China Impounds Japanese Ship Over World War II-Era Lawsuit

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April 24 2014 3:33 PM

China Impounds Japanese Ship Over World War II-Era Lawsuit

486017671-this-picture-taken-on-april-21-2014-shows-japanese
Stuck.

Photo by Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

The latest reminder that the past is not even past in East Asia is the strange case of the ship Baosteel Emotion, which released today after being impounded in a port in Zhejiang province, China, since Saturday due to a lawsuit against its Japanese owner.

According to a timeline posted on the website of the Japanese company, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, the story began in 1936 when a predecessor of the firm leased two ships from a the Chung Wei Steamship Co.—a Chinese firm. This was a year before full-scale war broke out between the two countries. According to Mitsui, the ships were eventually seized by the Japanese government and eventually “sank or were lost at sea.”

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The heirs to the Chung Wei firm tried unsuccessfully to sue in Japanese courts during the 1960s, then later filed suit in a Shanghai court in 1988. The wheels of justice apparently turning very slowly during this era, the court finally ruled in 2007 that Mitsui owed the Chung Wei heirs $28.5 million. Mitsui has been appealing and maintains that the suit should have been wiped out by the 1972 agreement normalizing relations between the two countries, but this week relented and paid the money in order to get its boat back.

The Chinese foreign ministry says the case has nothing to do with broader maritime tensions between the two countries, which the Japanese side is not really buying. As the L.A. Times notes, the seizure of the Baosteel Emotion to collect the debt is a bit ironic given that the ship is currently being leased by another Chinese company. 

This also raises the possibility that China may go through the courts to seek further compensation for wartime transgressions, though finding appropriate cases for civil action might be difficult. On the other side, Japan doesn’t exactly seem eager to leave the era behind either.  

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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