Britons to sue Japanese over World War II camps Payment to be sought for forced labor

September 17, 1993|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- British survivors of the brutal Japanese World War II forced-labor camps, fictionalized in the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai," are expected in the next few days to demand compensation from the Japanese government and several of Japan's largest companies.

They join a long and growing line.

In the past, such claims against the Japanese government were almost always unsuccessful, thus undermining any incentive to sue. But the environment has changed, said Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a professor of history at Chuo University.

The aging victims sense their last chance for retribution, and a newly elected government has pledged candor and reform, he said. He also said the end of the Cold War has eliminated the need to suppress such disturbing information.

After decades of denial, the recent admission by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa that Japan conducted "a war of aggression" in World War II has radically changed the official posture of Japan. And last month's acknowledgment that women were forcibly conscripted to serve as army prostitutes has been followed by almost daily announcements of new suits and claims.

But not all Japanese agree that the war was an aggression. "It was an honorable, glorious war," professor Akira Nakamura told a rally of some 1,000 people, organized by rightist intellectuals Monday.

Compensation demands against Japan already total almost $200 billion, according to the Mainichi Daily News. The largest claims come from Chinese citizens who were forced to endure medical experimentation and slave labor.

Last week, Japanese lawyers agreed to represent 50 Filipinos in a million-dollar lawsuit against the government and seven former soldiers of the Imperial Army. The plaintiffs assert they are relatives of 75 victims of cannibalism committed by the soldiers just after the war ended.

Two sisters allege in graphic detail that soldiers forced them to cannibalize their father after watching his dismemberment. Subsequently, the two say they were repeatedly raped by the soldiers.

A report released last Friday by the Japanese Bar Association and compiled this spring from interviews in 10 Asian countries provides numerous descriptions of similarly vicious incidents. The report concludes the demands for compensation are strong and should be settled.

In the aftermath of World War II, Japan, with the approval of the occupying U.S. forces, broadly granted amnesty to its soldiers. The 1951 San Francisco Treaty, concluding the Occupation, largely waived compensation demands by the Allied powers.

Japan subsequently reached compensation settlements with most, but not all, of the Asian countries where the war was fought, paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma, among other countries.

But whether waivers and settlements by national governments preclude suits by individuals recently has come into question. The case of the comfort women, for whom individual compensation will likely be granted, has encouraged numerous other claimants.

Suits may soon be filed by Malaysian and Indonesian victims, said Kenshi Nishida, a lawyer for the Filipinos in their cannibalism suit. Claims also are being considered by former Dutch residents of Indonesia, who were interned in civilian camps where they were subjected to torture and malnutrition.

Tuesday, following notification of the grievances by the former British prisoners, Mr. Hosokawa told an interviewer from the British Broadcasting Corp. that it was his understanding that all claims had been satisfied by the San Francisco Treaty.

That is unlikely to put the issue to rest. The British claims arise largely out of forced labor in camps spread throughout Asia. Related suits also are being considered against Nissan, Mitsubishi and other companies that are alleged to have used forced labor, attorneys said.

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