The approval Tuesday of a controversial history textbook will probably prompt a new wave of criticism from China and South Korea, where concerns have already been voiced over the original draft.

The Foreign Ministry, however, is trying to keep the issue low profile and continue diplomatic efforts to strengthen ties with the two countries, both of which have recently been working to improve relations with Japan.

“We are worried that China and South Korea will voice criticism no matter what the final version of the textbook says,” one official said, noting that the disputed book was written by a group of nationalistic historians.

Despite the anticipated criticism, however, the official said the textbook issue is unlikely to become a major diplomatic row because neither Beijing nor Seoul want to see the issue severely damage relations with Japan.

South Korea and Japan have been striving to improve relations since President Kim Dae Jung visited in 1998 and agreed to put the past behind and build “future oriented” relations.

Since then, Seoul has gradually lifted a ban on Japanese cultural products. The two countries’ cohosting of the 2002 World Cup soccer finals is also likely to aid this process.

But Kim acted on strong domestic calls last month and indirectly criticized the new textbook by saying he hoped Japan had a “correct understanding” of history.

Japan’s fragile relations with China have also seen some improvements since Premier Zhu Rongji visited in October.

In an effort to prevent this progress from stalling, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono called on the Education Ministry’s screening panel to pay attention to a clause in the screening guidelines relating to neighboring countries, which states that due consideration should be given to the feelings of Asian countries with regards to historical descriptions.

The neighboring countries clause was added in 1982 after the word “aggression” was omitted from a description of Japan’s war with China, an act that caused a major diplomatic outcry from China and South Korea.

The omission was made under pressure from the Education Ministry.

“I hope that a good textbook will be made by taking into account the neighboring countries clause,” Kono told a news conference before the disputed textbook was approved.

In the latest case, however, a raft of criticism was directed at the original draft before the screened versions were made available.

“We could understand if they criticized after the final results were announced, but it is not fair to criticize a draft that is still under review,” another Foreign Ministry official said.

The official also said Japan must stress that the government does not produce textbooks, as some other Asian countries do.

“The textbook in question is not the only textbook, and schools or prefectures are free to decide which one to use out of (eight) to choose from,” the official said.

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