OTTAWA (Reuters) - Japan offered a "heartfelt apology" for the systematic mistreatment of Canadian prisoners during World War Two, helping to heal ties between the two nations, Ottawa said on Thursday.
Thousands of Allied prisoners were forced by the Japanese Imperial Army to work as slave laborers during the war. Many were tortured or starved and died in captivity.
Canada said Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney and a group of veterans received the apology in Tokyo from Toshiyuki Kato, Japan's Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs.
"This important gesture is a crucial step in ongoing reconciliation and a significant milestone in the lives of all prisoners of war," Blaney said in a statement.
Around 1,600 Canadians were captured in December 1941 after the fall of Hong Kong.
"The Canadians were subjected to deliberate and systematic mistreatment at the hands of their captors," the statement said. "The prisoners of war were forced into backbreaking labour in construction sites, mines, shipyards and foundries, and were frequently beaten and starved."
Some Allied survivors, angered by what they see as Japan's unwillingness to confront its wartime record, have in the past tried unsuccessfully to sue Tokyo for compensation.
In 2005, Japan apologized for the suffering and pain its military inflicted on Dutch prisoners during World War Two. Tokyo made a similar apology to Britain in 1998.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by John O'Callaghan