On Friday Downing Street announced that it had received a letter from the Japanese leader, expressing "profound remorse" for Japan's treatment of prisoners during the Second World War. But on Saturday Mr Murayama said that the letter was principally intended to congratulate Mr Major on his re-election as party leader, and was not a letter of apology.
After angry reactions from veterans' groups, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials launched an intensive damage-limitation exercise yesterday, insisting the word apology was included in the letter and that it reflected the view of the Japanese government as a whole, not simply that of Mr Murayama.
Neither side will release the letter's contents, but the controversy surrounds two key words or phrases. The Japanese for "deep remorse" is fukai hansei, but the word hansei is ambiguous, and can mean "remorse" or "reflection". But it has emerged that the letter also contains the word owabi, a formal, but unambiguous word for "apology".
The latest developments in the controversy have strengthened speculation that Mr Murayama will use tomorrow, the 50th anniversary of VJ Day, formally to apologise for his country's wartime atrocities in a speech to parliament.
"The confusion is rather unfortunate," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official told the Independent. "Diplomatic communications of this kind are not subject to being publicised, because to do so would give embarrassment to the sender."
British survivors of Japanese prisoner camps have demanded a clear-cut apology from Tokyo and have been exasperated by the conflicting accounts of Mr Murayama's message.
Yesterday the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, declined to say whether he would ask Japan for further explanation of its position. "That is a matter for the Japanese government but I hope some further clarification will be forthcoming," he said. Veterans had initially given the letter a cautious welcome but believed it was merely a personal apology from Mr Murayama. On Saturday the Japanese embassy in London insisted the letter was a formal one and that the feelings expressed there were on behalf of the Japanese people.
VJ Day remembered, page 4
Did they, or
Friday 5pm: Downing Street discloses letter from Japanese Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, saying it is first apology in writing for his country's behaviour during Second World War.
Friday 6pm: Veterans express dismay. Say it is not full, public apology.
Saturday noon: Tokyo's London embassy maintains veterans' interpretation incorrect. Says letter is complete public apology.
Saturday 12.30pm: Veterans doubtful, but concede letter might be a step forward.
Saturday 1pm: Mr Murayama, flatly denies letter was apology.
Saturday 4pm: Mr Murayama, asked for clarification, says letter was designed to congratulate John Major on his re-election.
Sunday 11am: Japan's London embassy restates letter is full public apology.Reuse content