In Anglo-Japanese affairs, sorry seems to be the hardest word

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The Independent Online
Thousands of former prisoners of war are demanding that Emperor Akihito, who visits Britain this week, apologises for Japanese brutality during the Second World War. Some, however, think he already has - and say it is time to draw a line under the past, reports Steve Crawshaw

"WE DEMAND a full apology." ... "We have already said what is necessary." Thus the now ritual Anglo-Japanese war of words. This week, with the arrival in London of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, the arguments will be played out all over again, with bitterness seemingly undimmed by time.

The 65-year-old emperor, who arrives in Britain on Tuesday, is expected to express "regret" for the routine brutality and atrocities against prisoners held by the Japanese during the Second World War. British veterans say that is not enough. In a silent protest, they will defiantly turn their backs on him ("in a form of Mexican wave") as he rides past in a horse- drawn carriage with the Queen down the Mall.

Emperor Akihito will receive the Order of the Garter from the Queen during his visit to London - just as his father, Emperor Hirohito, did in 1971, when the order was reconferred after being removed during the Second World War. Buckingham Palace issued a swift denial when Prince Philip was recently reported to be dismayed at the proposed award, but the veterans are up in arms. During his visit, the Emperor will also lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

According to the Japanese, there have already been more than enough apologies. There was one in 1995 - and another from the current Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, when Tony Blair was in Tokyo earlier this year. (Mr Blair's spokesman sought to present this rehash as a historic breakthrough. Japanese officials pointed out that the form of words was almost unchanged from the previous formulation. On behalf of Downing Street, Mr Hashimoto put his name to a "we're sorry" article that appeared in the Sun.)

At the heart of the argument is the question: When is an apology not an apology? In Japanese, Mr Hashimoto has used the word owabi - seen as much weaker than shazai, the word that the veterans want to hear. The word used for remorse, too, is argued over. Mr Hashimoto spoke of hansei. The word that the veterans want to hear is kaigo. The linguistic intricacies may seem arcane, and yet both sides cling to the details.

Arthur Titherington, who runs a photographic studio in the Oxfordshire town of Witney, represents the voice of continuing defiance. He insists that owabi, with its sometimes trivial meaning, is not good enough. "Shazai means 'I have committed a sin, for which I apologise.' That's what they must say."

Those who argue against Mr Titherington, who is chairman of the Japanese Labour Camps Survivors' Organisation, say he is "naive". They argue that an apology should be graciously accepted, and a line drawn under the past. "A lot of water has gone under the bridge," says Alan Elliott, who suffered as a slave labourer on the railways. John Nunneley, chairman of the Burma Campaign Fellowship Group, says: "There must be reconciliation." He admits that the

conciliators are "vastly outnumbered" by those who are less willing to compromise; his organisation has just over 100 members, compared with about 9,500 for Mr Titherington's. But he finds it "extremely disturbing" that protesters in Britain are seeking to "dictate the form of words" of an apology. At one stage, there was even talk of a counter-demonstration at the Emperor's ride-past, when more sympathetic ex-prisoners would show their support for him.

Viscount Trenchard, the Tory vice-chairman of the all-party Japanese parliamentary group, warned the would-be snubbers of the Emperor: "I hope that they will not feel it right to attempt to put their interests above those of the country as a whole." The Government is equally unenthusiastic, with Derek Fatchett, the Foreign Office minister responsible for Asia, emphasising that it has "welcomed" the apology in its present form.

None the less, the apology has hardly been spontaneous - as Mr Hashimoto has made clear. Apologies to China and Korea in recent years for Japanese cruelty have been equally oblique and grudging, at best - after enormous pressure from those two economically powerful countries in the region.

Meanwhile, Mr Titherington, 77, continues to argue through the Japanese courts for compensation for camp survivors. The conclusion is due this week. But the chances of success do not seem high. Conciliators argue that the talk of money is, in any case, "demeaning". The Japanese insist that no further claims for compensation can be considered, since this matter was formally closed under the terms of the Treaty of San Francisco of 1951, when each survivor received pounds 72.

Despite the fierceness of his battle, Mr Titherington is not hostile to all things Japanese these days. For many years after the war, he admits that he felt differently. "I would stand in a store and hear Japanese voices behind me - and the hairs would stand up on my neck." Nor would he contemplate visiting Japan. In recent years, all that has changed. First, his purchasing habits have changed - along with the rest of Britain. He owns a Japanese car; he has just bought another Japanese camera to add to his professional collection; his house is scattered with Japanese trinkets. More crucial than his relaxed attitude to the Made in Japan label, however, is that he is in constant contact with Japanese people. No more hairs on the back of the neck - at least for those willing to talk. He is regularly invited to Japan, and Japanese visitors frequently turn up in Witney. (He proudly points to the fishpond in the garden that two Japanese friends helped him to dig in recent weeks.)

Japanese officials emphasise that one reason why the Emperor cannot make a more gushing statement of apology is that he is prohibited under the terms of the post-war constitution, imposed by the allies, from making political statements. Part of the problem is the very fact, however, that acknowledgement of wartime guilt remains a political act in Japan today. When the Emperor spoke in Peking a few years ago of his "deep sorrow" about the war, he was roundly criticised at home for such a heresy. The contrast with Germany is clear: there, the horror of German responsibility for what happened is acknowledged both by politicians of all parties and (at length, though it was not always thus) in the school books.

In Japanese history books, the crimes of the Second World War are a mumbled aside, rather than the heart of the story. Notes for teachers in one typical textbook do not refer to Japanese war crimes at all. There are references only to "the China affair" (in other words, Japanese brutality in China), "World War Two insofar as it concerned Japan", and "making the children understand how Japan after the war set out as a democratic nation". Not directly wrong, in other words, but several degrees short of full-frontal frankness.

Japanese diplomats point out that there is already more openness than there was 10 years ago, saying that it is "very healthy" to have more discussion, and that "we are learning from history". None the less, even the conciliators agree with Mr Titherington when he says: "What [people in Japan] don't know is legion. What they do know is minimal." Mr Titherington argues that, if he and his fellow veterans do not bang the drum now, there will never be another chance. "As long as we're alive, they'll have to take notice. But nobody else will bother them - governments, industrialists, or anybody else."

If a degree of openness comes, then it will perhaps one day be possible for an emperor to make uncontroversial statements about Japanese guilt - just as non-political German presidents have done about German guilt in recent years. Mr Titherington and his fellow veterans may seem to be tilting at windmills. If they contribute to a greater historical openness in Japan, however, Japan itself will be the winner.

Additional reporting by Mary Lean