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More than 1,400 Canadian soldiers endured four years of misery as prisoners of the Japanese,especially in the wake of the battle for Hong Kong.The Canadian Press

The Japanese government is offering an apology to Canadian prisoners of war, a significant move for a country that historians say has long struggled to come to terms with its wartime past.

On Christmas Day in 1941, about 1,600 Canadians were captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong, after more than two weeks of battle. They were imprisoned for 3½ years, when they were beaten and forced to labour in mines, shipyards and on construction sites. By the time Japan surrendered in 1945, more than 250 of the Canadian prisoners had died of starvation, sickness or abuse, and many survivors remained ill or permanently disabled.

George MacDonell, who wrote a book about his capture in Hong Kong and his experiences as a prisoner of war, said he sees Thursday's apology as a sign that Japan is willing to come to terms with its past.

"It will be a small comfort for us," the 89-year-old Toronto resident said. "But it's a tremendous step forward for the Japanese.… they will be the beneficiaries."

Historians say Japan has been reticent to issue formal apologies for its actions, especially when compared with other countries involved in the war.

"The Japanese government has had a lot of difficulty apologizing for anything to do with the Second World War," said Diana Lary, a retired professor at the University of British Columbia with expertise in Asian military history. "Compare that with what the Germans did. They not only apologized but [they] apologized profusely and made all kinds of restitutions."

Still, Japan has offered some words of remorse over the years, including apologies to Korea and other Asian nations for its colonial aggression. The country's government expressed remorse to former Second World War prisoners who were visiting Japan from the United States in 2010, and did the same for Australian prisoners of war earlier this year.

Mr. MacDonell was among 1,975 Canadian soldiers sent overseas to defend the British colony of Hong Kong in 1941. Just weeks after the soldiers arrived, Japanese troops attacked on the ground and by air as part of a larger campaign that include the bombardment of Pearl Harbor.

The Canadians held out for 17 days with no reinforcements and dwindling food supplies before they finally laid down their weapons. After spending several days burying their dead, Mr. MacDonell said, he and the remaining survivors were rounded up and taken to work camps.

The soldiers survived on meager diets of barley and chrysanthemum tops and were housed in plywood structures that resembled chicken coops. Many contracted diphtheria, beriberi and other diseases, and they were rarely offered medical treatment for their ailments. "It was as terrible as you can imagine," Mr. MacDonell said.

Michael Boire, a historian at the Royal Military College of Canada, said prisoners held in Japanese camps were treated particularly badly. While German prisoners of war had a 95-per-cent chance of survival, the chance of surviving a Japanese camp was between 50 and 60 per cent.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird indicated in a statement that Canada has developed a mutually beneficial relationship with Japan, and suggested the apology will help the both countries move forward.

Earlier this week, former prime minister Brian Mulroney received an award from the Japanese government for apologizing and offering restitution for the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. The government seized properties and separated families following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, citing "military necessity."