BEIJING -- China will officially hold that the right of individuals to seek compensation from Japan for wartime offenses was not renounced in the 1972 joint statement normalizing bilateral relations, according to Chinese government sources.
Beijing had not previously taken an official position, limiting itself to criticizing Tokyo for its interpretation that the statement denies all claim rights.
The new stance, which will be announced soon, puts China squarely in opposition to Japan. Europe, the U.S. and other major countries have been notified.
Chinese citizens forced to work for Japanese companies sued Mitsubishi Materials and Nippon Coke & Engineering, formerly Mitsui Mining, last month with family members, seeking apologies and compensation. A Chinese court agreed Tuesday to take up the case.
Wartime forced laborers had previously taken steps toward a class-action lawsuit. But the Chinese government, then mindful of relations with Japan, had pressed courts not to accept it. In China, the Communist Party or government has a say in court decisions. The likelihood that the two Japanese firms will lose is gaining ground.
Icy Sino-Japanese relations apparently influenced the about-face. Observers say that China aims to use the decision as another card to play against Japan, tying it into historical issues and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
With Chinese President Xi Jinping slated to visit Europe later this month, Beijing is expected to also play up the bilateral strife over the wartime compensation issue to the international community.
Nearly 40,000 Chinese citizens are estimated to have been rounded up and forced to work at coal mines in Japan, for example. As many as 35 Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Materials and Nippon Coke, are said to have been involved. More than 20 such firms, among them major general contractors and shipbuilders, still exist today, facing a high risk of future lawsuits.
For the wartime private compensation issue, Japan and China had a tacit agreement that Beijing would not let courts hear such cases, according to diplomatic sources. But a source in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs contends that a similar agreement had shelved the debate over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China.
"Japan broke the agreement first by nationalizing the islands," the source says. "Japan and China have lost the wisdom of overcoming their differences by keeping matters vague."