Japanese companies have acknowledged their crimes and paid compensation in the past

Posted on : 2019-08-12 17:28 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Rise of Shinzo Abe administration marks distinct change of attitude
South Koreans gather in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to denounce the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Aug. 10. (Kim Myoung-jin
South Koreans gather in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to denounce the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Aug. 10. (Kim Myoung-jin

It is the summer of 1945, right before Korea’s liberation. Naval gunfire from Allied ships pours down on Nippon Steel’s Kamaishi steel mill in Iwate Prefecture. Among the estimated 690 or more Korean laborers forcibly taken to Japan to work around the clock in the steel mill in two shifts without any days off, 25 are killed by the shelling. However, the Japanese government and Nippon Steel do not send the remains of these workers home, or even send a notification about their deaths. The back pay that laborers were forced to accrue in order to prevent them from escaping has also been forgotten. However, the fortuitous discovery of a folder containing records unpaid wages in a second-hand Tokyo bookstore in 1974 let the world know about this incident, and the bereaved families of 11 victims of forced labor filed a lawsuit against Nippon Steel for unpaid wages and the return of their loved ones’ remains in Tokyo District Court in September 1995.

Although Nippon Steel claimed in court that the company “had no direct relationship to the former Nippon Steel,” this case paved the way for negotiations outside the courtroom. Staff were dispatched to Kamaishi to conduct an investigation, and lawyers on both sides collected evidence from survivors. The bereaved families ultimately lost the case, but a “settlement” took place in September 1997. When Nippon Steel admitted to not returning the remains of Korean victims killed in Kamaishi and excluding such workers from memorial projects, the company paid consolation money of 2 million yen (US$18,972) to each individual. The bereaved families were even invited to Japan for a memorial service. This is the little-known past of Nippon Steel, a company that committed war crimes and is currently hiding behind the Japanese government, refusing to pay any further compensation.

Prior to the Korean Supreme Court’s decision, lawsuits filed by victims of forced labor were heard in Japanese courts in the 1990s in order to seek accountability from the country that had perpetrated the crimes. Most victims and bereaved families lost in court, but three “settlements” took place between 1997 and 2000.

Kim Gyeong-seok worked as a forced laborer in the NKK Corporation Kawasaki factory from 1942 to 1944. After being dragged to the factory in his late teens and suffering from cruel abuse, he struggled with the lingering after-effects even after returning to his hometown. In March 1991, he filed a lawsuit against NKK Corporation in Tokyo District Court, seeking 10 million yen (US$94,862) and an apology from the company. Although the company resolutely denied any legal responsibility, it expressed “earnest remorse” for the disability that Kim had been forced to live with as a result of the abuse he suffered in the factory, and paid him 4.1 million yen (US$38,893) in consolation money eight years later in 1999. This was the first “court settlement” that took place in Tokyo High Court.

Fujikoshi, which is currently involved in a compulsory execution procedure, also has a prior history. Although Toyama District Court dismissed an action brought by a group called the Women’s Volunteer Labor Cause in September 1992 due to the statute of limitations, the court ruled that tricking the women by claiming that they could “attend school” was an illegal act of forced mobilization. Following the acknowledgement of war crimes by the Japanese court, movements towards filing class action suits in the US led to Fujikoshi paying approximately 30 million yen (US$284,580) to the victims in July 2000 as a settlement.

In contrast to the forward-looking practice of offering consolation money over the past 20 years, Japanese companies are now aligning themselves with the Japanese government and refusing to pay compensation. Scholars believe that the turning point occurred when lawsuits spread to US courts in 2000, where judgments on crimes against humanity can be obtained even by foreign nationals. As soon as victims of forced labor began waging war in the US courts, Japan responded by adopting the stance that “the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations represents an ultimate and final solution” to the issue.

“Some companies have paid consolation money for their past wrongdoing, and depending on how this is interpreted, it can be viewed as compensation,” said Lee Sang-hee, an attorney at Jihyang Law. “Japan should view the current situation as an extension of the past. There is no need to react in an overly sensitive manner.”

By Ko Han-sol, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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