TOKYO — Soft-spoken high school teacher Hiroshi Saito says his refusal to stand and sing Japan's national anthem at this spring's graduation ceremonies was intended as "a final lesson" to his departing students, "an unspoken message that the freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed." But other eyes were on him while he sat out the song.
Saito's convictions collided with a new Tokyo school board directive requiring teachers to set an example to students by leading the singing of "Kimigayo," the anthem -- or face punishment. And the board sent officials into schools to monitor who among the teachers was singing and who was not.
By the end of June, more than 200 teachers -- 35-year-old Saito among them -- had been reprimanded for failing to join in the five-line anthem. Many saw scheduled pay raises postponed for three months.
Last week, the teachers were dealt another blow when the Tokyo High Court ruled that the city's school board had the right to discipline teachers who refused to comply with the directive.
The court was asked whether an elementary school teacher had been unfairly reprimanded in 1999 for refusing a principal's order to play "Kimigayo" on piano while her students sang along. The teacher had cited her political beliefs as the reason for her refusal, but Judge Kimio Miyazaka ruled that "freedom of thought of public school teachers could be restricted in view of their duties as public servants." The teacher, said the judge, "can't defy the principal's order to provide an accompaniment because of her ideology."
To many Japanese, this is the same sort of coerced patriotism that herded a previous generation into war and disaster.
There is some indication the public sides with the teachers on at least their right to choose whether to join in singing or stay seated. A poll done for a Tokyo newspaper and released Thursday found that more than 70% of respondents were opposed to the school board's directive. Among those younger than 30, barely 10% agreed with the board's policy.
But lawyers for the teachers acknowledge the High Court ruling may throw a legal damper on their best chance to overturn the directive. Two other lawsuits are before the courts, including a class action suit filed last month by 350 Tokyo teachers, which accuses the board of denying constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech, conscience and religion.
Meanwhile, Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education officials appear willing to broaden the battle. Yokichi Yokoyama, head of the metropolitan government's education office, announced last month that the directive would be expanded to require students as well as teachers to sing the anthem at all enrollment and graduation ceremonies.
The confrontation between teachers and administrators is in part a front in the perennial struggle over who runs the schools.
"Teachers don't like to be ordered by the authorities," said Hiroshi Oyama, lead lawyer in the class action suit, suggesting that the government is seeking docility from its employees, not rekindled patriotism.
But the battle over the national anthem's place in schools is also part of a wider struggle over just how much pride in flag and country is healthy in a land with a militaristic past.
The controversy stems from the historic shadow cast by the anthem and the rising sun flag known as the Hinomaru. "Kimigayo," its words taken from a 10th century poem wishing the emperor a long reign, became the unofficial national anthem when it was set to music in the 1880s. The timing made it a prevalent national symbol during the bloody era of Japanese imperialism.
After Japan's defeat in World War II, "Kimigayo" had a low profile in a country that shrank from overt displays of nationalism. Its resurrection began in the late 1990s, culminating in 1999 when parliament granted official status as national symbols to both the anthem and the flag.
The move came after contentious debate, during which then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi promised that patriotic displays would never be forced on anyone.
Critics still complained that restoring the flag and anthem to legitimacy showed a sinister nostalgia for a militaristic past, a resurgence of what is called "prewar mentality." But nationalists countered that "Kimigayo" was merely an expression of shared identity at a time when Japan seemed adrift and uncertain about its place in the world.
The dispute has since sharpened, notably in the capital, where school board officials operate under the political sway of intensely nationalist Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. The combative governor makes no secret of his desire to restore discipline to schools, which he believes permit too much student freedom. The anthem and flag, Ishihara recently told a conference of educators, "present us with a great opportunity to consider our ultimate responsibilities in a human society where membership of a state or a race is inevitable."