School authorities here have revised textbook accounts of World War II, churning up a storm of protest and indignation among Asian neighbors of Japan--who accuse it of attempting to cover up the country's aggressive military past.

The controversy arose when Japan's Education Ministry recently disclosed changes in new books for the fall school term which, for example, replace the word "invasion" with the apparently more neutral "advance" to describe the Japanese Imperial Army's attacks in China in the 1930s and in Southeast Asia and the Pacific in the 1940s.

Education officials also instructed publishers in Japan's lucrative textbook market to delete, condense or alter other references to the country's culpability for specific wartime incidents. In the centralized system of public schooling here, the Education Ministry establishes the norms to which publishers supplying local systems must conform.

The governments of China and South and North Korea have charged that the revisions involved sweep aside facts crucial to accurate historical interpretation.

Officials of the Education Ministry, contending the changes were made in the interests of "objectivity," have denied any attempts at censorship.

The revisions have triggered some internal debate, with teachers' groups criticizing the Education Ministry, but they have touched a nerve in Asia--where an estimated 18 million people died in World War II and where the subject of Japan's role in the conflict remains a highly sensitive one.

South Korea called a special Cabinet session on the issue and reinforced police protection of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul as a hedge against possible public protests. The Chinese government registered an official protest yesterday through the Japanese Embassy in Peking, calling on Tokyo to rectify the "distortion of facts."

The Chinese appear to have been outraged by the textbook description of the Japanese invasion of China as an "advance" and the suggestion that the "rape of Nanking" in 1937 may have been provoked because Japanese soldiers were angered by the losses they suffered--at the hands of a relatively small number of poorly trained and equipped Chinese resistance fighters, according to contemporary accounts.

Prior to the recent revision, one textbook version of the incident read: "At the time of the occupation of Nanking, Japanese forces killed and assaulted many Chinese soldiers and civilians and plundered and set fires. Japan was internationally criticized for the rape of Nanking. It is said that the number of Chinese victims totaled 200,000."

The new version reportedly reads: "In the midst of the confusion of the occupation of Nanking, Japanese forces killed many Chinese soldiers and civilians. Japan was internationally criticized for the rape of Nanking."

The protest by Xiao Xiangquian, director of the Asian affairs department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, asserted that the disputed revisions ran counter to the agreement which normalized relations between Japan and China in 1972.

Under that joint statement, Japan acknowledges responsibility "for causing enormous damages in the past to the Chinese people through war and deeply reproaches itself . . ."

Japanese Foreign Ministry sources asserted that Japan's basic position remains to acknowledge its responsibilities for events occurring before and during World War II. A senior ministry spokesman said "there must be some misunderstanding involved" on the part of those criticizing the textbook changes "and clarification of the facts should clear up most of these misunderstanding."

In a weekend commentary, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Peoples' Daily was quoted in the Japanese press as saying that the textbook revisions were the work of Japanese "militarists" who "cannot dispel the painful memories of their aggression, killing and torture and plunder from the minds of the Chinese people." In a series of articles, the newspaper has strongly hinted that Japan's attempts to rewrite its history books could strain the now friendly Sino-Japanese relations.

Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, who is scheduled to visit China in September for the tenth anniversary of normalization, ordered government officials to take steps to dispel concern in China and South Korea by explaining Japan's "true intentions" in making the changes.

In Seoul today, the South Korean government announced the cancellation of a visit to Tokyo of a senior Foreign Ministry official for scheduled talks with his Japanese counterparts. Sources in Seoul said the government may also be contemplating a diplomatic protest.

South Korean Premier Kim Sang Hyup called a special Cabinet meeting yesterday to discuss the revisions, which have whipped up a heated reaction among the country's press and public. Late last week, authorities ordered the police guard around the Japanese Embassy strengthened amid a public outcry denouncing Japan for trying to justify its military and colonial past.

The South Koreans have objected to "distortions" in the textbooks, which they say have deleted key facts pertaining to Japan's 50-year colonial rule of Korea that ended in 1945. An editorial in the English-language Korean Herald said, in part: "The change of textbooks is even suggestive of a change of course in postwar Japan. Why Japan has come to rewrite the textbooks after all those reflective years cannot but pose an ominous question to its neighbor countries."

In a rare, if perhaps unintended, display of support for South Korea's position, arch-rival Communist North Korea followed by issuing through its state-controlled media a strong denunciation of the Japanese move.

While most Japanese officials appeared anxious to downplay the controversy to avert further diplomatic complications, some senior officials were outspoken in their defense of the Education Ministry. Cabinet officer Yukiyasu Matsuno, director general of the National Land Agency, was quoted in the Japanese press as saying today that he wondered whether it was desirable for Japan to "distort the facts of history" by preparing textbooks according to what other countries interpret as Japan's former involvement in China and South Korea.

The textbook revisions have stirred up strong protests from teachers' organizations and pacifist groups in Japan. Koei Honda, an educator who heads a large organization of history teachers, says most Japanese today grow up largely ignorant of World War II or learn a version of it from increasingly popular war movies here that provide a flawed perception.

"The reason Japanese young people went to the last war is because they were told it was a "just" war. They were not told the truth and 3 million Japanese were killed," Honda said. "If we don't use the word 'invasion,' you tell me what we should call it."