Blair seeks harmony amid Japanese discord

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THE STATE visit of Emperor Akihito and the Empress Michiko to Britain will strengthen the ties of friendship between the two countries, the Prime Minister said yesterday.

As the protests by former prisoners-of-war continued, Tony Blair told guests at No 10 for a lunch in honour of the Emperor and Empress that the visit would "lead to more and more friendships between the people of Japan and Britain, and to a still stronger relationship between our countries". Mr Blair's official spokesman said later that the nature of the media coverage of the visit, dwelling on the protests, should not be "confused" with the visit itself.

The Japanese government had always accepted that there would be protests, and defended the right to protest, but, equally there was a British appreciation of the efforts the Japanese had made to apologise. The protests had not blighted the visit.

In his speech, Mr Blair said: "For some, the scars of the past go so deep they will never heal. We have to understand and appreciate this. My generation, in particular, has not forgotten what we owe to the generation that went before us. And we never will.

"The British character is very strong. It has a strong sense of history. We do not forget our past. But we also want to look forward in a spirit of reconciliation and to recognise the reality of our relationship today with modern Japan, which is one of strength and friendship for the future."

Illustrating the changing nature of the Anglo-Japanese relationship, the guest list for the Downing Street lunch deliberately excluded establishment figures to make way for people who exemplified bonds between the two countries.

Mr Blair cited Michael McEleney and Simon Barnes, who last November travelled the length of Japan in wheelchairs to raise money for the International Spinal Research Trust; Heidi Potter and Sally Lewis, who taught English in Japan; and John Holland, who led a team from International Rescue Corp to give help after the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Mr Blair's spokesman said the Prime Minister expected to meet representatives of the prisoners-of-war within two weeks. But there seemed little chance of changing the official view that the question of compensation was closed.