JAPAN'S RECENT textbook treatment of its harsh military occupation in the Far East has spawned a raging controversy directed at this latest "revision" of history. Without disputing the existing facts, I would like to note a more benevolent aspect of imperial Japanese policy little known in the United States or Japan: During World War II, Japan's attitude toward Jews persecuted by Nazi Germany, its Axis partner, resulted in the rescue of 18,000 German, Austrian and Polish Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

Crystal Night, Nov. 9-10, 1938, shattered the last hopes of German Jews to find accommodation within the Third Reich. By the tens of thousands, they sought refuge in the free world -- a world that responded by sealing its doors against them. But one place in the world offered asylum without reservations: the Japanese sector of the International Settlement of Shanghai.

Boatloads of Hitler's Jewish victims poured into Shanghai, with their number reaching nearly 17,000 by mid-1939. Only when the Japanese sector was overcrowded did Tokyo reduce this immigration to a trickle.

Similarly, during 1940-41, 2,000 Polish Jews -- artists, intellectuals and political and labor leaders -- found their way to Kobe, Japan, from Russian-occupied Lithuania. They bore only the "phony" Curacao (Dutch West Indies) visas and 7- to 15-day Japanese transit visas provided by the humanitarian Dutch and Japanese consuls in Lithuania. Thus, while the United States turned away 900 hapless German Jewish passengers aboard the ill-fated ship The St. Louis, Japan accepted 2,000 bearers of dubious papers.

The Japanese extended the brief transit visas from three to eight months to give the Jews time to secure real visas to the West. All this occurred despite Japanese war preparations and Nazi pressure to expel the Jews. The half of the refugees unable to find a home elsewhere were sent to Shanghai just before the outbreak of the Pacific War.

These refugees unanimously recalled their stay in Kobe in almost idyllic terms, describing the beauty of the land and the spontaneous kindness of its population. Individual Japanese brought gifts of food and fruit and gave their precious bread ration cards to Jewish mothers for their children. Doctors treated hundreds gratis, and local officials provided extra flour that enabled refugees to bake matzohs -- all this in a country whose children's term for foreigners meant "spy."

Life in wartime Shanghai was not so pleasant as in Kobe; yet all 18,000 refugees survived the Holocaust in relative peace.

A ghetto was established in 1943 due to heavy Nazi pressure, but in no way could this be compared to its hellish Nazi counterpart. Although the refugees endured greatly restricted movement, the authorities left practically untouched their social, religious and cultural activities, including the operation of the only higher Talmudic academy to survive the Holocaust intact. Its 300 scholars continued their studies without interruption throughout the war. Food was not plentiful because, until the end of 1943, the American goverment prevented Jewish relief money from reaching the refugees.

While the spontaneous gestures by Kobe's population can readily be understood, the benevolent policy of a hard-headed government requires a different explanation: The pro-Jewish policy stemmed from the unique Japanese interpretation of the anti- Semitic canards in the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Many high Japanese officials genuinely believed that international Jewry secretly controlled Western finances, especially in America and England. Tapping their immense wealth and political power would be very valuable to Japan.

"Proof" of this belief came from their experience in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, when Jacob Schiff, the American Jewish financier, perhaps in reactiion to the czar's anti-Semitism, provided loans that assured Japan's margin of victory.

Several middle-echelon Japanese military officers, the so-called "experts" on Jewish affairs, spread these ideas. In contrast to the Nazi goal of eliminating "all-powerful" Jewry, the Japanese idealogues took a much more logical and humanitarian approach: They would harness this "Jewish power" on behalf of Japan and its New Order in East Asia.

They reasoned that kind treatment of the Jews, especially the Jewish refugees, would dispose American Jews to assist Japan's goals. They hoped to borrow several billion dollars -- from Jewish bankers like Schiff -- to develop Manchuria.

Tokyo at this time showed far more flexibility in its foreign policy toward the United States than Washington did toward Japan. Japan desperately needed the raw materials, including oil, that President Roosevelt had embargoed. The Japanese hoped that Roosevelt's close circle of "influential" Jewish friends -- Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Rabbi Stephen F. Wise -- might help convince him to ease his stance and lift the embargo.

Japan sought to use the German Jewish refugees as an industrious, intelligent middle class -- to create a sort of "Palestine" in Manchuria, a plan that never materialized. It also considered them an important communication channel to Washington.

For example, three weeks before Pearl Harbor, Capt. Koreshige Inuzuka, one of the "Jewish experts," directed the Jews of Shanghai to cable a plea to Morgenthau to help prevent an armed clash. Even during the war, in 1943 and 1944, the Japanese sought help from the "universally influential" Jews to send peace feelers to America.

This typically pragmatic Japanese approach to an age-old and vicious antisemitic fabrication thus created a pro-Jewish policy that saved 18,000 from the Holocaust.