Akihito says he cannot apologise to former PoWs

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EMPEROR Akihito cannot apologise to British survivors of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, it emerged last night.

His spokesman, Kazuo Chiba, said the Emperor "has said how deeply he feels about these people" and has expressed "personal sorrow". The Japanese constitution, however, prohibits him from all political activity, said Mr Chiba, and he added that Japan's prime minister had already apologised several times.

The issue is likely to cloud the Japanese Emperor's visit to Britain, which begins this week, coincidentally following a ceremony held in South- east Asia yesterday in which British and Japanese veterans of the Second World War joined hands, a half-century after 6,540 British soldiers died building the "Death Railway".

Seven British and five Japanese, the youngest 77, endured 40C to take part in Christian and Buddhist ceremonies of remembrance, followed by lunch overlooking the Bridge on the River Kwai. The bridge was built in 1942-43 by Allied prisoners and Asian slave labourers to aid Japan's planned invasion of India; 16,000 Allied PoWs and 100,000 Asians died from disease, malnutrition and torture, or were executed by the Japanese.

Yesterday's ceremony, funded by the British and Japanese governments, forms part of the first joint tour of South-east Asia by British and Japanese veterans. "It's a visit of remembrance and reconciliation," Sir James Hodge, British ambassador to Thailand, said.

British and Japanese officials said the ceremony was not timed to avert threatened protests by British veterans against the visit: "Coincidentally, the pilgrimage comes on the eve of Emperor Akihito's visit to London," said Hiroshi Ota, Japan's ambassador to Thailand. "Hopefully, this service will help settle things before his arrival."

A Japanese veteran, Ben Ishigami, 83, who fought at Imphal, north-east India, carried a Union flag throughout yesterday's ceremonies. "I did not pray for Japanese war-dead but for the British," he said.

The five Japanese veterans fought in Burma; five of the Britons were PoWs, while the other two were combat veterans. Only one, former RAF radio operator Dougie Howells, 81, was a PoW on the Death Railway.

Fred Ryall, 81, of Wembley, London, another radio man, spent the war in a Japanese camp on Haruku island, in the Dutch East Indies [now Indonesia]. "We can't forget, but to perpetuate a hatred does nothing ..." he said. "All it does is destroy your own soul."

The ceremonies began with a Christian service at Kanchanaburi Commonwealth war cemetery, followed by a ceremony at the Japanese Army memorial for war dead near the bridge. Conspicuously absent was Nagase Takashi, the best-known Japanese veteran to have sought forgiveness for his role in the atrocities. He has blamed the Emperor's father, Hirohito, for instigating the war, and backs British veterans who oppose tomorrow's visit. He gained notoriety as the man who tortured Eric Lomax, author of the memoir The Railway Man. Mr Nagase was in Kanchanaburi last week to donate $10,000 (pounds 6,250) forscholarships for Thai girls, but was not invited to the ceremony.

Camp survivors will decide today if they are to step up their compensation campaign during the Emperor's visit. Veterans and former civilian internees will turn their backs on Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko when they arrive in London and will whistle the wartime anthem "Colonel Bogey". But Burma veterans criticised the planned demonstrations, saying there had been three formal apologies and compensation payments had already been made under the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, albeit of less than pounds 100.