Photo/IllutrationChief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga answers questions from reporters at a news conference on March 25. (Takeshi Iwashita)

Japan ruled out knee-jerk retaliatory measures in response to a South Korean court-approved seizure of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.’s assets to compensate Korean plaintiffs for their wartime labor.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga described the decision by the Daejeon District Court as “extremely serious,” and made clear that Tokyo will tread cautiously and address the issue attentively.

“The government will continue to take appropriate responses from the standpoint of protecting legitimate economic activities of Japanese companies,” Suga said at a news conference on March 25.

The South Korean court's decision granting the asset seizure request, dated March 22, was revealed by supporters of the plaintiffs on March 25.

The assets concern MHI’s rights to two trademarks and six patents and are estimated to be worth 804 million won (80 million yen, or $727,000).

The district court’s ruling followed South Korea’s top court order last November for the company to compensate 10 Korean laborers who were conscripted during World War II.

But MHI refused to hold talks with the plaintiffs over the payouts ranging from about 8 million yen to 15 million yen per plaintiff.

It will be impossible for MHI to sell or transfer the assets in question now that they are subject to court-approved seizure.

But the plaintiffs must still file a separate court request to get the seized assets cashed in.

The seizure of assets may place MHI in a position where it is not being able to receive fees from Korean businesses that use the relevant trademarks and patents.

The plaintiffs' side has not revealed which trademarks and patents were targeted.

The support group’s statement warned: “(The plaintiffs) are ready to enter proceedings to get the seized assets cashed in if Mitsubishi Heavy does not address the issue sincerely.”

MHI's public relations office said in a statement released March 25 that the company will “respond appropriately by holding talks with the Japanese government.”

On March 26, it emerged that the Ulsan District Court has also given the nod to the seizure of assets held by machinery maker Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp. over wartime labor issues.

According to supporters of the wartime laborers, those assets were valued at about 76.5 million yen in the form of shares in a joint venture established by Nachi-Fujikoshi and a Korean partner.

Another plaintiff group that fought a court battle against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. has already indicated that it will soon move to the next stage by filing a request for approval of the sale of seized assets of PNR, a joint venture by South Korean major steel maker and the Japanese company.

Tokyo has long maintained that the issue of compensating wartime Korean laborers who were conscripted to work for Japanese manufacturers was settled under a compensation treaty in 1965, when the two countries established bilateral relations.

The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.

The government has repeatedly requested talks with South Korea since January to discuss the thorny issue. But Seoul turned a deaf ear to Tokyo’s requests.

The government is weighing when to start arbitration procedures by a third-party country, a proceeding allowed in the compensation treaty to settle future issues where agreement eludes both sides.

There have been growing calls for Tokyo to respond with economic countermeasures within Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.

But the prevailing view within government circles is that such action would prove detrimental in the end, according to a senior official with the Foreign Ministry.

The official said taking such a course would likely have significant economic repercussions.

(This article was compiled from reports by Hajimu Takeda in Seoul and Yuka Takeshita and Tamiyuki Kihara in Tokyo.)