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Editorial: Mitsubishi Materials fulfills historical responsibility with settlement

Mitsubishi Materials Corp. has signed an agreement to settle a legal dispute with three former Chinese workers who were forced to work for its predecessor, Mitsubishi Mining Co., during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The company aims to settle with more than 3,700 people -- former workers and bereaved families of those who have passed away -- making the deal one of the largest war-related compensation settlements.

The company clearly apologized to the victims, citing a phrase from the Analects of Confucius, "To err and not change one's ways, this is what it is to err," and stating, "We will not forget the past, and will use it as a lesson for the future." The firm will pay approximately 1.7 million yen to each of the victims and will launch a reconciliation project, such as erecting a monument. The company's attitude toward confronting its history should be appreciated.

The Japanese government decided at a Cabinet meeting in 1942 to transfer Chinese workers to Japan to make up for a wartime shortage of labor in Japan. Although the Chinese workers entered into labor contracts, they were actually forcibly taken to Japan. Some had been held as prisoners of war.

A report that the Foreign Ministry compiled on the issue after the war shows that some 39,000 workers were forcibly taken to Japan and made to work for 35 companies including Mitsubishi Mining. Of these workers, more than 6,800, or 17.5 percent, subsequently died.

In 2000, major general contractor Kajima Corp. reached a court-mediated settlement with Chinese who worked for its predecessor, Kajima-gumi, and rose in revolt against the company in protest for harsh working conditions at the end of the war, only to be suppressed. In 2009, Nishimatsu Construction Co. also settled with those who were forcibly taken to Hiroshima Prefecture and forced to work for the company.

Nishimatsu concluded the agreement with the victims following a 2007 Supreme Court ruling. While dismissing a damages suit by the former Chinese workers on the grounds that Chinese people's right to demand war-related compensation from Japan was lost under the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique, the ruling admitted that the plaintiffs were forcibly taken to Japan and forced to work under harsh conditions, and urged the defendant to endeavor to make up for damage suffered by the plaintiffs.

Mitsubishi Materials admitted that last year it had forced U.S. prisoners of war to work in a mine owned by Mitsubishi Mining, apologized for the practice and has since tried to reckon with its past history. While the Japanese government takes the position that the issue of war-related compensation has been settled, reconciliation that these companies have reached with their victims at their own discretion is in line with the top court's 2007 ruling.

In the latest settlement, Mitsubishi Materials has admitted its historical responsibility, and will set up a fund and erect a monument as well as cooperate in searching for unidentified victims and bereaved families of those who have passed away. Although it is expected to take a long time before settling legally with all victims, those who have signed the agreement to settle their dispute appreciate the company's attitude. The company's sincerity will likely be understood by other Chinese people.

Critics have expressed concern that the latest settlement will have an impact on other Japanese companies for which Chinese people were forced to work and the issue of South Koreans forced to work for Japanese firms during the war. The circumstances surrounding these matters are different, and the issue of war-related compensation must not be used for political purposes.

Still, Japan should explore ways of settling the issue of forced labor while squarely facing wartime history.

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