Amnesty International Japan urged the Japanese government Wednesday not to force schools to honor the Hinomaru national flag or "Kimigayo" national anthem because it runs counter to freedom of thought, conscience and expression as guaranteed under Japan's Constitution.
The request was made after Yokichi Yokoyama, head of the Tokyo metropolitan government's education office, said Tuesday that school teachers would be required to instruct students to stand and sing the national anthem together at graduation and enrollment ceremonies.
Previously, the Tokyo government has said that it will punish school teachers who do not stand during the anthem: commentary on this decision from the Asahi Shimbun (a centrist newspaper) is available at ZNet.
The board of education of the Tokyo metropolitan government has decided to reprimand about 180 teachers at metropolitan senior high schools and schools for disabled children. The government claims the teachers disobeyed the board's orders and behaved "unprofessionally" during graduation ceremonies held in March-simply by refusing to stand while the national anthem was being sung and other actions.
A mass punishment like this is unheard of. In addition, the circumstances that led up to it were exceptional.
Here is a list of things the board required of all metropolitan schools: The national flag must be placed at the front of the auditorium stage; all teachers must stand and face the flag; all must sing the national anthem.
To check whether its rules were observed to the letter, the board sent officials to schools to monitor the graduation ceremonies. These official eyes certainly carried out their mission diligently, having identified so many "offenders."
A quick scan of the auditorium is all that is needed to see if anyone remains seated when everyone is supposed to be standing. But the Tokyo school board was thorough enough to demand every school submit a seating plan of where each teacher was to sit. This made it easy for the board's officials to identify each silent offender.
As another article on ZNet says,
"The singing of Japan's national anthem Kimigayo, an ode to the emperor, and the flying of the Hinomaru flag, both evocative of Japan's colonial era, have become flashpoints of conflict in recent years as the Japanese government presses to reincorporate these controversial emblems in a variety of public events. Nowhere has the conflict been more intense than in the public schools.
Until 1999, Japan had no official national anthem or flag - they were abolished after the defeat of the military government by the US in 1945 - although the hinomaru and kimigayo were used de facto. But it was difficult for the goverment to force anyone to sing the anthem or salute the flag while they were unofficial. Since the 1999 national flag and national anthem law was passed, that has changed, although arguably as much because of a political shift in Japan's parliamentary opposition to the right as because of the change in the law.
In August 1999 a national flag and national anthem law was enacted, and thereafter the pressure and attacks on public schools which did not fully implement this new law became fierce. The promise in the Japanese Diet not to make it compulsory was ignored, and the Japanese constitution, which ensured freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, was effectively subordinated to the 'Guiding Principles in Education.'
I think that this matters very much. Teachers are having their human rights trampled on, and children are learning some harsh lessons, as the Asahi article notes: "Here's what happened at one school this year: The pupils belted out Kimigayo more loudly than ever before, having practised it over and over because the principal had told them, "If you don't sing well, your teachers could be punished."
But there's more to it than this: reassertion of nationalism is at the top of the agenda, with Japanese troops part of the occupation of Iraq in violation of the constitution, and prime minister Koizumi constantly dropping remarks about amending the constitution. The facist element in Japanese politics is no longer confined to the marginal right groups and the governing LDP but well represented also in the main opposition party, the DPJ, following the realignment of Japanese politics during the 90s that almost wiped out the social democratic SDP.
Japanese activists are fighting back - and for the moment the front line is defended by teachers like Sato Miwako - "As far as I am concerned, on this issue alone I will die before giving in" - and students at her school:
After the ceremony, many of the graduates gathered in the schoolyard from about noon and questioned the principal. Why, they wished to know, was the Hinomaru which had not been raised heretofore raised this year. The principal replied that it was so written in the "Guiding Principles in Education," that its absence in the past was out of the ordinary, adding that there are some things that one simply cannot explain to children. The students, however, were not persuaded.