SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - One of 19 entities sued for allegedly aiding a scheme to force Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II or subsequently defaming them asked a federal judge to dismiss the class action Thursday.
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 government of Japan and its prime minister earlier this year.
During a Thursday hearing, Japan-based Mitsui's U.S. subsidiary, Mitsui & Co., presented a slew of reasons why the claims against it should be dismissed.
Mitsui argued the plaintiffs' more than 70-year-old claims are barred by the statute of limitations, based on overseas conduct outside U.S. courts' jurisdiction and were already settled in a 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea.
The defendant further argued the plaintiffs cannot show that Mitsui injured them by allegedly providing the "trains or vessels" to transport abducted comfort women, because the U.S.-based subsidiary did not exist prior to 1966.
"If this was sufficient to show causation then any business that transacted with the Japanese government during World War II could be held liable," Mitsui attorney Katie Glynn told the judge.
Plaintiff attorney Hyung Jin Kim claims Mitsui is an alter ego of its parent Japanese company and that the subsidiary was established using "huge profits" Mitsui gained by supporting the Japanese empire and its crimes against humanity during the war.
"This is a case about the Asian version of the Holocaust," Kim said. "We're talking about more than 200,000 women taken from their homeland by force, taken to support the morale of the soldiers of the Japanese empire."
Kim pointed out that the International Military Tribunal for the Far East found Mitsui had supported Japan's war effort, including the invasion of China and attack on Pearl Harbor.
"If Mistui is denying any liability, then they're denying the whole legal structure after the war," Kim argued. "We know Mitsui got huge benefits and profits by providing support to the Japanese government at the time."
U.S. District Judge William Alsup asked Kim if, by his logic, any company that did business with Japan, including those that sold bandages and medical supplies, could be held liable for atrocities committed by the empire.
Rather than directly answer Alsup's question, Kim argued companies that supported Japan's cruel and inhuman crimes should be held responsible. He said his clients are still working to identify companies that provided condoms to Japanese soldiers.
On the statute of limitations question, Kim argued that Mitsui "willfully hid and manipulated evidence" that prevented the plaintiffs from filing their suit earlier and that Mitsui continues to conspire to hide evidence from the women.
Alsup responded that under Kim's theory, the plaintiffs could wait another 30 years to bring their lawsuit because Mitsui continues to deny responsibility for the alleged crimes.
"I'm not sure I buy that," Alsup said. "It has been 70 years. That's longer than you've been alive."
After about 30 minutes of debate, Alsup ended the hearing and asked attorneys for other named defendants to state their appearance in preparation for a case management conference scheduled for later in the afternoon.
The judge asked why other defendants had not filed motions to dismiss, and several of them answered that they are waiting to see how Mitsui's motion to dismiss plays out first for the sake of "efficiency."
Sankei Shimbun, Japan's largest media company, is the only other defendant to file a motion to dismiss thus far. The Tokyo-based publisher is accused of defaming the plaintiffs by labeling them "voluntary prostitutes" in editorials.
Other corporate defendants include Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Nippon Steal and Sumitomo Metal Corporation, NYK Line and their U.S. subsidiaries.
The lawsuit also lays blame on the Japanese government, its prime minister Shinzo Abe, deceased former Japanese emperor Hirohito and the heir to his assets, Akihito Nobuske Kishi.
Mitsui & Co. is a business and financial investment corporation that owns Sapporo Breweries and several other finance, engineering, construction and technology firms.
Sankei Shimbun's motion to dismiss hearing is scheduled for Nov. 19.
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