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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Mitsui Ducks Suit by WWII ‘Comfort Women’

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed claims that a Japanese company's U.S. subsidiary profited from the forced abduction and sexual slavery of Korean women during World War II.

Hee Nam You and Kyng Soon Kim, two Korean women who say they were kidnapped and made to serve as "comfort women" during the war, sued 19 defendants including the Japanese government and its prime minister in July.

Last week, one defendant - Japan-based company Mitsui's U.S. subsidiary, Mitsui & Co. - asked a federal judge in open court to dismiss charges that it provided the "trains and vessels" to transport abducted comfort women during the war.

Mitsui argued the claims should be dismissed because they took place overseas outside U.S. jurisdiction more than 70 years ago and because all such claims were settled in a 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup rejected Mitsui's argument that the overseas conduct fell outside the court's jurisdiction because the actions were part of Japan's war effort, which concerned the territory of the United States.

"The alleged atrocities that give rise to plaintiffs' claims were part and parcel of the Japanese war effort," Alsup wrote. "This order finds that nexus between plaintiffs' claims and the territory of the United States is sufficient to satisfy the requirements."

However, Alsup also found the claims were barred by the statute of limitations and involved a "non-justiciable" political question that must be decided by Congress or the executive branch.

Alsup cited a 2005 D.C. Circuit ruling, Joo v. Japan, which also addressed the claims of former comfort women against the Japanese government.

The appeals court in Joo ruled that "adjudication by a domestic court not only 'would undo' settled foreign policy of state-to-state negotiation with Japan, but also could disrupt Japan's 'delicate' relations with China and Korea, thereby creating 'serious implications for stability in the region.'"

As part of the 1965 treaty, Japan agreed to pay South Korea $300 million in supplies and services along with loans totaling $500 million, according to the ruling.

Japan's former chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono formally apologized for the "coercive recruitment" of comfort women in 1993. The former WWII axis power also established the Asian Women's Fund in 1995 which issued formal written apologies and paid reparations to comfort women, Alsup stated in his ruling.

"Next month, the heads of both Japan and Korea are scheduled to meet at a summit, where it is expected they will discuss further efforts to address the atrocities committed against comfort women," Alsup wrote.

Regarding the timeliness of the claims, the comfort women argue they can sue for injuries that took place over 70 years ago because Mitsui actively concealed evidence that prevented them from suing earlier.

During oral arguments last week, plaintiff attorney Hyung Jin Kim pointed to a 2011 Northern District of Illinois ruling in Holocaust Victims of Bank Theft v. Magyar Nemzeti Bank. That decision found a group of Hungarian Jews and their families could raise claims that would otherwise be considered untimely because the banks engaged in a policy of "systematic and historical denial and misrepresentations concerning the custody of the looted assets."

But Alsup said unlike that situation, nothing has prevented the comfort women from "knowing or proving the extent of their injuries within the statute of limitations period."

Alsup said the only timely claims raised in the plaintiffs' 67-page amended complaint are allegations that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japan's largest media company, Sankei Shimbum, defamed the plaintiffs by calling them "voluntary prostitutes."

No such defamation claims were lodged against Mitsui, Alsup said.

Alsup ultimately dismissed the claims against Mitsui, giving the plaintiffs three weeks to file a new amended complaint.

Mitsui & Co. is a business and financial investment corporation that owns Sapporo Breweries and several other finance, engineering, construction and technology firms.

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