TOKYO, JAN. 19 -- Newsreel footage depicting Japanese Army atrocities during the so-called Rape of Nanking has been deleted from the Japanese version of Bernardo Bertolucci's epic new film about the last emperor of China, which opens here this weekend.

According to a spokesman for the movie's Japanese distributor Shochiku Fuji Co., a 30-second segment of old newsreels was edited out of "The Last Emperor" to avoid "rekindling" the emotional debate about the extent of atrocities committed by the victorious Japanese Imperial Army when it stormed the Chinese Nationalist capital in 1937.

Shinji Serata, the spokesman, said the cut was made by Bertolucci himself after the film's British producer suggested that the news footage, which shows Chinese being shot to death and their bodies dumped in a large pit, might not be suitable for Japanese audiences. "We said probably it would be better to weed it out to avoid any complications at the theater," Serata said.

The Nanking episode, long evoked as a symbol of Japanese brutality during World War II, has frequently been at the center of a broader debate here over Japan's willingness or reluctance to confront its recent militaristic past. While Japan has repeatedly apologized for its behavior, there are those here who suggest that apologies are no longer necessary and it is time to move on, sentiments that cause much consternation among Japan's Asian neighbors.

In 1982, Japan's relations with China were severely strained when the Ministry of Education here proposed softening school textbook accounts of Japanese Army brutality in Nanking and elsewhere in China before and during World War II.

The changes were scrapped, but Chinese anger remained and was exacerbated four years later, when then Education Minister Masayuki Fujio was quoted as saying that the slaughter of Nanking civilians was simply "part of war." The storm of protest caused by his remarks forced Fujio out of the cabinet, but the question of Japanese army behavior in Nanking remains controversial here. In the last few years, a spate of books on the subject has come out, some supporting the Chinese claim that as many as 300,000 people were killed and many raped during a six-week period after Nanking fell to the Japanese. A revisionist school, however, asserts that the scope of the killing has been vastly overstated. Serata said today that an unexpurgated version of the Bertolucci film was shown last October at the Tokyo Film Festival. At that time, Serata said, a producer of the movie, Jeremy Thomas, asked whether the Nanking news footage was appropriate for a wider Japanese audience.

Serata said although the footage and similar scenes from Nanking have been aired before in Japan, Shochiku Fuji officials said they thought "it would be better" to take out the scenes before the film was released commercially here. "Bertolucci himself accepted that position. Rather than have it cut by others he said, 'I will do it myself,' " Serata said.

Bertolucci and Thomas could not be reached today for comment on the decision to edit out the news footage.

Bertolucci's epic, filmed in China, uses Pu Yi, China's last emperor, to tell a sweeping tale of modern China. Pu Yi, who lived from 1906 to 1967, became emperor at age 3 but ended his life under the Communists as a gardener in Peking.

In between, he served as Japan's puppet emperor of Manchuria until the end of World War II, when the Japanese empire crumbled. With the Communist takeover of China, Pu Yi was sent to a "reeducation" camp where he spent a decade before being released to spend his remaining years as a gardener. It was during this "reeducation" period that Pu Yi, in the unedited version of the Bertolucci film seen everywhere except Japan, is shown news footage of Japanese atrocities in Nanking.