Tokyo — Assailed by neighboring countries for controversial changes in school textbook references to its World War II military activities, Japan is studying ways to mitigate the political damage.
China and South Korea for once have found common ground in bitter denunciation of recent instructions to school textbook publishers by the Japanese Education Ministry to tone down or remove statements implying wartime wrongdoing. China formally asked July 26 for the instruction to be revoked.
The South Korean Cabinet met the same day and was reportedly to meet again the following night amid reports it planned to take ''due diplomatic measures against Japan for its distortion of historical fact.''
A group of Korean parliamentarians arrived in Tokyo July 27 to discuss the issue. Security has been increased around the Japanese Embassy in the South Korean capital in event of demonstrations.
Both the Chinese and the Koreans have been further upset by the statement of Japanese Education Minister Heiji Ogawa, reacting to their first protests last week, that these constituted interference in Japan's domestic affairs.
The Japanese Cabinet has supported the call by Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki for government officials to work out as yet unspecified measures to explain the ''true motive'' and win understanding for the alterations to history textbooks.
But some Cabinet members have expressed reservations. Yukiyasu Matsuno, director general of the National Land Agency, for example, was quoted as saying he wondered whether it was desirable for Japan to ''distort the facts of history'' and prepare textbooks that weren't in accordance with what other countries say about Japan's activities in China and Korea.
Both the Chinese and Koreans are saying that the proposed alterations are ''distortions'' of history.
The key changes are deletion of the words ''military aggression'' and ''invade'' and replacement with ''advance'' in describing the Japanese Imperial Army's conquest of vast tracts of Chinese territory in the 1930s. The notorious ''rape of Nanking,'' involving the widespread slaughter of Chinese civilians, is now described as an abnormal happening resulting from Chinese resistance.
Also to be dropped are references to the deportation to Japan of hundreds of thousands of Koreans as forced wartime labor. The new Education Ministry instruction argues that the correct phrase is ''implementation of the national mobilization order for Koreans,'' on the grounds the Korean Peninsula was Japanese territory (under force of arms, it should be added) between 1910 and 1945.
Such changes are necessary, the Education Ministry says, because of the ''national sensitivities'' of the Japanese people. But government sources agree urgent steps should be taken to defuse the flare-up.
Mr. Suzuki is due to visit China in September and does not want his talks there to be dominated by accusations that he is ignoring the spirit of the 1972 joint declaration normalizing relations (in which Japan expressed ''deep repentance'' for what it did before and during World War II).
Chief Cabinet Secretary (government spokesman) Kiichi Miyazawa told reporters the government remained unchanged in its ''basic'' stance for expressing its profound regrets for the past aggression against China. He expressed confidence China would show full understanding once the reasons for the textbook changes were fully explained.
Government officials are equally worried about the impact on difficult negotiations with South Korea over a five-year multibillion-dollar Japanese aid package. The negotiations have been dragging on for almost a year.
Diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo were resumed only in 1965, and they remain extremely touchy due to the extreme national sensitivity of the one-time Japanese colony.
Predictably, the general Korean reaction has been strong. One Seoul newspaper July 27 devoted its lead story and nine other front-page articles to the controversy.
There does not seem to be much serious suggestion yet that the revision of history presages a revival of Japanese militarism.
But one Seoul newspaper columnist summed up what is probably the general feeling at present among Japan's neighbors: ''In their overzealousness and insensitivity, their callousness, verging on haughtiness, the Japanese often make their friends uncomfortable.''