TOKYO Japan's government will review statements by previous administrations about wartime history including a landmark 1995 apology, Japan's education minister said, but added that any changes would not mean rejecting those statements but making them more "forward-looking".
Any moves to renege on the 1995 apology by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama - now in Beijing on a mission aimed at soothing tension over a territorial row - would raise hackles in both China and South Korea, where bitter memories of Japan's military aggression and colonization run deep.
The government will also review guidelines for school textbook publishers aimed at addressing the sensitivities of neighboring countries which suffered under Japan's military invasion and colonization, Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.
"The government as a whole plans to review these (statements) issued by past cabinets concerning historical perspective," Shimomura said.
"This doesn't mean we will reject them and create something new, but it may be necessary to add forward-looking expressions," he said. "At least it is not the sort of review that China or South Korea would have to worry about. It is a domestic matter."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who swept back to power in December after a big election win, has a conservative agenda aimed at shedding the shackles of post-war pacifism and recasting Japan's wartime history in less apologetic tones.
But he and his cabinet appear wary of further straining ties with China and South Korea, already frayed by rows over territory and history, or upsetting Japanese voters more concerned about reviving the long-stagnant economy.
Included in the overall review will be a 1993 statement by then top-government spokesman Yohei Kono in which Japan admitted military involvement in forcing Asian and other women into sexual slavery at wartime brothels, Shimomura said, adding that the Kono statement had "caused misunderstandings".
"LIGHT AND SHADOW"
Asked how China would react to such possible revisions, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference in Beijing: "Japan should have a responsible attitude when it comes to the problems of history and respect the feelings of the people of Asia. We hope that Japan can take history as a mirror and pursue a path of peaceful development."
In its campaign for the December election, Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party called for revising textbook guidelines - a source of friction with South Korea and China in the past - out of what Shimomura said was concern that private publishers had over-reacted to the provision.
Abe, 58, has focused on boosting a stagnant economy since he took office last month, but has also made clear that education reform - a long-sought goal of conservatives in Japan - is a key part of his agenda.
During his first 2006-2007 term in office, which ended when he resigned citing ill health, Abe pushed through parliament a revision of Japan's 1947 law on basic education policy to make nurturing "love of country" an aim of education.
Last week, a new 15-member advisory panel began discussions of more changes, including possible revisions to a system introduced under a U.S.-led occupation after World War Two.
Shimomura said Japan's education system faced a crisis reflected in survey's showing many students lack self-esteem, a problem he said had multiple causes including an over-emphasis on treating all students the same whatever their abilities.
Another key reason for that mindset, Shimomura said, was a post-war education system that was perhaps too "masochistic" in its accounts of the past - a view shared by many in the LDP and conservative academic circles.
"In history, there is both light and shadow," he said. "I do not say that all of Japan's past history was splendid and correct. There are matters on which we must reflect. But I think it is also necessary to once again teach our children about the splendor of Japan's proper traditions and culture."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Robert Birsel)