Saturday, April 28, 2007

Japan court denies justice to war crimes victims

Japan’s Supreme Court has ruled against two women who were victims of Japanese War atrocities during World War II. The women filed for compensation saying they were kidnapped and used as sex slaves. The Supreme Court acknowledged the women were forced into sexual servitude but nevertheless upheld a 2005 Tokyo High Court ruling that rejected compensation claims. The court ruled the women’s right to reparation ended when Japan and China settled their diplomatic differences in 1972 and Beijing renounced their war claims. The woman had sought $US 390,000 in damages.

The same argument was used earlier yesterday when the same court also handed down a judgement against five Chinese men who were forced to work as slave labourers in Japan during the war. The plaintiffs were among 360 Chinese who worked at a Nishimatsu hydroelectric power plant construction site in western Japan for the last year of the war. The court overturned a Hiroshima court’s order for Nishimatsu to pay the five $US230, 000 in compensation. 78 year old plaintiff Song Jiyao lost his eyes in an accident while doing forced labour. He spoke to the media after the court result saying "We've lost. But we will continue to struggle with Nishimatsu to the bitter end."

China has denounced the court judgements. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao acknowledged the 1972 agreement that waived war reparation rights but said it was a political decision to aid bi-partisan friendship. He said the court had ignored solemn representations lodged by China which opposed what it called an “arbitrary interpretation” of the agreement. The matter is now likely to become a political issue. “We have already asked the Japanese government to seriously deal with China's concerns and properly handle this issue." Said Liu.

The 1972 agreement quoted by the court is known as the Sino-Japanese Joint Statement. This agreement finally normalised relations between the two bitter foes. In 1951 the US held a peace conference regarding Japan in San Francisco. But newly Communist China was not invited. Premier Zou En Lai denounced the subsequent treaty as illegal and invalid. The following year Japan signed a treaty with Taiwan which further enraged Beijing. Relations finally thawed between the powers in the 1960s and the countries established liaison offices. In 1972 Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China to establish the joint statement. The statement annulled Japan’s agreement with Taiwan and recognised Beijing as the legal government. In return China absolved Japan of war reparations.

While China had not fully forgiven Japan for its wartime invasion and associated atrocities, its attitude would now become formulated as “the past, if not forgotten, can serve as a guide for the future". In 1998 Japan formally recognised its aggression against China for the first time and expressed a profound apology to the Chinese people. In 2001 then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Museum of Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japan. There he expressed his apology and condolence over the Chinese people who lost their lives in the Japanese invasion.

Yet there is a strong new hawkish attitude visible in Japan today. In the same year he visited Beijing, Koizumi also re-established the tradition of a prime ministerial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine to pay homage to the Japanese war dead. This Shinto shrine was founded in 1869 to commemorate the dead from all wars since the Meiji Restoration in order to build a peaceful Japan (Yasukuni means "peaceful country"). The problem is that among the 2.5 million dead listed there are 14 Class A war criminals from World War II as well as over a thousand others convicted of other war crimes . The shrine steadfastly refuses to remove them. China and Korea have both repeatedly voiced anger at Japanese governmental visits to the shrine.

New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was widely expected to be more hawkish than Koizumi but he surprisingly stayed away from Yasukuni as 160 Japanese lawmakers paid their respects there last week. Abe has visited the shrine in other capacities but not yet as Prime Minister. Abe is declining to say whether he would go to Yasukuni, keeping a delicate balancing act between Chinese sensibilities and his own conservative supporters. Abe told reporters last week he "still upholds the desire to pray for the souls of those who sacrificed themselves for the country."

Last month Abe further enraged the Chinese by telling the Japanese parliament there was no proof Japan's government or military had forced women to work in military brothels during the war. Currently at a summit in Camp David to discuss the US-Japan alliance with President Bush, he is the subject of protests in Washington. 78 year old Lee Young-soo, a former Korean sex slave, led the protest in a march to the White House. Abe told US reporters he has "deep-hearted sympathies" for what the women went through. But Young-soo wants a formal apology for the remaining victims. Young-soo was a prisoner for three years. She recalls how she looked when she finally returned to Korea after the war. "They were making a ceremony for my spirit because they thought I was dead,” she said. “I looked like a beggar -- beaten, bleeding."

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