Japanese apology to PoWs is just a repeat

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The Japanese Prime Minister yesterday offered an apology for the treatment of British prisoners during the Second World War, a move hailed by Tony Blair as "a very significant step forward". But despite all the rhetoric, the apology contained nothing new. Richard Lloyd Parry reports from Tokyo.

In his first summit meeting with Tony Blair, Ryutaro Hashimoto, the Japanese Prime Minister made "an expression of deep remorse and heartfelt apology to people who suffered in the Second World War". The statement, claimed Mr Blair's spokesman, was Tokyo's first "official" apology for the country's wartime misdeeds.

But Japanese officials denied it contained anything new, provoking the anger of PoW groups. In 1995, the then prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, spoke in a written statement of Japan's "mistaken national policy" and expressed "feelings of deep remorse and ... heartfelt apology".

"What the Prime Minister mentioned today was basically no different from PM Murayama in 1995," said Mutsuyoshi Nishimura, of the Japanese foreign ministry.

Downing Street is sensitive about yesterday's PoW "apology" and with good reason. At first glance, it lives up it lives up to its official billing as a diplomatic triumph for Mr Blair. But close up, it delivers much less than it promises - a confection of ambiguous language, old or vague ideas and vigorous spin doctoring.

There were new "reconciliation initiatives" aimed at bringing together Japanese and Britons in an attempt to overcome the past: an increased number of "cultural exchanges" for former PoWs and their families to visit Japan; and a joint project to study the history of relations between the two countries. But they will only attract those who are already reconciled to the past. As Arthur Titherington, chairman of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association said yesterday: "We want proper compensation, not joy trips for 80-year-old men to Japan."

There will be a series of joint "pilgrimages" to be made by Japanese and British veterans to former battle sights in South-east Asia, and a programme of scholarships for the grandchildren of former PoWs to study in Japan. The projected budget for these is 125m yen (pounds 600,000), an increase of a quarter on two years ago. "As a sign of ... remorse, they have agreed substantially to increase the payments into the reconciliation programme," said Mr Blair. But this budget is not a fixed commitment. According to a Japanese diplomat yesterday: "It might be more or less depending on what projects we feel are worthwhile."

Mr Blair did not press Mr Hashimoto on the question of the pounds 14,000 compensation which PoW groups are demanding for each of their members. Legally, all claims for compensation were shelved in the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco. "We know what answer we would get if we mention it," Mr Blair's spokesman said.