Japanese Imperial Army troops, according to a new definition, did not ''invade'' China, Southeast Asia, and Pacific islands during World War II. They merely ''advanced.''
New Education Ministry guidelines to publishers of school textbooks say references to ''invasion'' and ''acts of aggression'' should be avoided as far as Japan is concerned (although they may be used in describing Nazi Germany).
The action has provoked strident protests from teachers, textbook publishers, pacifist organizations, the press, and public. One newspaper claimed the government was trying to return to the era of ''double-speak'' and ''thought control'' of the 1930s and '40s.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the left-wing teachers union Nikkyoso have been sniping at each other for years over the volatile issue of how to describe the expansionist activities of the imperial forces.
The space in school textbooks devoted to the period has definitely shrunk with the passing of the years, along with the steady introduction of euphemisms like the latest substitution of ''advance'' for ''invade.''
This historical revisionism is also evident in an endless spate of locally made war films. They invariably stress only the theme of Japanese suffering - as in the Tokyo fire bombing or Hiroshima atom bombing of 1945 - without considering why Japan was at war.
This provoked the British film critic of a Tokyo English-language newspaper to comment: ''Japanese war films today fall clearly into two categories: the 'glorious sacrifices of our heroes' and 'the dreadful sufferings of our people.'
''They say little or nothing about the sacrifice and suffering of other people, but that may be because the Japanese as a nation seem incapable of taking other people seriously.'' The writer said he found that Japanese knew about the Tokyo fire bombing (in which an estimated 140,000 people died) and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But they were ignorant of the London blitz and the destruction of Dresden and Berlin.
With 60 percent of the Japanese population born after the war, such information gaps should not be taken lightly, the critic and others argue.
As far as textbook revisions are concerned, the Education Ministry denies censorship. A spokesman said words should be carefully chosen out of consideration for the national sensitivities of Japanese.
China has already attacked this attitude, lamenting attempts to ''prettify Japanese aggression,'' particularly the 1937 incident generally known as the ''rape of Nanjing,'' in which an estimated 90,000 Chinese noncombatants were reported to have been killed by Japanese occupation forces.
Textbooks once accepted this version, but now the Textbook Publishers Association says the Education Ministry has dictated that ''the truth about the incident is not yet established. It should be described as having occurred under abnormal circumstances.''
Whether it is censorship, the fact is that the Education Ministry retains complete command over what is published in school textbooks. It is hard for publishers to resist because many rely heavily on the extremely lucrative education market for their financial survival.
Some teachers try to circumvent the restrictions by bringing into the classroom unauthorized material or encouraging their students to study available literature outside the school.
One such teacher, Masataka Mori, says: ''It's very important that Japanese, especially the young, are told the history of their nation's aggression - which ultimately caused their own people's suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.''
This theme was taken up by two recent letter writers to a Tokyo newspaper.
Asked 25-year-old student Reiko Takagi: ''How can we hope for a peaceful and healthy future if we do not stop and repent of our actions in the past?''
Housewife Hiroko Higashibataki wrote: ''If older people want to recall the prewar days with nostalgia, then I would like to treasure the postwar era, which taught that democracy means respecting the opinion of the individual.''