The letter to John Major by Tomiichi Murayama appeared timed to defuse growing demands for compensation before the VJ commemorations. Mr Major welcomed the letter, expressing "profound remorse" for Japan's actions. But veterans and former prisoners said it fell short of an official apology from the Japanese government, and there were fresh calls for compensation led by Robin Cook, Labour's spokes-man on foreign affairs.
"Will they now accept claims by the PoWs for compensation? Their claims are very modest - about pounds 14,000 per head. Certainly I hope having made this apology, they will accept the justice of that claim," Mr Cook said.
Mr Murayama expressed "profound remorse for Japan's actions in a certain period of the past which caused such unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people". The letter reminded Mr Major that when he visited Japan two years ago, the then Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, had expressed his "profound remorse and apologies for Japan's actions in the past that inflicted such deep scars on so many people, including prisoners of war". Mr Murayama said he wished to "reiterate those sentiments".
Downing Street refused to release the text of the letter, but Mr Major wrote to PoW campaigners to outline its contents. He told the campaigners he was glad that the Japanese Prime Minister had taken the opportunity to apologise, but the Government has avoided taking sides over the demands for compensation, which were officially settled in the Fifties.
But Diplomatic sources pointed out the apology was aimed at all PoWs, not specifically those from Britain, while veterans' groups called it inadequate. Keith Martin, chairman of the Association of British Civilian Internees, Far East Region, said: "It does not amount to the apology we have asked for. It is not on behalf of the government of Japan, it is a personal apology from the Prime Minister."
Charles Peall, spokesman for the Burma Star Association and a former PoW, said: "I am waiting to see the full text of the letter. If it represents the official views of the Japanese government it is wonderful news, but if it is only a personal apology then it does not mean very much."
Harold Payne, president of the National Federation of Far East Prisoners of War, agreed, saying: "It is an apology from Japan the country that we are interested in."
Mr Major received the letter before he went on holiday, but clearly waited to release it until the run-up to VJ Day. He will return next week from France to take part in the ceremony in London next Saturday.
Japan will commemorate the end of the war on Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of its surrender. Yesterday, it was revealed that after months of evasion and disagreement within the ruling coalition, Mr Murayama will express a "heartfelt apology" for wartime damage and pain inflicted on Asian neighbours.
According to a draft of the speech obtained by the Kyodo news agency, Mr Murayama will speak of his "acute remorse" in the light of "incontrovertible historical facts" about Japan's conduct during the war. He will repeat that Japan, as the only country in the world to be atom-bombed, should pursue nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
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