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Tokyo Court Rules Against School Patriotism Order

It says a requirement that teachers face the flag and sing Japan's anthem violates rights.

September 22, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Teachers in Tokyo cannot be ordered to stand, face the flag and sing Japan's national anthem at school events, a court ruled Thursday, delivering a sharp rebuke to a nationalist campaign that aims to instill a greater sense of patriotism among Japanese youth.

The Tokyo District Court decision said compelling teachers to participate in ceremonial exercises that clash with their personal beliefs would violate Japan's constitutional guarantees of free thought and conscience.

The ruling appears to bolster those trying to resist a swelling nationalist mood among the nation's political class. And it signals that Shinzo Abe, who is expected to be become prime minister next week, may yet face tough resistance to his plans for rewriting Japan's 1947 basic education law to give it a greater emphasis on promoting patriotism.

Officials with the Tokyo Metropolitan school board, one of the most conservative in Japan, said they were likely to appeal.

Thursday's decision came in response to a class-action suit brought by 401 teachers and librarians against an October 2003 order from the board governing conduct at school entrance and graduation ceremonies. It required all public employees to stand and face the rising sun flag, known as the Hinomaru, while singing the anthem "Kimigayo," a lyrical ode to the emperor. It also obliged music teachers to play the piano while the anthem was sung.

The board has reprimanded, suspended or fired about 350 staffers for noncompliance.

But critics say the flag and anthem are not politically neutral symbols but, rather, remnants of Japan's militarist era that teachers should not be forced to honor. The plaintiffs had warned that the school board's order would revive the nationalism that stifled intellectual dissent in schools in the period before World War II.

Judge Koichi Namba agreed, ruling that the flag and anthem "were the spiritual backbone that supported imperialism and militarism until the end of World War II, and their religious or political neutrality are not recognized even today."

His ruling said that patriotic acts should be voluntary, not coerced, and that education authorities had overstepped their power. The plaintiffs were awarded $260 each in damages.

"I was afraid it would be difficult to win given the current atmosphere," said Eishun Nagai, 59, a public high school teacher who was one of the plaintiffs, referring to the conservative tide in Japanese politics. "I thought if we lost today, Japan would go back to the prewar period.

"My fellow teachers received terrible treatment. They could not speak out. But freedom of conscience was finally preserved."

Although the case revolved around the legal question of constitutional freedoms, the battle over the flag and anthem also has been a proxy fight in the struggle between teachers and governments over who controls education. Many conservatives believe that Japanese schools have slid dangerously toward allowing students too much individual freedom, and argue that schools teach a self-flagellating view of Japanese history that weakens national pride.

Tightening school discipline and stoking patriotism were cornerstones of Abe's campaign for prime minister, and he has signaled that revising the education law would be his first major order of business once in office.

Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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