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Japan Defends Textbook Revisions

Japan finds itself on the defensive diplomatically as a result of revisions made to two little-used middle school textbooks this week. Both South Korea and China are angry over the books, which they say plays down Japan's militaristic past.

The South Koreans and Chinese say the revisions to a history and a civics textbook whitewash Japan's brutal occupation of their countries and are meant to fuel Japanese nationalism. Both countries have long complained that Tokyo has never fully admitted, or apologized for, its militaristic expansion in the first half of the 20th century.

The two books were written by nationalist scholars and issued by a conservative publisher. Only a few schools in the country use them.

Nonetheless, there has been a strong reaction in China and South Korea. There have been calls for boycotts of Japanese products in China, and some Japanese businesses in the country have been attacked. In South Korea, the government and media have reacted vociferously, especially to references concerning a group of small islands in the Sea of Japan controlled by South Korea, which Japan also claims.

Lee Kyu-hyung, is a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry.

Mr. Lee says his government regrets seeing that Japan has approved a textbook with what Seoul considers historical distortions.

Japanese Education Ministry officials say the textbooks' mention of the disputed islands is nothing new.

Japan's deputy chief cabinet secretary, Seiken Sugiura, is calling for calm on the issue in both South Korea and Japan.

Mr. Sugiura says Tokyo wants to pursue forward-looking friendly relations with its neighbors, especially South Korea.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also is urging South Korea to look at the big picture.

The prime minister says it would be a shame to see expanding exchanges in various fields shut down just because of the dispute over the islands.

The revisions also come as China and Japan have been exchanging angry words over the exploration for natural gas beneath the sea in an area both claim.

Some Japanese say the new textbooks are actually toned down from earlier editions. They note that the new text omits the tale of the mythical son of a legendary ancient Japanese emperor, which was in an earlier edition. The revised books also reduce or eliminate coverage of a number of topics that were seen as glorifying Japan's military ambitions during its imperial era.

The textbooks are getting mixed reviews even in Japan.

The country's largest newspaper, the conservative Yomiuri, says the publisher compromised in emotional meetings with Education Ministry bureaucrats.

The left-leaning Asahi newspaper, however, says the new texts are not appropriate for Japan's children. It notes the new editions retain justifications for Japan's early 20th Century behavior, portraying the country as liberating Asians from the grips of Western imperialists


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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