The view from here - Japan - Singing to a different tune proves perilous

Michael Fitzpatrick

A noted Japanese dramatist recently suggested a play about government inspectors being sent to schools to ensure that the national anthem was being sung with sufficient respect and gusto.

But Ai Nagai's proposed drama is not set in the militaristic past of her home country: it reflects what is happening right now. Japan's largest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, are regularly sending officials into schools to enforce the singing of the national anthem at graduation and entrance ceremonies. Such reps are there to ensure that teachers and pupils alike sing the plangent notes of the Kimigayo to their satisfaction. Should a teacher be found deficient in this department, they risk disciplinary action, salary cuts and even the sack.

Last year, Osaka prefecture introduced a by-law to compel teachers to stand while they sing the national anthem. In March this year, the prefecture's education board took action against 32 teachers who refused to do so.

"It was good that criminals who are intent on breaking the rules have risen to the surface," was the chilling response of newly elected Osaka governor Toru Hashimoto.

The case came after the Japanese Supreme Court dismissed lawsuits from teachers in Osaka, who said that being forced to stand for the national anthem was wrong. Similar battles have been fought in Tokyo, where teachers have been required to stand for the national anthem at graduation ceremonies since 2003. In 2009, a group of Tokyo teachers protested that this was illegal and that punishments of salary cuts and suspensions were too harsh, although their claims were rejected.

After the Second World War, the national anthem was seen by many as a muscular symbol of Japanese aggression. For some, it has now been rehabilitated, but for others the process is not complete. For its opponents, the song continues to hark back to Japan's past.

While the wrangles over the national anthem have been long-running, the most recent cases against teachers can be seen as part of wider moves to the political Right since the calamities of March 2011, when the country was hit by earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns. The nationalist mayors of Tokyo and Osaka have not only resolved to extinguish opposition to recitals of the national anthem, but, even more alarmingly for educators, they are out to break the Left-leaning teachers' unions.

For the Japanese Emperor's part, the decision to stand and sing the Kimigayo should, he says, be left to each individual. But while the current regimes rule in Tokyo and Osaka, teachers will not find it as easy as that.

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Michael Fitzpatrick

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