TOKYO - In a landmark settlement over wartime cruelties, a giant Japanese construction company agreed yesterday to establish a $4.6 million fund for relatives of Chinese laborers forced to work under barbarous conditions near an infamous Japanese mine during World War II.
The settlement announced by the Kajima Corp., one of Japan's largest builders, marks the first time a Japanese company has agreed to make reparations to Chinese victims of slave-like working conditions.
Japanese authorities forced thousands of people from Korea and China to go to Japan as involuntary labor during the war.
Japanese companies in the past have generally said they are not liable for such wartime sufferings. Nearly 60 other suits are pending by victims of Japan's wartime brutality, including thousands of "comfort women" who were conscripted into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army.
Japan also conducted chemical and biological experiments in China when it occupied large parts of the country.
Many Chinese believe that Japan has failed to apologize and make amends for atrocities during the occupation.
The settlement reached yesterday was the culmination of a suit seeking reparations that was filed in 1995 by relatives of Chinese workers who died at the Hanaoka labor camp in Akita prefecture of northeastern Japan. Kajima's wartime predecessor, Kajima-gumi, operated the labor camp.
Of the 986 Chinese brought to the camp between August 1944 and June 1945 to redirect the flow of a river near a mine, 418 died.
Conscripted Chinese laborers staged an uprising toward the end of the war after suffering from malnutrition, 14-hour work days and regular beatings. In the so-called Hanaoka Incident, on June 30, 1945, the Chinese workers attacked their Japanese bosses with stones and bare fists, killing five Japanese mine supervisors.
In retaliation, more than 100 Chinese laborers were tortured to death. Some had water forced down their throats while police and Kajima supervisors jumped up and down on their swollen stomachs. Others were allegedly hung by their thumbs and beaten until their faces were unrecognizable. Still others were beaten to death with sledgehammers and shovels.
The settlement is the largest ever paid by a Japanese company to compensate for wartime damages, attorneys said.
"This is the first real settlement of a forced labor suit," said Takashi Niimi, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
The funds will be administered by the Chinese Red Cross for relatives of all 986 Chinese who worked in the camp.
In August, nine Chinese sued two of Japan's biggest conglomerates, Mitsubishi and Mitsui, for forcing them to work in slavelike conditions during the war.
In 1990, Kajima offered about $500,000 for a memorial service. The victims rejected the proposal.
In June 1995, 11 Chinese survivors and relatives of some of those who died filed suit with the Tokyo District Court seeking nearly $6 million in damages.
The court rejected the original suit without hearing a witness, saying that too much time had passed. But in September, a Tokyo High Court judge recommended that a settlement be pursued.
The survivors argued that much of Kajima's latter-day profits could be attributed to the wartime sacrifice of the Chinese laborers.
After the war, three Kajima supervisors were sentenced to death for war crimes as a result of their actions during the Hanaoka Incident. The executions were never carried out and eventually the three were released from prison.
By some estimates, nearly 40,000 Chinese workers were shipped to Japan between 1943 and 1945 to supplement the thousands of workers brought in from Korea to mine coal, load supplies in ports and build harbors. Smaller out-of-court settlements have been reached between some Japanese companies and families of Korean laborers.