A senior member of Japan's conservative ruling party drew fire Sunday after he reportedly said estimates by some historians that Japanese troops killed 300,000 people in the so-called Rape of Nanking were "a big lie."
The reported comments by Takami Eto, leader of the third-largest faction in Prime Minister Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party, were criticized by China as an attempt to distort history.
"To say 300,000 people were killed in the Rape of Nanking is a pure fabrication, a big lie," Eto was quoted as saying in a speech Saturday by the Asahi newspaper and other national dailies.
Historians generally agree that the Japanese army killed at least 150,000 civilians during its 1937 to 38 occupation of Nanking, now called Nanjing. Some put the number as high as 300,000.
But a group of Japanese nationalist scholars and conservative lawmakers say the figures are inflated, and some even call the entire massacre a hoax.
It wasn't clear from the newspaper reports yesterday whether Eto was referring to the entire massacre or to the estimates of 300,000 people being killed. His aides could not be reached for comment.
China's Foreign Ministry criticized the Japanese politician for trying to whitewash history.
The Nanjing Massacre was "an atrocity committed by Japanese militarism during the war of aggression in China," a fact backed up by "ironclad evidence," said ministry spokesman Kong Quan in a statement on its Web site.
Any attempts to distort or deny history would be unsuccessful, he said.
Eto, a 78-year-old three-time Cabinet minister, has talked himself into trouble in the past when commenting on Japan's history. He angered Koreans in 1997 by comparing Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910 to a "merger between two towns."
He reportedly touched on that theme during his speech Saturday in the city of Fukui, saying Japan's occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945 should be not be considered colonialism because both sides signed a treaty formalizing annexation.
A South Korean Foreign Ministry official said yesterday he was disappointed.
"Our government want to make it clear that such remarks will not help South Korea-Japan relations," the official said on condition of anonymity. "We once again emphasize that without Japan's correct understanding of history, it is difficult to sincerely develop relations between the two countries."