Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara officially apologized Thursday to a group of five former Australian prisoners of war for the hardships they endured at the hands of their Japanese captors.

Maehara met the five former POWs, as well as their family members and caregivers, at the Foreign Ministry.

His apology, however, was made behind closed doors with the media not allowed to observe, according to a ministry official. When his predecessor, Katsuya Okada, apologized to former American POWs last fall, he did so in front of the cameras.

During the meeting, Maehara “expressed deep remorse and his heartfelt apology over the great deal of suffering and hardships,” according to a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry.

“I hope that your visit will contribute to the reconciliation and friendship and further enhance cooperation” between the two countries, Maehara said at the beginning of the meeting, which was open to the media.

In response, Charles Richards, 94, an ex-Aussie POW, said he considered the invitation of POWs to Japan a “practical” form of apology.

“Many POWs, as you know, are looking for an official apology, but frankly, I feel that the important thing is for practical apology, which is represented by our visit here and being looked after,” Richards said.

The former POWs, who were invited to Japan by the government, also became the first Australians to receive copies of their prisoners’ identification cards recording their names, dates of incarceration and locations of camps. Maehara promised to start providing copies of name cards to other Australian POWs.

Richards was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in Singapore and was forced to work on the Thailand-Burma railroad, also known as the Death Railway, where about 16,000 Allied POWs, including British, Dutch and Australians, as well as about 80,000 to 100,000 Asians, died during construction.

Richards was eventually shipped to Japan and held in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, until the end of the war.

During a meeting with both ruling and opposition party lawmakers Thursday afternoon, Richards said he still could not forget or forgive the hardships he went through.

“But I do try to understand why a country with gracious, polite people behaved as they did,” he said.

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