Officials in the Japanese Foreign Ministry were still trying to limit the fall-out from Mr Murayama's statement on Saturday that a communique proclaimed by Downing Street as an apology for wartime treatment of allied prisoners was "not a letter of apology". Both sides refuse to disclose the text of the letter, but a Foreign Ministry spokesman insisted yesterday that it includes the expression "profound remorse and apology" in relation to the treatment of British prisoners of war formerly held by the Japanese. The principal purpose of the communication was to congratulate Mr Major on his re-election as party leader, but in the course of it Mr Murayama restated expressions of apology made by a former prime minister at a personal meeting with Mr Major two years ago.
The letter, in Japanese and English, was conveyed via the Japanese Embassy in London and included the words "fukai hansei" and "owabi". Fukai means "deep"; hansei can be translated as "remorse" or, merely, "reflection". This expression was used in a controversial resolution passed in June in the Diet (Japan's parliament).
At the time, Japan's former wartime colonies, including China and South Korea, criticised the wording as ambiguous and evasive. The word owabi is a formal, but unambiguous word for "apology". It is the first time Mr Murayama has used such a formula in referring to the war.
Mr Murayama, leader of the minority Social Democratic Party, is said to have no personal difficulty in atoning for Japan's notoriously brutal wartime conduct. But as the nominal head of a government dominated by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, he has struggled all year to come up with a form of words that will satisfy his Asian neighbours and his own cabinet. Many LDP politicians depend on the electoral support of the powerful Association of War Bereaved Families which represents a million households and views any attempt at apology as a stain on the honour of its war dead.
Mr Major, on the other hand, has been notable among national leaders for the personal support he has lent to British veterans' groups. Earlier in the year he met with a group of former PoWs who are suing the Japanese government for compensation for war-time suffering and demanding an apology. Through the British Embassy in Tokyo he requested a meeting between the PoWs and Mr Murayama, which was declined. In writing to Mr Major, the Japanese Prime Minister seems to have hoped that an apology could be intimated, without being spelt out.
But he was reckoning without the Downing Street press office. Mr Major is under pressure from veterans' groups to produce a result which, on Friday, he seemed to have gained. Japanese spokesmen "hesitated" to condemn the British action yesterday, but emphasised that it is unusual for communiques between prime ministers to be made public "because to do so would give embarrassment to the sender".
The embarrassment was duly caused. On Saturday, Mr Murayama, on holiday in a hot spring resort north of Tokyo, was confronted by reporters with Britain's announcement. Never noted for his light-footedness he panicked, and ended up backtracking on the grounds that, while his letter included an apology, it was not solely devoted to apologising. He is presently beating out with his LDP partners a statement to be delivered tomorrow, the 50th anniversary of Japan's surrender. For the last word on the subject the world may have to wait until then.Reuse content