TOKYO, June 23 (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Okinawa on Saturday to commemorate a bloody World War Two battle, the day after local lawmakers blasted official plans to alter school textbook accounts of wartime suicides.
The ceremony marked the 62nd anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, dubbed the "Typhoon of Steel", which left some 200,000 people dead, including many civilians alongside Japanese and U.S. troops.
Many local people, often entire families, killed themselves rather than surrender to the Americans, and some eyewitness accounts said Japanese soldiers forced them to do so. Some conservative Japanese historians contest this, saying the suicides were voluntary.
In March, the Education Ministry, previously criticised for toning down textbook descriptions of Japanese wartime atrocities in Asia, ordered publishers of high school texts to revise their descriptions of the suicides.
The decision sparked outrage in Okinawa and the prefectural assembly sent a statement of protest to the ministry on Friday.
"It is a great sadness to me that the people of Okinawa experienced suffering beyond description," Abe said at the ceremony on the southern island, Kyodo news agency reported.
Asked about the textbook problem, Abe replied only that an Education Ministry panel had weighed the matter from a scholarly perspective, Kyodo said.
The row is the latest in a series sparked by conservative efforts to revise accounts of Japan’s wartime behaviour. Since taking office last September, Abe himself has publicly denied that the Japanese military or government forced Asian women to become sex slaves for soldiers.
Under pressure from abroad, he later repeated his backing for a 1993 apology to the victims, known euphemistically in Japan as "comfort women".
Next week a U.S. congressional committee is set to approve a non-binding resolution seeking a clearer apology from Japan.
Just days ago a group of lawmakers from Abe’s ruling party said the 1937 Nanjing Massacre was a fabrication, denying Chinese claims that Japanese soldiers slaughtered hundreds of thousands after seizing the Chinese city.