BEIJING (AFP) - A Beijing court has for the first time agreed to hear a lawsuit filed by 40 Chinese citizens demanding compensation from two Japanese companies for forced labour during World War II, their lawyer said.
Mr Kang Jian, an attorney for the plaintiffs, confirmed to AFP the decision on Tuesday by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, which follows several failed efforts to bring such cases in both China and Japan.
The move comes in defiance of Tokyo, which argues such cases are barred by international agreement, and with relations between the Asian giants at their lowest point in decades.
Beijing regularly accuses Japan of failing to properly acknowledge and learn from its aggression during World War II, while Tokyo says its neighbours use history as a diplomatic stick to beat it with.
Chinese courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party.
"We received a notice from the court that the case has been accepted," Mr Kang said.
"Based on the evidence and the facts at hand, there's no reason they shouldn't rule that the companies are responsible," she added.
Two survivors and 35 people whose relatives were forced labourers filed the suit in late February against Japan's Mitsubishi Materials Corporation and Nippon Coke & Engineering Company, formerly known as Mitsui Mining.
Mr Kang said on Wednesday that an additional three relatives had joined the suit, upping the total number of plaintiffs to 40.
The labourers and their relatives are demanding one million yuan (S$204,080) in compensation for each worker, as well as apologies printed in Chinese and Japanese newspapers.
Tens of thousands of Chinese were forcibly sent to Japan to work in factories and mines to fill a manpower breach arising from Japan's massive World War II military mobilisation.
Japan had invaded China during the 1930s and the Asian mainland was a major front in the broader global conflict.
Japanese courts have rejected numerous similar cases filed there over the years, with the country's Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that individual Chinese cannot demand compensation from Japan.
The court said China gave up its right to make such claims when the countries normalised relations more than four decades ago.
The Beijing court's acceptance of the case follows a separate lawsuit filed against both companies as well as the Japanese government earlier this month in Hebei province.
Mr Zhang Yang, the son of one of the surviving labourers, said at a news conference in Beijing that the court's decision meant his father "finally has something to look forward to", according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
"At the age of 88, he still remembers when, where and how he was captured," he said. "He still remembers the look of the coal mine he was forced to work at and many other details."