Arthur Titherington, the 76-year old chairman of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association, wept as he described to the Tokyo District Court his life as a slave labourer in the Kinkaseki mine in Taiwan. Along with former POWs and civilian internees from Australia, New Zealand and the United States, he is suing the Japanese government for damages of $22,000 (pounds 14,000) for each of 25,000 fellow camp survivors worldwide. But, after the visit to Tokyo by Mr Blair last month, lawyers for the group believe that British officials have abandoned attempts to press their case with the Japanese government.
During an hour-long cross-examination by his Japanese lawyer, Mr Titherington's voice cracked as he recalled the brutal treatment and neglect which left only 100 of the 523 men who entered the camp alive at the end of the war. Prisoners were forced to work from dawn until dusk in a copper mine, where they were frequently killed or injured by accidents and rock falls. They were fed one cup of rice a day, and the only medical treatment available to them was in the form of charcoal which their own doctors prescribed for dysentery.
"Beatings could take place at any time, anywhere," Mr Titherington told the three-man panel of judges. "They'd use bamboo sticks, rifle butts, or long-handled hammers. A guard would hide round a corner, and then jump out and beat you for not bowing to him. Beatings were such that men, if not dead, were left at the point of death. In other words, we lived every moment of every day in fear of death. It is impossible to expect anyone in this room to understand the mental state of a man who had three- and-a-half years of living in fear, starvation, and illness."
Gilbert Hair, director of the American Centre for Internee Rights, described the health problems he has suffered as a result of malnutrition suffered as a baby in a civilian camp in the Philippines, while a New Zealand internee, Hendrik Zeeman gave an account of life as a teenage prisoner in occupied Java. "I cannot replace my youth, my friends, my health," Mr Zeeman said. "I can however apply for justice, and if justice is not granted Japan has no place among the community of nations."
Lawyers for the Japanese government declined to cross-examine any of the witnesses - the defence does not dispute the facts of the case but contends that all matters of compensation were settled in the 1951 San Francisco Treaty. In opposition, Mr Blair's ministers supported the POWs' argument that they were still entitled to compensation as individuals, but since being elected they have changed their position.
During a meeting with Mr Blair last month, the Japanese Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, expressed his government's "deep remorse and heartfelt apology for the tremendous damage and suffering", a sentiment which he repeated in an article in The Sun. But Downing Street's claims that the apology represented a diplomatic success for Mr Blair were contradicted by the Japanese government which insisted that Mr Hashimoto was reaffirming an apology first made by his predecessor in 1995.
"Mr Blair was conned," an emotional Mr Titherington told a news conference after the court hearing. "He came to this country not having been briefed by people who really know about this business. When the present government was in opposition, for us they were going to move the earth. When they got in, they found the earth was too big too move."
After a meeting with Mr Titherington last week, Derek Fatchett, the Foreign Office minister responsible for Asia, issued a statement expressing "the Government's belief that no further funds from the Japanese government would be available for compensation" and hopes for reconciliation in advance of a visit to Britain in May by Emperor Akihito.
Martyn Day, a British solicitor co-ordinating the case, said: "The message we're getting very clearly is that the matter's closed as far as they're concerned, and that we should shut up and not spoil the Emperor's visit."Reuse content