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Foes in Asian battlefields, WWII veterans from UK and Japan shake hands 70 years later

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TOKYO In 1944, the two men were in northeastern India as foes, fighting one of harshest battles of World War II between Japan and Britain. More than 70 years later on Thursday, they shook hands and sipped tea in Tokyo.

Roy Welland, 94, a former British sergeant, and Taiji Urayama, 93, a former Imperial Army lieutenant, survived the Battle of Kohima in northern India near the Burmese border and met for the first time at a British embassy reception in Tokyo. Mikio Kinoshita, a 95-year-old veteran who served as an engineer on the notorious Thai-Burma railway, also joined the gathering.

A somewhat formal atmosphere quickly thawed, sending the audience into laughter when the smaller Kinoshita bounced up from the sofa as the well-built and tall Welland sat next to him. Frail-looking Urayama, who was later held captive by Britain, arrived in a wheelchair assisted by his daughter but moved to the sofa to join the others. They exchanged gifts and shook hands.

While the men were mostly quiet, Urayama’s daughter, Akiko Macdonald, who is married to a Briton and lives in England, said she was “deeply moved” to see her father meet Welland in Tokyo.

“Today we can remember the past, but we can also honour the change through reconciliation between people,” British Ambassador to Japan Tim Hitchens said as the three veterans sat together on a couch over English-style tea and cake.

Later Thursday, three former Australian prisoners of war, also here for a government friendship program, reached out to younger Japanese to share their stories of hardship and how they overcame it. Two were among about 13,000 Australians forced to build the notorious Thai-Burma railway, where about 2,700 died.

Jack Thomas, 95, who was held at a prison camp in Japan after surviving the harsh Japanese-operated Changi Prison in Singapore and the Thai-Burma railway, is to visit on Friday the Ohama coal mine in southern Japan where he was a forced labourer.

There, he plans to go to a nearby Shinto shrine and leave a painting of it drawn by a late former comrade in remembrance of him.

“I just want to be there, and I’ll leave behind the little painting,” he said.

Japan has apologized for its harsh treatment of Allied prisoners of war, and the Foreign Ministry has since 2010 invited former POWs from the U.S., Australia and Britain to visit under friendship programs.

Across Asia, some 132,000 Allied personnel were held as prisoners during World War II, including more than 30,000 in Japan, historians say. Nearly one-third died in captivity — a rate several times higher than those held by Germany and Italy.

The ministry, however, is seen as reluctant to publicize to its own people the atonement for Japan’s wartime brutality.

Keith Fowler, 94, another Australian survivor of Changi Prison and the railway, needed years to overcome the trauma from his experiences and the “emotions of hate and envy I had against my captors,” he said.

“You must go forward, you can’t go back,” he said.

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