Tokyo Report

Japan: Controversy Over the National Anthem

Educators and bureaucrats take their fight over the national anthem to court.

Tokyo’s district court recently ordered a school to pay 537 million yen ($4.4 million) in compensation to a group of former high school teachers on May 25, after the school refused to rehire them for not standing and singing “Kimigayo,” the Japanese national anthem at ceremonies. The school claimed that they did not hire the group since they were past employment age.

The Japanese national anthem has been a topic of controversy and debate for years, especially between teachers and school administrators. Japanese public schools hold many ceremonies over the school year, during which they are required to raise the Hinomaru flag and sing the national anthem.

Critics say that the anthem “Kimigayo” or “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign” is designed to show submission to the emperor, “until the stones become rocks and start to grow lush green moss,” as a rough translation of the lyrics would have it. Older Japanese are particularly likely to baulk at taking part in renditions. In September 2006, Tokyo’s district court ruled against the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education over their policy of requiring schools to sing the national anthem, stating that it violated Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought. The ruling was overturned at the Tokyo High Court, which found that it did not violate the constitution. The Supreme Court then ruled the singing of the national anthem “constitutional” in 2012, dismissing two suits from 375 education professionals which sought to ban rules that made the singing mandatory.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently expressed his hopes that public universities would join in and sing the national anthem at their ceremonies as well. The education ministry is pushing this idea to university officials, although the final decision will be left up to individual universities.

However, in response to the Ministry pressure, several professors from public and private universities have come together to express concern at the government’s motives, stating that since public universities rely on government funding, the pressure on them was significant, even if subtle. “By requiring the recitation of the national anthem, this undermines the nature of academic freedom, which means also undermining the function of the university,” the professors claimed. “This would also allow governments to keep intervening in educational affairs,” added Teruyuki Hiroda, professor at Nihon University. Plans have been made to gather more support online, with a symposium slated to be held over the summer.

When Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” were legally declared the national flag and anthem, respectively, in 1999, this originally came with a pledge by then Chief Cabinet Secretary General Tsutomu Nonaka that use of the two symbols would not be enforced by the government. Then education minister Akito Arima also promised that the adoption would not change any teacher’s required duties. Clearly, the government position has since changed, and that has driven the ongoing controversy.