Japan's war victims never say die in bid for reparation

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Two years ago," says Arthur Titherington, "I went to a fortune- teller, and d'you know what she predicted? She said that I'm going to live until I'm 93. Whatever happens, you see, they're got another 20 years of me. The Japanese government is sitting back and waiting for the natural solution, by which they mean the deaths of people like me. But they are mistaken. This case will not go away."

Mr Titherington, chairman of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association, is 75, looks 58, and seems entirely likely to be around in 2015. By that time his wartime experiences in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Taiwan will be 70 years in the past. But judging from his form yesterday, at a press conference in the Tokyo District Court, the passing of the years will have changed little.

He was in Tokyo yesterday for the latest episode in a case that began two-and-a-half years ago, and is unlikely to wrap up before spring. Five former captives, including an Australian, a New Zealander, an American, and a British woman held as a child slave in a civilian camp, are suing the Japanese government for $22,000 (pounds 13,750) on behalf of 40,000 fellow detainees around the world.

The Japanese government has always insisted the issue of compensation was settled by the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which exempted it from further war reparations. The plaintiffs insist this applied only to government-to-government claims and that as individuals they are entitled to individual compensation.

Yesterday Frits Kalshoven, professor of international law at Leiden University, appeared as an expert witness to support this contention. "Professor Kalshoven was effectively saying the Japanese government is living in the past," Martyn Day, the plaintiffs' British lawyer, said afterwards. "And not just the recent past: the arguments they're putting forward haven't been common currency since before the war. It's a devastating blow for the Japanese government and I urge them to pay these people what they are due, and spare them the torture of continuing these claims."

The problem is that if the Japanese are behind the times, so are the British, Australian and New Zealand governments. When the former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind came to Tokyo in September he ritually reminded his counterpart of the "strong feelings" the subject arouses in Britain, but agreed the matter was legally closed. Governmental assurances that they sympathise with the former prisoners have not been backed up by concrete diplomatic suggestions. In the past, British officials privately expressed the belief that the action is motivated by greed and revenge, and admitted privately that were also waiting for the "natural solution".

Mr Titherington and Mr Day say they detect a change of tone at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

But it would be a remarkable government, even a Labour government, which jeopardised good relations with Japan over this issue.

"This is nothing to do with hatred," says Mr Titherington. "It is not about revenge. It is about justice. I surrendered once to Japan. I won't surrender again."