HODOGAYA, on the outskirts of the port city of Yokohama, doesn't look like a sad place. When Tony Blair visited it yesterday, under the heaviest snow in four years, it was immaculate, a dazzling field of white surrounded by winter trees.

There are carefully manicured shrubs and gravel paths winding through several layers of lawns and gardens. There is a small, stone chapel, lined with engraved marble. And, everywhere, there are hummocks in the snow, spaced equally in long, regular rows. It is only when you uncover one of these bulges that they reveal themselves for what they are - low gravestones of identical design, simply carved with a name (almost always male), an age (many in their teens or twenties), and a date between 1940 and 1945.

Since the end of the Second World War, there has been only one piece of persistent grit in the otherwise friendly relationship between Britain and Japan, and it is in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Hodogaya that it is most dramatically illustrated. Almost none of the 1,518 dead buried here - civilians and servicemen, Britons, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Indians and Americans - perished in combat. Instead, they died as prisoners of war after being captured in south-east Asia and brought to to work as forced labourers in camps up and down the home islands.

The dead are remembered in regular remembrance services, like the one yesterday at which Mr Blair laid a wreath. Ironically, it is survivors who feel ignored, by a succession of British governments who express public sympathy for their compensation claims but have privately resolved to do nothing. Tomorrow's planned announcement of expanded holidays to Japan for PoWs will do little to rectify this impression.

American and Commonwealth citizens of many nationalities were mistreated by the Japanese Imperial Army, but the struggle for compensation is being lead by a British survivor, Arthur Titherington, the 76-year old chairman of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association. In 1942, as a despatch rider in the Royal Signal Corps, he was captured after the fall of Singapore and spent the rest of the war in the Kinkaseki copper mine in Taiwan. He described the experience in a deposition to the Tokyo District Court, where Mr Titherington and four others are suing the Japanese government on behalf of 25,000 former POWs and civilian internees.

"We were awakened each morning at dawn by guards bursting into the hut, and beating all of the occupants with whatever they had in their hands, from a rifle to a bamboo stick," he said. "The morning rice was about one cupful per man, except for the men who were not working, usually the sick." After descending 1,500 steps into the mine, they were required to fill carts with copper ore - one or two carts a day at first, rising to 25 per person per day at the war's end. Those who failed to make the grade were beaten with a hammer or forced to run up and down a flight of 80 steps for an hour.

"Men died of this punishment," said Mr Titherington, "since it was always the weak and sick who failed to fill their quota." The day ended with a climb back up the stairs and hours of repetitive drill. Rule breakers were forced to kneel for days on end in an 8ft square cell. "This kind of day went on mainichi, mainichi, mainichi [every day] for two and a half years.Of the 523 men who went into the mine in December 1942, only about 100 were alive at the war's end."

Not all those who suffered were servicemen. A stone in Hodogaya marks the burial place of Stewardess LE Gleeson, a civilian crew member on a merchant ship who died in the cold north of Japan just four months before the end of the war. Another plaintiff in the case against the government is Phyllis Jameson, who was imprisoned in Indonesia.

In 1942, aged 13, she lost her mother and five sisters when the ship on which they were being evacuated from Singapore was torpedoed. Over the next three years, she was beaten, sexually abused and forced to dig graves for fellow prisoners who died of thirst and malnutrition building roads. She has suffered depression throughout her life and twice attempted suicide. "I still have a feeling of great shame," she said. "The Japanese have inflicted upon me a legacy that has hung over my life like a dark cloud."