This was printed in Tombo Times in Spring of 2004. Since they took their archives down, I'm reprinting it here.
Graduation ceremony in Japan can be a bit of an odd affair. For me, the most interesting part was the “singing” of the national anthem. I have the word singing in quotes, because at the ceremony I attended, the number of people in the room actually singing could be counted on one hand.
I’m guessing the experience was the same for most of you. Maybe some of you even thought to yourself, “What is this strange song no one is singing, and why haven’t I heard it before?” In America, the national anthem is sung loudly, and sung often. In Japan, after a year of living here, perhaps graduation was the first time you even heard the anthem.
The reason is that just like our home countries, Japan has internal culture wars of its own. And the national anthem is in the middle of these wars.
The Japanese National Anthem, or Kimigayo, was made official in 1988. The words were taken from a tenth century poem. Although there is no official English translation, one interpretation reads like this:
Ten Thousand years of happy reign be thine
Rule on, my lord, till what are pebbles now
By ages united to mighty rocks shall grow
Whose venerable sides the moss doth line.
Although there is a theory that this poem was originally meant to be a love song, most people interpret the words as referring to the Emperor. For this reason, and because the national anthem is associated with Japan’s militaristic past, many socially conscious Japanese people refuse to sing Kimigayo.
In post war Japan, Kimigayo was not legally recognized as a national symbol, but continued to be in use unofficially. The ambivalent status caused years of debate between the Left, which wanted to do away with Kimigayo completely, and the Right, which wanted Kimigayo restored to its former status. The Japanese schools became the battleground as the leftist dominated teachers union refused to sing Kimigayo, and the rightists in government frequently tried to force it into the schools.
In 1999, Toshihiro Ishikawa, high school principle in Hiroshima, committed suicide because he could not successfully mediate between the board of education, which demanded that Kimigayo be sung at graduation, and the teachers, who refused to sing it. The right wing used this opportunity to push through a bill recognizing Kimigayo as the official national anthem of Japan. Despite student protests outside, and one protester who had to be forcibly removed from the Diet gallery, the bill was passed. (The Japanese flag, also controversial, was made an official symbol at the same time).
But the law did not end the controversy, as many teachers still refused to sing Kimigayo. And resistance has not been limited to the teachers. In 2002, graduating seniors at Minami high school in Sapporo attempted to stop the singing of Kimigayo at graduation by filing pleas with a human rights attorney. The students argued that the forced singing of Kimigayo violated their freedom of thought under the Children’s Rights Act. On graduation day, Kimigayo was played anyway. Only 6 students stood up to sing. More initially stood up, then sat back down again when they realized how many of their classmates remained seated. Some students later commented that the graduation ceremony was ruined because the student body was feeling divided instead of united.
This year the controversy was renewed when the Tokyo metropolitan board of education issued an order requiring all teachers to stand and send Kimigayo. The Tokyo board of education sent officials to school ceremonies to ensure that the law was being followed.
Many students begged popular teachers to give in and sing Kimigayo to avoid being fired. But despite the students’ efforts, 200 teachers were disciplined for failing to sing the song. Of those disciplined, teachers on annual contracts were not rehired for the next year.
The debate spilled into the larger Japanese society. The conservative newspaper, “Yomiyuri Shimbun” demanded that the teachers correct their thoughtless behavior. The more liberal “Asahi Shimbun” defended the right not to sing.
The issue is far from over, and as of the writing of this article, it is still making news as officials in Tokyo are watching the entrance ceremonies very closely. The Japanese right will probably never give up Kimigayo, so this is controversy that is likely to stay in Japan for a long time. It is a battle that will be played out in high school and junior high school graduations for years to come.