Help out the Millennium Dome? Not us, say Japan's industrial giants

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The Independent Online
A grand announcement that everyone had heard before. A brand new apology that turned out to be old. And now the multi-million pound investment that never was. Richard Lloyd Parry reports from Tokyo on a distinctly underwhelming prime ministerial visit.

Tony Blair's trip to Japan was further undermined yesterday, when reports that he had enlisted Japanese money to support the Millennium Dome project were denied by some of the country's biggest companies.

Newspaper articles suggested yesterday that Toyota, among other Japanese firms, was considering contributing pounds 12m towards the building of the Dome in Greenwich, south-east London. The reports, based on briefings given by prime ministerial aides, said that Mr Blair raised the matter personally with the Toyota president last week, and that the company would be sending a representative to London to discuss the idea, having expressed "a strong desire" to participate. Hiroshi Okuda, Toyota's president, last week confirmed that it would spend pounds 150m on expanding its manufacturing investment in Deeside. But the idea that they might also rescue the Dome, which is well short of its target of pounds 150m in private-sector investment, appeared to be a case of wishful thinking, or wilful spin-doctoring.

Yesterday, a Toyota spokesman in Tokyo called the reports "puzzling". "We've not even given an indication we'd be prepared to consider it," he said. "Mr Blair mentioned it to Mr Okuda, but we're not seriously thinking about it."

Sony, Toshiba and Nissan, who were also named as potential benefactors, denied they had been approached and their spokesmen in Japan had not even heard of the Dome. Even British diplomats in Tokyo knew nothing of the proposed sponsorship.

The millennium travesty appears to be a final effort to spin a positive headline out of a prime ministerial visit to Japan which was thin and uneventful at best. Mr Blair did give speeches, hold summits and open the year-long UK 98 festival. But nearly half of his four days were spent on sightseeing, shopping, and being interviewed. Even the grand Toyota announcement had been leaked several weeks before.

Relations between Japan and the UK are generally very smooth, but the one issue of contention - the demands for an apology and compensation by former British prisoners of war - also became bogged down in confusion. After a meeting with the Japanese prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, Mr Blair's spokesman, told reporters that the Japanese had offered a new "official" apology. Within hours a Japanese official said exactly the opposite: Mr Hashimoto's words were simply a reaffirmation of an official statement made by his predecessor two years ago.

Then in, of all places, yesterday's Sun newspaper, Mr Hashimoto restated "our feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology". Yesterday threatened to turn nasty for him when a right-wing political foe promised to raise the matter in the Diet. "You can't apologise for everything that happened in the past ... Hashimoto is so weak and stupid, he cares so much what people think of him," he said.