PoWs threaten protest

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Former wartime prisoners of Japan are threatening to disrupt a visit to Britain by Emperor Akihito in a move that will put uncomfortable diplomatic pressure on Tony Blair during his visit to Tokyo this week.

Mr Blair is due to arrive on Friday for a five-day visit intended to consolidate the flourishing commercial and cultural links between Britain and Japan. The Emperor and Empress of Japan are due to reciprocate in May, but the smooth running of both trips will be jeopardised by a festering dispute over the sufferings of British prisoners of the Japanese more than 50 years ago.

Members of the 10,000-strong Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association are planning demonstrations against the Emperor's visit if they fail to make progress in their claim for compensation. Former PoWs and civilian internees from Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand are demanding pounds 14,000 each as compensation for sufferings at the hands of Japan's Imperial Army.

The official position of both the British and Japanese governments is that all questions of compensation were settled in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. Privately, diplomats say that the bilateral relationship with Japan is too valuable to jeopardise for the sake of the former PoWs, the youngest of whom are now in their seventies. But public sympathy for their sufferings is such that no British politician can afford to admit this outright.

Under the Conservatives, ministers followed a policy of expressing public sympathy with the PoWs while declining to put any pressure on their Japanese counterparts. Since Labour's election, officials - including Derek Fatchett, the Foreign Office minister responsible for relations with Asia - have been hinting at a possible resolution to the problem.

Arthur Titherington, chairman of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association, will ask Japanese officials to arrange a meeting with the Emperor during his visit.

If this is refused, and if Mr Blair does not pull a rabbit out of the hat in Tokyo, he promises a lively reception for the Emperor. His members are "up in arms at the fact that the Emperor is coming at all", he said.

Blair in Japan, page 10