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Chinese slave labourers seek justice in Japanese courts
By Cao Desheng (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-02-16 15:44

In 1943, the teenager was forcibly taken to Japan and made to work at a mine in southern Japan's Fukuoka for two years.

Sixty years later, he's back in Japan, demanding justice.

Ye Yongcai, 78, a native of Xushui County in North China's Hebei Province, is among 15 Chinese who jointly lodged a lawsuit in Fukuoka District Court on May 10, 2000, demanding apologies and compensation from the Japanese Government and Mitsui Mining Corporation for being forced to work for the company.

When Ye again stepped on Japanese land on February 8 this year, mixed feelings hit him.

"I was sorrowful since I was reminded of what we suffered in the two-year nightmare; and I was glad since I was fortunate to survive and have an opportunity to ask for justice in my lifetime," Ye tells China Daily.

The elderly man couldn't help crying when he returned to where he was forced to work as a slave labourer - a place which had memories of misery.

Ye described his trip to Japan in July 1943 as a journey to hell - he was only 16.

"I can't forget the inhuman treatment we suffered in the coal mine," he says.

Ye recalls that he and 14 other villagers were trussed up on a train bound for Tanggu, a coastal port of North China's Tianjin Municipality, where they were forcibly taken on to a steamboat to Japan.

After a 15-day voyage, Ye and his fellow villagers arrived in Fukuoka, where they were ordered to work in a Mitsui coal mine, the start of a two-year nightmare.

More than 100 miners lived in a big dormitory and they were never provided enough food, according to Ye.

The old man cannot remember ever seeing sunlight for they would enter the mine before dawn and labour at least 12 hours a day.

"We were frequently beaten by Japanese overseers," Ye adds.

Pointing at a crescent-like scar on his forehead, Ye says it was made by a vicious overseer in the mine, who chopped at him with a hand saw.

Li Hongkui, Ye's fellow villager, was beaten to death because he had stolen two steamed buns to satisfy his hunger. A gas explosion in a mine-shaft one afternoon of April 1944 still remains vivid to Ye, who ran out of the mine and survived; two groups of miners were killed since the exit was immediately blocked by armed Japanese.

"It remains unclear how many people were burnt to death in the explosion," Ye recalls.

Because of long working hours and a little food, many workers died. Ye cannot remember the exact number of the dead, but knows many of them died of hunger and illness.

"Some would tremble under their quilts at night; and be found dead the next day."

Deprived of freedom and secluded from the outside, workers tried to flee, but all endeavours failed.

"It was impossible to run away. Besides armed supervisors and guard dogs, the mine was surrounded by electric wire."

Ye and 13 fellow villagers were finally able to return home only in 1945, when Japan lost the war. Accompanying Ye was the box of ashes of the dead Li Hongkui.

In their fight for justice, the survivors and their relatives prepared a lawsuit against the Japanese Government and the Mitsui Mining.

The first hearing ended in April 2002, with Mitsui Mining paying the plaintiffs 165 million yen (US$1.6 million), but their request for compensation and apologies from the Japanese Government was turned down.

Though they had a partial victory, it is of great significance for the forced workers to continue their efforts in demanding justice, says Chinese lawyer Kang Jian, who represented the 15 plaintiffs with other 17 Japanese lawyers.

The first hearing concluded that the Japanese Government and the mining company had jointly masterminded the forcible recruitment of Chinese labourers; and that Mitsui Mining Corporation ought to bear the responsibility for the illegal act in wartime, says the lawyer, who started legal support for the forced labourers in 1995.

More importantly, the ruling made it clear that Chinese war victims are entitled to compensation from the Japanese side, Kang adds.

Since both the plaintiffs and the defendants refused to accept the verdict of the first hearing, they filed an appeal with the Fukuoka Higher Court, where the second hearing was concluded on February 9.

During the hearing, Ye, who was the representative of the 15 plaintiffs, told the court of their sufferings and conveyed their demand for compensation.

Kang said in her statement that a humane and just ruling is of importance to both Chinese victims and the Japanese side in that it would serve as a touchstone to judge whether Japan would maintain peace and respect human rights or propose war and violate human rights.

Describing the lawsuit as a demonstration of human conscience, Kang says the Chinese victims expect to win the lawsuit.

She quotes a Japanese lawyer at the court as saying that the ruling would be the last opportunity for the Japanese Government to face the facts of history. Both the Japanese Government and Mitsui Mining Corporation refused to speak a word at the court; they just gave a written presentation.

"They said nothing at the court since they are afraid of their fallacies being heard," Kang says.

The hearing lasted more than three hours and was extensively covered by Japanese media such as NHK, Fukuoka TV, Sankei Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun.

The verdict is due on May 24.

"The 15 forced labourers have decided that if the ruling is unacceptable, they will appeal to the Tokyo Higher Court," Kang says.

About 40,000 Chinese labourers were forced to work in 135 workplaces for 35 corporations in Japan during the World War II. Many of them never made it back to China.

Twenty-one of the 35 corporations implicated in the crimes, including Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsui Corporation and Sumintomo Corporation, are still in operation.

Some Japanese courts have already rejected demands for compensations in other Chinese forced-labour cases on the basis of a 20-year limit for filing claims.

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