A court on Tuesday rejected demands to compensate Chinese victims of atrocities committed by Japan's military in the 1930s and 40s, including the alleged use of biological weapons and the infamous Rape of Nanjing, adding fuel to an escalating row with Beijing over Tokyo's wartime history.
The Tokyo High Court upheld a 1999 lower court ruling that international law barred foreign citizens from seeking compensation from the Japanese government for wartime actions.
The 10 plaintiffs, including families of the victims, demanded compensation for death and suffering caused by wartime biological experiments, the Rape of Nanjing and the firebombing of Yong'an city in China's Fujian province.
The court refused to provide details of Tuesday's ruling, but lawyers for the plaintiffs said High Court judge Masahito Monguchi ruled the statute of limitations had expired and it was too late to seek damages.
Following the ruling, China called on Japan to handle responsibly its legacy of germ warfare during World War II.
"We hope the Japanese side will approach this issue in a responsible manner and handle this appropriately," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang. He didn't explain what outcome China wants.
The plaintiffs, who had demanded an official apology and 20 million yen (US$186,000; Ђ143,000) each, were angry. Jing Lanzhi, 83, who claims her husband was killed in Japanese wartime germ experiments, called the decision unjust.
"I'm outraged by the ruling," she said outside the courthouse. "I want my compensation, and I will keep fighting."
The ruling comes amid growing tensions between Japan and China, including violent anti-Japanese protests in China over Japanese history textbooks criticized for whitewashing Tokyo's wartime atrocities.
The violence has also triggered reprisals in Japan, including paint smeared on the Chinese ambassador's residence in Tokyo.
Despite the rejection of compensation demands, the case achieved a landmark in 1999 when the lower court acknowledged that Unit 731 used biological weapons against China. The government has never revealed details of the unit's activities.
Historians estimate that the military unit may have killed as many as 250,000 people in their experiments _ including vivisections of Chinese prisoners _ during the 1930s and '40s, when Japanese troops occupied much of China.
Experts generally agree that the Japanese army also slaughtered at least 150,000 civilians and raped tens of thousands of women during the 1937-38 occupation of Nanjing. China's Communist government puts the number of dead at more than 300,000 and has made the massacre a centerpiece of its claims that Japan has never sufficiently atoned for its brutal occupation.
The bombings of Yong'an are little known in Japan. Lawyers representing the plaintiffs said that in 11 raids from 1938 to 1943, Japan dropped firebombs killing and injuring more than 10,000 inhabitants.
Japan's stand in such cases has long been that compensation issues were settled under postwar treaties between Japan and other nations. None of the Unit 731's members, for instance, has ever been tried for the killings.
Yoshio Shinozuka, a former member of the unit who testified on behalf of victims, said outside the court on Tuesday that he was saddened by the ruling.
"I don't know how to apologize," Shinozuka said. Today, I've never felt so ashamed to be Japanese."
MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press Writer