Slave labor is Japan's forgotten Holocaust

Litigation: Former allied prisoners of war, Asian slave laborers, "comfort women" and others are seeking tens of billions of dollars in reparations from Japanese firms.

July 09, 2000

TOKYO -- "The shame of our history is now going abroad," says Tadashi Kosho, who has spent his life studying the use of slave labor by Japanese companies during the war.

Enter Edward Fagan, a New York lawyer and world-class embarrasser. The man who shamed Swiss bankers and German industrialists into stumping up billions of dollars for their wartime offenses now plans to take on the might of Japanese industry.

Launched late last year on the anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Fagan's class-action lawsuit charges Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsui & Company and Nippon Steel with violations of human rights, the use of forced labor and unjust enrichment.

In the past year, more than 30 similar lawsuits have been lodged in California, a state where courts have a statute of limitations extending until 2010 all claims related to the Second World War.

Plaintiffs include former allied prisoners of war, Asian slave laborers, "comfort women" and other alleged victims of Imperial Japan.

Since, under American law, foreigners can file suit as easily as Americans, Asia is now crawling with lawyers. And this sudden barrage of lawsuits has caught the attention of Washington politicians.

In May, the Senate passed a bill to require the American government to open its archives on Japanese war crimes.

Last month, 18 congressmen presented the House of Representatives with a bill calling for Japan to apologize for its war crimes and to pay compensation to victims. And recently the Senate held hearings on Japan's war record.

If Fagan is to be believed, Japanese firms may have to pay tens of billions of dollars in reparations, outstripping the $5-billion Nazi-slave-labor settlement reached by Germany's companies and government that was recently confirmed in the Bundestag.

Thanks to the secrecy still surrounding government and company archives in Japan, nobody knows for sure how many people Japanese firms enslaved. But some historians guess that there were as many as 700,000 Koreans, 40,000 Chinese and hundreds of thousands of other Asians who were forced into labor.

Besides these, perhaps half of the 140,000 allied prisoners captured by the Japanese army were also forced to work.

Workers slaved in wretched conditions in mines, steel plants, construction sites and factories in Japan and throughout its colonies. Death rates were high in many of the prisoner-of-war and work camps, and torture and abuse were common.

The most enthusiastic users of slave labor were the zaibatsu, the giant financial and industrial conglomerates that the Americans dismantled after the war.

Although their owners were purged, the zaibatsu managed to regroup themselves under the same management. Despite what Japanese firms claim about their non-relationship with the zaibatsu, the postwar break was by no means complete.

Much of the capital amassed by the zaibatsu during Japan's colonial expansion also survived the purge: the money was siphoned off into house banks that escaped American attentions.

Cold-war politics further discouraged the Americans from pressuring Japan and its large companies to pay reparations. So far, Japan has not budged an inch. The companies involved are keeping a frosty silence.

Influential Asian-Americans and human-rights organizations, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, have begun focusing on the "forgotten Holocaust" of the Pacific war.

Last year, California's state government passed a law, sponsored by a local Japanese-American politician, calling for Japan to offer "an unambiguous apology and compensation to the victims of its wartime atrocities."

It took two years of rough handling in the media and untold damage in public relations before Swiss and German firms agreed to pay compensation. One sign of the sensitivity of the political issues surrounding the German suits was the role that the government played in organizing the compensation fund.

In theory, at least, the Japanese ought to be tempted to settle quickly on commercial grounds alone. This time, however, Fagan may have hit a blind spot. For companies such as Mitsui have resisted pressure for reparations for years.

More than 40 court cases have been filed in Japan demanding restitution for slave labor. Not one has won. Only three have been settled out of court, and even then on terms that were hardly favorable to former slaves.

Recently, for instance, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries refused to make a court-suggested payment to a group of 12 Korean forced laborers.

Generally, the Japanese press lets its companies get away with this sort of high-handed treatment: criticism of big Japanese companies by the mainstream media in Japan remains muted.

There will be stubborn political resistance too. Among the right wing of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party are politicians who refuse to accept that Japan waged a war of aggression. It is thanks to these enduring political forces that, to the outside world, Japan still cannot seem to offer an unequivocal apology for its wartime actions.

The difference with the latest court cases, of course, is that they have been filed abroad, exposing Japanese firms to a hostile press, hostile public opinion and hostile politicians.

On the evidence so far, the guess has to be that they will make a worse mess of the issue than even the Swiss and the Germans.

This article first appeared in the Economist.

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