Their upbeat notions have been dispelled by the growing unease among Japan's neighbours of a perceived rising tide of nationalism on these shores.

The latest trigger of widespread anger has been the approval by the Japanese government of school history textbooks that play down the atrocities of the war years.

The headlines are unanimous in their tone and their target: "Civic groups bash 'twisted' history," proclaimed The Korea Herald.

"Japan approves textbook glossing [over] wartime atrocities," stated China's People's Daily, while Hong Kong's South China Morning Post led with "Fresh fury over Japan's distorted history book".

Changed attitude

Countries that were invaded and brutally repressed by Japan's Imperial Army in the early decades of the last century have for years eyed its growing economic influence with a mixture of envy and concern.

Now, however, that has turned to fierce condemnation of some of Tokyo's geopolitical decisions as well as a perceived unwillingness to face up to its imperialist past.

South Koreans burn Japan's
imperial army flag in Seoul

Japan's relationship with China is particularly fraught, given that Tokyo has been the pre-eminent economic power in the Far East for the past 40 years but that influence is waning - after a slump that has lasted for 14 years - while China's star is rising.

The two governments have clashed on a number of issues, including the exploitation of mineral deposits beneath the East China Sea and a territorial dispute over a tiny rock outcrop that Japan insists is its sovereign territory.

The tension was raised a notch when a Chinese submarine was detected operating well within Japanese waters late last year.

Shrine controversy

Another bone of contention that upsets its neighbours is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's insistence on regularly paying his respects at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which is the last resting place of Japan's war dead - including Class-A war criminals executed after the conflict - while plans to rewrite the constitution by rightwing politicians in recent weeks have also caused offence.

Japan's Yasukuni Shrine
honours the country's war dead

"The new proposals by former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone would seem to confirm the suspicions of those in China who are most distrustful of Japan," Greg Moore, a professor of Sino-Japanese relations at Eckerd College in Florida, said.

Nakasone - who still wields a great deal of influence within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party despite his retirement from the Diet - argues that Japan's constitution is outdated and wants the prime minister to wield more power and for Japan's military to play a larger role on the world stage.

He has called for the army to be deployed more quickly and with less concern about offending Japan's neighbours.

The neighbours, predictably, have not reacted positively - but have so far only been able to look on as, earlier this week, Koizumi took another step down the road of projecting Japan's influence by announcing that he would like to expand cooperation with Nato forces operating in Afghanistan.

Demons of past

Moore, the Sino-Japanese expert, explains: "While in fact the constitutional change proposals will likely mean little real change in how Japan relates to China if adopted, the symbolism involved and the timing in which they have been proposed - a time characterised by very poor Sino-Japanese relations - will no doubt be seen as further proof by many in China that Japan is bent on altering the status quo in East Asian security relations, and that Japan has not yet exorcised the demons of its militarist past."

Troop deployment in Iraq needed
rewriting of Japan's security law

After controversially rewriting a law on the deployment of Japan's Self-Defence Forces overseas, Koizumi has provided support to the Bush administration in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

At present, Japanese troops are in the southern Iraq city of Samawa, while Japanese aircraft are resupplying US-led troops elsewhere in the country. US forces operating in Afghanistan were resupplied by Japanese warships.

But today - after the recent spat with South Korea over the sovereignty of islands in the Sea of Japan that Japan knows as Takeshima but Seoul calls Tok-to - the blazing row over eight new school history books has again taken centre-stage.

'Grave damage'

Summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing by Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Zonghuai, Japanese Ambassador Koreshige Anami was told that the new books "inflict grave damage on the people of victim nations and poison the thoughts of Japan's youths".

Neighbours say Japanese history
books play down past atrocities

Expressing his government's indignation at "rightwing history textbooks that beautify aggression", Qiao said "China strongly urges the Japanese government to sincerely implement its promise to reflect on its history of aggression and immediately take effective steps to remove the bad effects".

The most controversial book is a revised version of a text produced in 2001 by a group of rightwing historians who called themselves the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform and published by Fuso Publishing Co on the grounds that previous school books failed to instill a sense of national pride in students.

The Education Ministry insisted that 124 corrections be made before the book could be published, yet passages are still causing outrage.

Imperial rampage

The revised version no longer states that Japan's annexation of the Korean Peninsula was "accepted by some people in Korea", but the rewritten phrase covering the Nanjing Massacre - "A large number of fatalities and casualties among Chinese soldiers and civilians were caused by the Japanese military" - still does not go far enough, according to the critics.

Anti-Japanese nationalism is on
the rise in China and elsewhere

Chinese historians believe that well over 200,000 perished in the Imperial Japanese Army's rampage.

The comment that Japan went to war against other Asian nations to ensure its "self-existence and self-defence" has been rewritten to state that the invasions were to "secure resources," while the term "comfort women" to describe civilians forced into prostitution for the military does not appear at all.

Instead, students will learn that "young women from Korea and other parts of Asia were assembled and sent to the battlefield for Japanese soldiers".

Later in the book, however, much space is devoted to the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, and mention is made that South Korea is "illegally occupying" the island of Takeshima, a comment guaranteed to provoke indignation in Seoul.

'Mistaken conception'

Noriko Hama, a professor at Kyoto's Doshisha University, said: "It certainly looks to me as if the whole of Japan has taken a step to the right, but that's based on the mistaken conception that Japan needs to be more assertive in the way that it deals with the world and speak its mind.

Japan wants to be treated as a
sophisticated geopolitical actor

"And it's not even as if it's a well-articulated rightism; it's more a perverse desire to be assertive among the politicians and the chattering classes.

Hama continued: "The underlying trend may always have been there, but it seems to be far closer to the surface right now because the government is pushing for a seat on the UN Security Council and wants to be treated as a mature, sophisticated nation in global diplomacy.

"One of my greatest fears is that the younger generation might actually believe all that it sees in the media and the information that is in school text books.

Hama added: "It's not difficult to hoodwink youngsters into believing everything they see and for them to be exposed to flawed information like this is a huge worry."