At midnight on June 30th 1945, everything seemed as usual in a forced-labor camp in the northern Japanese town of Hanaoka. But suddenly, 20 well-chosen Chinese slave laborers broke into the guard house and killed four guards with sticks and rods.
Driven by arduous labor, torture and humiliation, about 800 Chinese laborers staged an uprising against the Hanaoka copper mine office, which was run by Kajima Gumi, a leading Japanese engineering company. The uprising was led by Geng Zhun, who was transported to Hanaoka after being captured by Japanese invaders in May 1944 as a company commander from Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang army.
"We didn't know the terrain near the camp except that Hanaoka was surrounded by the sea. So the uprising was tantamount to suicide, but we had no choice," Geng told Xinhua in his modest home in Xiangcheng County, about 150 miles southeast of Luoyang City, where he was captured by Japanese invaders in 1944. During the battle, a bullet hit his belly, and when he woke up from a coma, he became a prisoner of war.
Wearing a small white goatee, Geng now turns 91 years old. He joined the Kuomintang army in 1932 at the age of 18. He is one of the most famous living soldiers of World War II. He is widely respected as one of the bravest men in fighting against Japanese militarism, both in the past and in the present.
"Our plan was to kill guards and escape to the seaside. If there were boats, we would go to Hokkaido, a big northern Japanese island. If we found no boats there, we would jump into the sea. We prefer to die like men," said Geng, who still has the dignity of a soldier.
But the plan went awry when four guards escaped and sounded the alarm. The prisoners escaped to the nearby rugged mountains, which were then encircled by some 20,000 military police and local villagers.
Thus began the tragedy that would become known as the Hanaoka Incident. Only one prisoner went missing while the others, including Geng, whose attempt to commit suicide was stopped by the Japanese, were recaptured.
Those recaptured were taken to a square in Hanaoka village. There they were beaten and forced to kneel for three days and three nights on the gravel with their hands bound behind their backs. Battered and lacking water or food under the blazing sun, more than 130 men died, Geng recalls.
Geng, as the leader of the uprising, was among those who were tortured by Japanese. But he survived, with a life imprisonment sentence handed by Japanese court.
In early October 1945, almost two months after Japan's surrender, American troops discovered the site of the Kajima camp. It was a little bit late about 418 of the 986 Chinese slave laborers at Hanaoka had died.
Among the 986 were soldiers like Geng, farmers, merchants, school teachers and even teenagers. The youngest was a boy of 15.
They worked up to 15 hours a day in the freezing winter of northern Japan, with straw sandals on their feet and little more than buns and soup in their stomachs. Some dug trenches in frigid water to divert a river that flowed over a valuable copper-mining operation. Others struggled up steep slopes with 50-kg bags of cement on their backs. They had no days off.
In addition to back-breaking labor, the slave laborers faced widespread abuse and humiliation. The beating-to-death of a 23-year-old man called Xue Tongdao by Japanese guards with a pizzle, inflamed Chinese prisoners and ignited the revolt, says Geng.
With hard, indisputable evidence of atrocities at the camp, an Allied war crimes tribunal in Yokohama sentenced Ise Chitoku, commander of the Kajima camp, and two camp guards to hang in 1948.
Geng Zhun returned to China after the defeat of Japan. Although he had nightmares over his suffering in his seven-day sea voyage to Japan, during which some Chinese died in front of him, and then at Hanaoka, he did nothing until 1989.
That year, about 50 survivors, including Geng, and 250 relatives of victims demanded from Kajima a formal apology, compensation and construction of two memorials in Beijing and Hanaoka in honor of those dead. This is the first case ever for Chinese on the mainland to fight for compensation and apologies from a Japanese company for its wartime atrocities.
"It is a blood debt. We must fight to win compensation for our 418 dead companions and the suffering that we all endured there," says Geng, with a steady and calm voice. "More than that, we want people in the world to know clearly what happened in Hanaoka."
Talks between Geng's group and the company fell apart in 1995, however. Geng, then aged 82, and another 10 survivors, all in their 70's and 80's, had no choice but to file a lawsuit against Kajima in a Japanese court.
The Japanese court moved slowly, as Kajima did. Kajima could probably outwait the Chinese plaintiffs since they are very old. In fact, one of the 11 plaintiff members died soon after the trial began.
In the meantime, lawyers of Geng's group began to lose patience and persuade their plaintiffs to work out an amicable settlement with the company. Later, Geng's group, with total trust, went further to give carte blanche to its lawyers and returned to China in 1998 to await final results.
"We thought they truly had sincerity and responsibility, so we signed a carte blanche," says Geng. "Besides, we are so old that we can't make too much travel between China and Japan."
Just like the uprising in 1945, the suit went awry. Japanese lawyers on behalf of Geng's group reached an amicable settlement with Kajima, without prior consultations with Geng's group.
The settlement, after a 13-year trial, fell far short of expectations and requirements of Geng and the other plaintiffs. No apology, no compensation, or memorial. Kajima only agreed to give a sum of 500 million yen (about US$4.7 million) as a donation for China, which the company claimed in the settlement was not for compensation.
"We have been cheated and betrayed," says Geng, who was so angry that he fell into a three-day coma after being told the result. Geng and the other survivors refused to sign their names on the reconciliation settlement.
"As the chief plaintiff, I oppose such a verdict. On this special occasion, I want to tell the world that we reserve the right to continue our charges against Kajima," says Geng, referring to the upcoming 60th anniversary of Hanaoka Incident.
"The result hurts me very much, particularly regarding Kajima's refusal to recognize the past," says Geng. "Its attitude makes me unbearably angry."
Kajima is not the only thing that makes Geng angry.
More recently, there were worse irritants, including Japanese leaders' continual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, Japan's attempts to gloss over its wartime record in new school textbooks and its bid to pursue a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
"I feel angry to see no sincere repentance in Japan over its wartime atrocities. Its prime minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine every year," says Geng, referring to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Koizumi's visits to the shrine, in Tokyo's center, since he took office in 2001 have angered most of people in neighboring countries, mainly China and the Republic of Korea. The Shinto sanctuary honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 convicted WWII Class-A war criminals.
The other thing that makes Geng feel angry is Japan's unscrupulous endeavor to expand its military capabilities. "While denying its wartime past, as evidenced by its distortion of history, Japan is moving to revive militarism. That is very dangerous," says Geng.
Geng says his only wish now is to win his last battle against Kajima in the court and oblige the company to apologize and compensate for its past atrocities. But based on words and deeds by the Japanese governments and companies, Geng seems to have taken an impossible mission.
(Xinhua News Agency June 24, 2005)