Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu, long a coal-mining region.
Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
Cui Shujin with an i.o.u. he was given for forced labor at a coal mine in southern Japan.
Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
Zhang Fengyou holding a picture of his father, Zhang Baoheng, who was forced to work at a coal mine in Fukuoka.
“First, we want an apology, then compensation,” Mr. Tang said. “Mitsubishi Materials has done terrible things.”
As evidence of Japan’s wartime use of forced labor has emerged in recent years, lawsuits against the government and successors to the wartime mining companies have multiplied. Fourteen suits by more than 200 Chinese forced laborers have progressed through the Japanese courts, and three have now reached the Supreme Court.
The results have been mixed. Of 12 rulings so far, four have favored the plaintiffs and eight the defendants. But a Supreme Court ruling against the plaintiffs may trigger suits in China, where the forced labor cases have been drawing increasing support among Chinese business leaders and where many of the Japanese companies have growing operations.
Tokyo and the companies have argued that the plaintiffs’ right to sue expired 20 years after their wartime labor, or that treaties between Japan and China invalidated all individual claims. Neither the government nor the companies involved would comment for this article.
In rebuffing the claims, the Japanese have bucked an international trend in recent years to put aside legalisms and compensate the era’s slave and forced laborers while they are still alive.
Since 2000, Germany and Austria have apologized for their use of slave and forced labor during World War II and have been compensating victims throughout the world.
The German government and companies have paid $5 billion to 1.6 million victims out of a Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future fund. The Austrian Reconciliation Fund, also financed by the government and businesses, finished paying out $350 million to 132,000 victims last year.
“Japan, at the state and corporate level, has taken the completely opposite approach of Germany,” said William Underwood, an American who is finishing a dissertation on Chinese forced labor at Kyushu University here. “Even to be charitable, it is not hard to describe the past 60 years in Japan as an unbroken history of insincerity in telling the truth and in coming to terms with the past, particularly on the issue of forced labor.”
Indeed, as nationalist scholars and politicians in Japan, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have led efforts to minimize Japan’s militarist past in textbooks, the mood has hardened against reparations. In a suit brought three years ago by Mr. Tang and 44 other former laborers or their relatives, Mitsubishi Materials for the first time went so far as to deny that it had used forced labor.
In a defense that echoed comments made by Mr. Abe and other nationalist politicians, Mitsubishi’s lawyers questioned whether Japan had in fact invaded China and said they would leave the final judgment to posterity.
They described the postwar Tokyo Trials, which found Japanese leaders guilty of war crimes, as victor’s justice and revenge. Ruling in favor of the Chinese, they argued, would “impose a wrong burden of the soul on future generations of our nation, possibly for the next hundreds of years.”
At Mitsubishi Materials’ headquarters in Tokyo, two middle-ranking officials listened to the Chinese and their lawyers in front of the lobby, refusing to allow them inside or to give them their business cards. Officials of the company declined to be interviewed for this article, as did those at two other internationally known companies that have been targets of lawsuits: Mitsui Mining and the Kajima Corporation. Japan’s Foreign Ministry also declined.