KYOTO, Japan— When they invaded Korea 400 years ago, Japanese samurai warriors brought back priceless porcelain, ingenious metal type for printing and noses and ears hacked off the corpses of tens of thousands of Koreans.
In one of the world's more macabre war memorials, a 30-foot-high hillock here in the ancient Japanese capital marks where the noses and ears were buried. The 400th anniversary of this Mimizuka, or Ear Mound, will be commemorated in September, underscoring the tensions and hostilities that still set the countries of East Asia against each other.
Few Japanese outside Kyoto know of the Ear Mound, but almost all Koreans do. In Japan, even among those who have heard of it, the Ear Mound is largely seen as a bizarre relic of little relevance today. To many Koreans, it is a symbol of a Japanese brutishness that still lurks beneath the surface waiting to explode.
''Frankly speaking, I think there is a risk'' of Japan some day again attacking its neighbors, said Ryu Gu Che, an ethnic Korean in Kyoto, and he suggests that the best way of reducing the risk would be for Japan to acknowledge and repent the savagery symbolized by the Ear Mound.
''So although 400 years have passed,'' he said, ''I think both peoples should study this episode and learn some lessons.''
Mr. Ryu, who is organizing the anniversary ceremony, says that the lesson that Japan should learn is to show greater remorse. The lesson for Korea, he said, is to avoid corruption and weakness that could tempt foreign invaders.
Although the major countries of East Asia, ranging from Vietnam through China to Korea and Japan, share a common cultural heritage to a considerable extent, deep antagonisms linger. A major reason for these antagonisms is not just competing interests today but also divergent memories of the past.
In Asia, history hangs over the present and constantly threatens to destabilize the future. The most sensitive memories are of World War II, but the Ear Mound underscores how some incidents continue to fester long after the people who were tortured or killed have turned to dust. Americans also mutilated corpses, of course, with European settlers scalping Indians and vice versa, but those atrocities do not have the same political or social resonance today that such episodes do in East Asia.
The Ear Mound dates from Japan's plans to conquer China and divide it among Japanese lords. Korea was in the way, so Japan assembled some 200,000 troops in 1592 and launched an invasion, setting off a war that lasted six years and by some accounts killed more than one million Koreans -- close to one-third of the country's population at that time.
The samurai in those days often cut off the heads of people they had killed as proof that their deeds matched their stories, but it was impossible to bring back so many heads by boat to Japan. So the samurai preserved the noses and sometimes the ears of those whom they killed, soldiers and civilians alike.
Most of the noses were cut off corpses, but some Koreans reportedly were not killed and survived for many years without noses or ears.
The Japanese troops brought back barrels that may have contained the noses or ears of 100,000 Koreans, scholars say, but these numbers are unreliable. Korean estimates are sometimes tainted by the partiality of the researchers, and the subject has not attracted extensive Japanese scholarship, partial or impartial.
Japan's rulers displayed the noses and ears to Japanese subjects, apparently as a warning not to challenge the authorities, and then buried them and dedicated the Ear Mound on Sept. 28, 1597. Organizers of the ceremony on the 400th anniversary say that it will include Japanese and Koreans alike -- Buddhist priests as well as Christian pastors -- and will aim to appease the spirits of those who were killed and mutilated.
''Ethnic conflict and hostility is not unique to this area,'' he added. ''We've seen it in Bosnia and elsewhere. It's universal, and we know it's difficult to erase. But this is a step forward.''
Some 700,000 Koreans live in Japan, mostly descendants of forced laborers brought here early in this century, and it often galls them that Japan does not show more remorse for the occupation of Korea from 1905 to 1945 or for the use of Korean girls as sex slaves during the war. In Korea itself, anger at Japan still rumbles beneath the surface and a visit to a historic site is usually accompanied by a guide's angry comments about looting that occurred as far back as the 16th century.
On the other hand, some Japanese argue that Koreans and Chinese have vastly exaggerated the scale of the suffering and that in any case atrocities are simply an unfortunate part of any war.
''One cannot say that cutting off ears or noses was so atrocious by the standard of the time,'' read a plaque that stood in front of the Ear Mound in the 1960's. That was taken down, but it still angers Koreans that Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Japanese leader who organized the invasion, is treated in Japan as a national hero because of his actions within Japan.
Over the last decade Japanese school textbooks have made enormous strides in recounting the brutality of the period honestly. Fifteen years ago, not a single textbook referred to the Ear Mound, but it is common in this year's textbooks, and so eventually this bit of history may become much better known in Japan.
''Now about half of all high-school history textbooks mention the Ear Mound,'' said Shigeo Shimoyama, an official of Jikkyo, a publishing company that in the mid-1980's became the first textbook company in Japan to include a reference to the mound. Mr. Shimoyama said that at that time the Education Ministry objected to the reference as ''too vivid'' and forced the publisher to tone it down and also give Hideyoshi credit for piously dedicating the Ear Mound so as to enshrine the spirits of the dead.
''That is such a uniquely deceptive Japanese logic to say that 'we enshrined the spirits after killing these people,' '' fumed Kum Byong Dong, a lecturer at a North Korea-affiliated university in Japan and the author of a book on the Ear Mound. ''The officials at the Education Ministry think the same way as Hideyoshi's people did 400 years ago.''
Koreans react to the Ear Mound in different ways.
When Park Chung Hee was dictator of South Korea in the 1970's, some of his officials urged that the Ear Mound be leveled because it was shameful for Koreans. Other Koreans have suggested that the mound be relocated to Korea to appease the spirits of the dead. But most say that the mound should stay in Japan as a reminder of past savagery, and in any case Japan treats the Ear Mound as a national landmark and would be unwilling to return it.
The Ear Mound is not mentioned in most guidebooks, and it attracts few Japanese or foreign tourists. But children in the Hiroshima public schools, who are particularly sensitive to war because of the atomic bombing there, are regularly bused to Kyoto to see the mound and ponder the suffering that Japan has inflicted on its neighbors.
Although the Ear Mound in Kyoto is the best known, there are similar ones -- mostly much smaller -- around the country, particularly in the south. Those also date from the Korean invasion and were apparently established by feudal lords who also sent troops to Korea.
Just a few years ago, scholars learned of the ''Thousand Nose Mound'' -- which some local people had known of all along -- near Bizen in western Japan. It apparently is also made up of the noses and ears of Koreans from the invasion 400 years ago, and it was recently rebuilt and rededicated to the spirits of the dead Koreans with contributions from 600 local Japanese residents.
The money the Japanese Government allocates to maintain the Ear Mound in Kyoto is insufficient and so several Japanese and Korean volunteers cut the grass and clean up the mound as well.
''As a Japanese, I feel badly for what we did to the Korean people, and so I try to do something to make up for it,'' said Shiro Shimizu, 83, a volunteer who lives next to the Ear Mound.
''The lesson for today is that we should respect human life,'' Mr. Shimizu added. ''In times of peace, this would never have happened. So I hope we will always be able to maintain peace.''
Photo: The 400th anniversary of the Ear Mound in Kyoto, Japan, a relic of the killings of Koreans by Japanese warriors, points up tensions that still exist. Ryu Gu Che lighted incense to honor the spirits of the Korean dead. (Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times) Map of Japan showing the location of Kyoto: The 400-year old Ear Mound in Kyoto is a macabre war memorial.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 14, 1997, on page 13 of the New York edition