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I tried to look up and found some interesting stuff:

  1. This book called Pacific War and the Importance of 'Magic' by Keiichiro Komatsu mentions that 事件 means an event and thus is adequately translated as incident and 事変 means emergency, something more serious and just an event. (Source: Origins of the Pacific War and the Importance of 'Magic’)
  2. I also found a comment made by an user Akira Takizawa on axis history forums: China Incident is not Jiken, but Jihen. Jihen has a meaning of the armed clash without declaring the war in Japanese. (Source: Incident as a special Japanese term for a war?)

Can anyone throw some more light on this?

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  • My sense of it is that 事件 is fairly neutral in feeling, just as event or incident are fairly neutral in English. 事変 suggests something stronger with a definite negative connotation (something happening in a war or some kind of disturbance).
    – A.Ellett
    Jul 31 at 21:13
  • I see, this makes a lot of sense actually. Thanks!
    – Lagaash
    Jul 31 at 21:20
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事変 is "insurgence", "rebellion" or "coup" that threaten a government, but it also refers to an armed conflict between nations that is "not officially an act of war". Either way, it's an outdated word mainly used to refer to certain historical events like ones listed here. In modern Japanese, other words including 紛争, クーデター and 反乱 are usually chosen.

事件 is a much smaller word meaning "(criminal) case".

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