Photo/IllutrationKeisaburo Toyonaga, left, talks in a news conference in Hiroshima on Nov. 29 about the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on a Japanese company’s compensation to South Korean wartime laborers. (Koichi Ueda)

While the Japanese government once said the rights of atomic bomb victims to file lawsuits against the United States have not "expired," it is now raging at rulings in South Korea in favor of wartime laborers against Japanese companies.

The South Korean Supreme Court on Nov. 29 ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (MHI) to pay damage compensation to 10 South Korean plaintiffs by accepting their claims in two trials.

However, in Japanese courts, their compensation requests had been rejected though their grueling work of more than 70 years ago had been recognized as “illegal act.”

The Japanese government maintains that the compensation issue has been "settled" by the 1965 bilateral agreement on settlement of issues related to property and claims.

But when victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki filed lawsuits in 1955 to demand compensation from the Japanese government, the government said, "an individual's rights to file a claim against the United States have yet to be renounced.”

In the 1990s, people in neighboring countries began to file lawsuits by using the Japanese government’s logic that an individual's rights to file a claim for compensation have yet to expire.

In South Korea, which became democratized in 1987, people who had suffered damages in the war began to seek compensation based on the argument.

Since 2000, the 10 plaintiffs have filed lawsuits in South Korea. Five have died as of the ruling on Nov. 29.

Eighty-nine-year old plaintiff Kim Seong-ju, who was mobilized at the age of 14, said after the ruling, “I hope that Japan apologizes and pays compensation.”

In 1944, soon after she graduated from a school, she was told by a Japanese teacher, “If you go to Japan, you can go to a women’s school and also earn money.”

After going to Japan, however, she was forced to engage in grueling work without being paid. Even opportunities to go outside were limited, and her letters to her family were censored.

Also in 1944, five laborers in a separate lawsuit against MHI were mobilized to MHI’s machinery manufacturing plant and shipbuilding yard in Hiroshima under the National Requisition Ordinance.

Their living and working conditions were filled with hardships and broken promises.

Twelve people from the Korean Peninsula were housed in a 12-tatami-mat room. They were forced to do heavy labor of breaking iron with hammers for more than 10 hours a day. The promise that half of their wages would be sent to their families was not kept.

The plant was destroyed in an atomic bombing in August 1945. All five were exposed to radiation from the blast. However, they were not able to receive medical treatment.

After returning to their hometowns, they were plagued by poor health that apparently resulted from their exposure to radiation.

The total of 10 plaintiffs filed damage compensation suits in Hiroshima and Nagoya. The Japanese courts recognized the mobilization methods and harsh working conditions.

“Seeing it in a comprehensive way, it was forced labor,” the Nagoya High Court said.

“It was an illegal act that deviated from legal stipulations,” the Hiroshima High Court also said.

However, the plaintiffs’ requests for damage compensation were turned down based on the statute of limitations or a bilateral agreement on settlement of issues related to property and claims.

After the South Korean Supreme Court’s Nov. 29 rulings, Keisaburo Toyonaga, 82, in Hiroshima, who had supported the Korean wartime laborers for many years, said in a news conference, “I think that their anger, sadness and chagrin were alleviated to some degree.”

In 1951, countries that signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, including Japan, renounced the “diplomatic protection” rights to pursue other countries’ responsibilities.

Victims of the atomic bombings were basically suggested in 1955 to seek compensation from the United States and not the Japanese government.

The Japanese government took the same stance even after the 1965 bilateral agreement between Japan and South Korea. That was intended to prevent Japanese who had left their properties on the Korean Peninsula from seeking compensation from the Japanese government, experts say.

But the Japanese government began to emphasize in the 2000s that though an individual's rights to file a claim have yet to expire, it can’t be held liable due to the 1965 agreement.

In a statement following the South Korean Supreme Court's ruling on Nov. 29, Foreign Minister Taro Kono criticized it as "totally unacceptable."

Japanese courts have turned down requests for compensation over the years. But they called for resolution of the issue by pointing out defects in current relief measures.

In 1998, the Tokyo High Court made the following remark in a compensation suit filed against the Japanese government by people of South and North Korea who served the Japanese military as civilian workers.

“The common recognition among major countries of the world is that, under the responsibilities of the nations, certain compensation is made to people who became victims or suffered due to the illegal use of state power.”

The high court also said, “It is expected that people who are involved in national politics should enact appropriate legislation.”

In a trial in which wartime Chinese laborers sought compensation from Nishimatsu Construction Co., the Japanese Supreme Court said in 2007, “It is expected that people concerned make efforts toward relief.”

Several Japanese companies have reached compromises with South Korean or Chinese laborers based on “moral responsibilities.”

After a South Korean Supreme Court in late October ordered major Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to pay compensation to four South Korean wartime laborers, a group of Japanese lawyers issued in early November a statement that criticized the Japanese government’s stance.

“It is inappropriate to make explanations as if all the rights to claim have expired,” the statement said.

Lawyer Seita Yamamoto, a leading member of the group, said, “It’s not denied that Japanese companies or the Japanese government solve the issue in out-of-court negotiations. They should aim to achieve relief through talks without simply rejecting requests saying, 'It has already been settled.’”

(This article was written by Hajimu Takeda, Chifumi Shinya, Daisuke Shimizu and Hwang Chul.)