Four years ago, Seigo Kawaguchi, a high school gym teacher, stayed sitting at a school graduation ceremony when the Japanese national anthem was played. He was not the only one: most other teachers did too, as did more than 150 students and their parents. Most probably sat out of boredom. But some, including Kawaguchi, felt they couldn’t ever stand for a song associated with Japan’s military past.
It was an innocuous event, but within two weeks the incident was reported in a rightwing paper and the school was bombarded with calls telling the teachers to “go back to North Korea”. Kawaguchi was given a written warning, and as a result was inadvertently pushed to the forefront of one of Japan’s longest-running and most bizarre legal rows.
Since 2003, more than 500 teachers have been disciplined for refusing to stand and sing Kimigayo – a solemn song about Japan’s emperor, which calls for his reign to last “8,000 generations… until the pebbles grow into boulders lush with moss”. Standing for it at ceremonies is a requirement in both Tokyo and Osaka.
Some teachers have just been given warnings; others effectively sacked. Appeals have reached the country’s supreme court twice, but new cases keep coming. Last Thursday Kawaguchi went to a high court in Osaka to try and get his warning overturned, saying the requirement restricts his freedom of thought. He lost. He’ll now take his challenge to the supreme court.
The issue may seem minor, but the fact that teachers are being asked to stand and sing an anthem at all is a worrying sign of Japan’s continued conservatism and desire to please nationalists. There are few other developed countries that have regulations requiring people to stand and sing, and none others that actually enforce the requirement like Japan does.
In Russia, some schools require daily singing from pupils, others don’t. Even the US – that most patriotic of countries – does not discipline people failing to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. Its “flag code” says people “should” stand when the anthem’s played, hand on heart, facing the flag. But you are free to not bother – unless of course you’re running for office.
It seems a somewhat basic requirement of any country that respects free speech to not force an anthem on someone; to realise these are historical songs that can either be taken by individuals as a vital source of inspiration or a joke. Should France force anyone from an immigrant background to sing the Marseillaise with its chorus calling on soldiers to water the fields with “impure blood”? Should the UK government be forcing schoolchildren to sing God Save the Queen?
Unfortunately, it does not seem as though Japan is going to come to that realisation anytime soon. If anything, things are only going to get worse, and largely due to the rise of Osaka’s mayor Toru Hashimoto. The young turk of Japanese politics, who leads the Japan Restoration Association party, is expected to win a large number of seats at this year’s elections, and he’s one of the strongest advocates of forcing people to stand and sing. Last autumn, he supported a bill introduced in Osaka that would allow schools to sack teachers if they refused to stand three times. He’s even endorsed headmasters watching teachers’ lips to check if they’re singing.
Hashimoto’s policies are ultimately aimed at restoring Japan to a world economic force. But culturally, how is stifling individualism and forcing people to sing a sad, one-minute-long tune going to achieve that? It’s hardly the fresh break Japan needs.
Hashimoto’s office would not comment on Kawaguchi’s case when contacted, but simply said the mayor endorses regulations “designed to encourage respect for the traditions and culture of Japan”. I thought a tradition of Japanese people was they were highly respectful of others’ views, but I guess I’m wrong.
[I originally wrote this for The Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free site, where many people left interesting and insightful comments. To see them, click here. Some people also of course left borderline insane comments, but that is the way of the Internet!]