Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi urged South Korea on Tuesday not to let soured bilateral relations deteriorate further, following the approval of junior high school history textbooks that Seoul says distort Japan’s colonialist past.

“There is a gap between the Japanese and South Korean positions,” Koizumi said at his official residence. “Any country could face criticism, but it is not good to let confrontation heighten because of that.”

Koizumi made the comments after South Korea protested the newly authorized history textbooks, which are accused of “justifying and beautifying” Japan’s imperialist past.

The textbooks, approved Tuesday by the education ministry, significantly simplify descriptions of Japan’s wartime atrocities.

“Our government expresses regret that some of the authorized Japanese textbooks . . . still include contents that justify and beautify past wrongdoing,” Lee Kyu Hyung, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency. “The government calls once again for Japan’s efforts to correct this.”

Lee specifically lashed out at civics textbooks that newly include Japan’s claim to a group of South Korean-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan. The islets are known as Takeshima in Japan and Tok-do in the Koreas.

“Japan’s claim to (the islets) amounts to an attempt to justify its colonial invasion and to negate the history of our liberation,” Lee was quoted as saying.

In Beijing, Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, also urged Japan to “correctly view” history.

“The essence of the issue is whether Japan can correctly view its history of militarism and aggression,” Qin Gang told a regular news conference.

The Chinese government also summoned Japan’s ambassador to Beijing, Koreshige Anami, so it could file a protest over the education ministry’s approval of the contentious textbooks.

Anami reportedly said China’s teachings on patriotism have raised anti-Japanese sentiment among Chinese youths, and asked China to pay attention to that point.

According to a statement by the Japanese Embassy, Anami also said Japan is a country where freedom of thought and publishing is guaranteed, and that textbooks are approved for publication if they fulfill certain requirements.

“It is important to control emotions and consider (developing) bilateral friendship,” Koizumi said. “I want (South Korea) to deal with the matter in a manner that would not inflame backlashes.”

Koizumi said the different textbook-approval systems of each country should be respected.

Education minister Nariaki Nakayama said it is only natural for Japanese schools to teach about Japan’s sovereign territory. He dismissed criticism that his ministry had influenced Fuso Publishing Inc. to change the draft of its textbook to state that South Korea is “illegally” occupying Takeshima.

He said: “Learning how far Japanese territory extends is basic knowledge. It is natural to teach about it.”

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