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Japan tries to polish its image in foreign textbooks

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There was a time when some Japanese rested their weary heads at night on wooden stands rather than pillows. It was popular with geisha girls who didn't want their elaborately coiffured hair disarranged.

The custom virtually disappeared a century ago, but it has taken a long time for the news to reach abroad.

Until a few years ago, a Swedish school textbook insisted that Japanese ''rarely use pillows,'' but often employ wooden stands. The fact that it now concedes that modern Japanese use ordinary pillows is a triumph for a determined Japanese government campaign to correct erroneous or misleading descriptions of the country in foreign texts.

The effort has been under way since 1958, but rarely gained any attention. In recent years interest has centered on the government's efforts to rewrite domestic history textooks, especially in toning down passages about Japanese foreign aggression in the 1930s and 1940s.

The International Society for Educational Information, an affiliate of the Foreign Ministry, has just released a report on its crusading activities for accuracy in the textbooks of 87 other countries so far.

The society has collected more than 20,000 textbooks, maps, and encyclopedias for examination, and a panel of 200 university professors and senior-high-school teachers has been recruited to pore over the material in search of inaccuracies.

To date, the institute says 80 percent have been checked and corrections requested from the publishers or educational authorities involved, mostly with success. Portraits of Japan have gradually shifted for the better, says Fumi Miyamoto, the society's director.

In the 1950s, 8 out of 10 lines of print on average contained perceived inaccuracies. Today, the average is down to 10 percent for European textbooks and even less for the United States.

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