facts,” etc., so that they would not have any responsibility. When the plaintiffs produced enormous quantities of evidences proving the cruel abusive treatment by the Japanese corporations during those days and when these evidences were ascertained during trials at district courts, the Japanese corporations changed their strategies. Again, they used lies and other tactics such as diverting the crisis onto the Japanese people to instigate Japanese nationalist sentiment, in order to create  cover-ups for its illegal acts in history.


For example, some Japanese corporations mentioned in their written statements submitted to the court, “during wartime, Japanese nationals also lived a hard life without enough to eat. It was good enough that the Chinese laborers could eat three meals a day and getting 2500 kilocalorie.”  The fact was that the Chinese laborers ate moldy food mixed with bran and grits plus a few pieces of preserved vegetables. But they had to perform hard labor for more than 10 hours every day, the longest being 18 hours, and had no days off.  Severe malnutrition caused varied degrees of illnesses among slave laborers working in these 35 corporations. The most commonly found were cases of night blindness or loss of eyesight. The situation was grave at Nanao Ocean and Land Shipping Corporation (七尾海陆运送公司). Of the 399 Chinese laborers 15 died in less than a year, 307 suffered from severe eye diseases, with 64 of them having lost one or both eyesights and more than 70 suffered from night blindness.  Even during wartime, it was uncommon for Japanese nationals to suffer such serious diseases. Never were there any cases of Japanese nationals suffering from night blindness or loss of eyesight caused by severe malnutrition.


Some Japanese corporations declared in their written statements, “The Japanese were performing similar kind of works in the coal mines, not very different from the Chinese except that the Chinese had more confined work spaces plus dampness that could make them more tired.” The fact was that the Japanese were supervisors in the coal pits. They were not laboring at all, just keeping watch on the Chinese.


Mitsubishi Corporation clearly stated in their written submissions to Fukuoka District Court, “The court is not the place to determine whether it was a war of invasion or not.”; “This case does not require a verification of the facts because time limitation of the plaintiffs’ claim had already expired.”; “It is a mistake to use today’s common sense to judge the past.” Mitsubishi Corporation adopted one particular point of view, namely “The Tokyo Trial (Note: International Military Tribunal for the Far East) was an act of retribution to the loser by the victor.” The final conclusion Mitsubishi Corporation arrived at was that “Not understanding the nature of this case would saddle Japanese nationals with a mistaken burden of the soul for hundred years to come.”


The above are just some straight forward examples. These trickles of facts allow people to see that the Japanese corporations involved have no regrets at all for what they had done illegally in the past.  On the contrary, they are even nostalgic about those days.


V)        Attitude of the Japanese judges toward facts and responsibilities


The Chinese war victims filed 25 lawsuits in several Japanese courts against the Japanese government and the Japanese corporations involved. Fourteen of these suits were forced labor cases. From 1995 to March 2006, seven lawsuits received verdict at district courts and 3 received verdict from higher court. Of those district courts’ verdicts delivered before May 2001, none contained ascertainment or mentioning of facts. The judges simply rejected the claims on the basis of expiry of time limitations or “state immunity.” In verdicts rendered after July 2001, whether the plaintiff won or lost, it was acknowledged that the Japanese government and the corporations involved committed illegal acts together and treated the Chinese laborers cruelly. Besides acknowledging the facts of the forced labor cases, some of the presiding Japanese judges also upheld the basic legal principle of fairness and justice and rejected the defense of statutory time limitations put forward by the Japanese government and corporations involved. But most of the Japanese judges still lacked courage to face the grave unlawful acts against the Asian peoples committed by the Japanese government and corporations. They dared not sentence the Japanese government and corporations involved into taking responsibilities as the perpetrators. They acknowledged the facts but then exempted the Japanese government and corporations involved from the liabilities under the pretext of statutory time limit had expired or “state immunity.”


1)         On Statutory Time Limitations

Legalists from around the world all know that the establishment of time limitations is for the purpose of maintaining a relatively stable legal order. It is also a restraint on negligence of rights of action. But lawsuits seeking compensations for war crimes should be an exception. This is because persons responsible for the war crimes are normally heads in a government or the actual implementers of an order made by a government, and as an individual sets out to right the wrongs committed by a government or a perpetrator backed by a government, even after the war has ended, this individual as the victim is bound to be restricted by various conditions, such as the difficulties in obtaining evidences, the influences of international and domestic environment,  and the individual’s economic conditions, etc. There exists an innate vulnerability on the part of the victim demanding justice. Yet it’s individuals who suffered most directly from wartime unlawful acts.


On July 13, 2001 and April 26, 2002, Tokyo District Court and Fukuoka District Court ruled in favour and partial favour on the case of Liu Lianren and the Mitsui Mine(三井矿山) Forced Labor case respectively. On March 26, 2003 and July 9, 2004, the Niigata District Court and Hiroshima High Court also ruled that the plaintiffs of similar Chinese forced labor cases partially won in their compensation lawsuits against the Japanese government, Rinko Corp in Niigata(新泻临港集团) and Nishimatsu Construction Co(西松建设). The judges who ruled in these four cases used the basic legal principle of fairness and justice and negated the defense of expired limitation period put up by the Japanese government and the corporations involved. These judges believed that although the plaintiffs, after suffering from such atrocities, were unable to exercise their rights within the time limit required by law,  it was against the concept of legal fairness and justice to prevent them from exercising their right of action on the basis of statutory time limitations. These 12 Japanese judges who presided over the four cases embodied and actualized the concept of protecting and respecting human rights. But most judges did not have the courage to hold the Japanese government and corporations involved accountable and could only play a legal game.


2)         On “State Immunity”


In dealing with lawsuits filed by Asian victims including the Chinese, Japanese courts frequently used “state immunity” to excuse the Japanese government from being held accountable for its wartime crimes. 


The so-called “state immunity” is a legal doctrine, which appeared during the Meiji period (1867) based on the idea of supremacy of the Japanese emperor. Even then it was controversial. The doctrine ruled that when the State representing the will of the Japanese emperor caused damage to its nationals while carrying out public duties, it would not compensate and the State was immune. At that time, the doctrine only applied to Japanese nationals subjected to the rule of the Japanese emperor. The Chinese nationals were certainly not under the rule of the Japanese emperor and the Chinese government and people never invited the Japanese government to come to China to exercise their reign. The Japanese government then invaded China by military force and committed burning, plundering and killing of Chinese people on Chinese territory. These were obviously illegal acts and did not meet the basic condition for applying the doctrine of “state immunity.” The Japanese judges’ use of this excuse to exempt the Japanese government from the liability of wartime crimes inflicted on Chinese people is groundless.


The Japanese government also used “state immunity” as an excuse of pleading exemption from liabilities in the case of “comfort women.” Most judges supported this defense of the Japanese government. Looking around the world, do we see another country whose government can call, as the Japanese government has, the organized raping of women from other countries “acts of carrying out state business” and shamelessly repeat that raping women from other countries is a state business that can be “exempted from liabilities”?  As legalists, some Japanese judges readily used this excuse to exempt the Japanese government. This act of blaspheming the law and not feeling guilty has become the trump card for the Japanese government and some Japanese judges in rebutting  former Chinese “comfort women”. We should all feel sorry for modern civilization.


VI)       The Japanese government takes advantage of the generosity of victimized countries to cover-up their atrocities committed


During WWII, Japan carried out large scale military aggressions and economic plundering in many Asian countries including China. Although the war ended with Japan’s defeat, the crimes committed by Japanese militarists have not been thoroughly investigated or the liabilities sought, as they should. Consequently, many Japanese politicians still house nostalgic feelings toward that period. For example, many members of Japanese parliament have been collectively and repeatedly paying homage at the Yasukuni Shrine where convicted Class A Japanese war criminals are enshrined; the Japanese Ministry of Education approved history textbooks that whitewashes Japanese aggression and so deceive the youths of Japan; Japan has painted itself as the victim while keeping silent about the atrocities it had committed against peoples of other countries …. There is no doubt such unconscionable acts of Japan that completely ignore history are rubbing salt into wounds of the peoples of victimized countries. Such acts deeply hurt the feelings of peoples in these countries. It was in this context that demonstrations took place between spring and summer of 2005 in some Chinese cities, voluntarily organized by the people of those cities to protest against Japanese government’s distortion of history. Instead of reflecting on their own wrongdoings, the Japanese government used Japanese media and deliberately played up the so-called Chinese threat to Japan. However, with calm analysis it is not difficult to see that what the Chinese people protest against is the Japanese government’s unconscionable acts of distorting history. The history that the Japanese government seeks to cover-up and distort was the war that brought on atrocities to Asian peoples. Only when we can remember deep in our hearts this evil war and draw lessons from it, will we have long lasting peace. The intention to seek truth in history on the part of the Chinese people is of goodwill and for peace. On the contrary, the Japanese government has done all they can to cover-up history and to instigate ultra-nationalism in Japan. This is the real threat to Asia.



Peace is the wish of the many and war is the hobby of the few. But this wicked hobby of the few often brings to the mass major disasters. Today, as we comment on the attitudes of the Japanese government and corporations involved and the Japanese judges towards war responsibilities, it is our hope to use civilized means to deliver the wishes of goodwilled people and encourage them to acknowledge history, apologize sincerely to victims and offer compensation, for the sake of long term peace and stability. But the reality shows mercilessly that today’s government of Japan and the Japanese corporations as represented by Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Kajima etc. who are liable for war responsibilities are not willing to face history or to admit guilt of past aggression. They have painted themselves as victims and consider the postwar trials as acts of retribution. We must keep a clear view on this issue and maintain necessary vigilance.