Coercion can’t foster respect

A national flag and anthem are supposedly symbols of national unity. So it is with Japan’s Hinomaru flag and “Kimigayo” anthem. Yet they remain a subject of simmering controversy, particularly in the realm of public education, because of the nation’s history of militarism during and before World War II. Last month, more than 170 senior high school teachers in Tokyo were reprimanded by its board of education for refusing to sing the anthem at graduation ceremonies.

Those teachers, the board said, disobeyed its October 2003 directive spelling out proper ways to conduct graduation exercises, from how to display the flag to how to deliver diplomas. The directive, which was issued to all public high schools in the capital, says, for example, that the flag should be placed prominently at the front of a platform and that all teachers present should sing the anthem, standing from their designated seats while facing the flag.

The education board sent monitors to schools to make sure that the ceremonies are conducted according to protocol. Reportedly they kept a close watch on individual teachers, based on their seating arrangements, to find out who did not stand up and sing. It was an unusual inspection that seemed to symbolize education authorities’ over-enthusiastic efforts to ensure compliance.

It is said that local governments throughout the country have been trying to get public school teachers to show due respect for the national flag and anthem, and that Tokyo’s disciplinary action is the strongest yet taken against “rebel” teachers. But respect for the national symbols should not, and cannot, be inspired by force; it is something that comes of one’s own volition, not under pressure from above.

To be sure, the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” are formally recognized under the National Flag and National Anthem Law of 1999. But this does not mean that everyone attending a ceremony must rise and sing. It will be good if everyone pays due respect, yet given the lingering memories of Japanese militarism, many still have their doubts about the rising sun flag and the “His Majesty’s Reign” verse. Freedom of thought and conscience must be respected.

The Tokyo board of education may have a legitimate reason to punish teachers who disobey orders, but it is hard to see why it has to take such strong action against them. The teachers involved did nothing to disrupt the ceremonies; they simply did not stand up and join the singing. Punishing them for just that would be going to extremes.

The directive, which was also issued to public schools for physically disabled children, affected graduating students as well, in a way that seemed to discourage their attempts at rehabilitation. Because diplomas have to be delivered from a table on the platform, a sloped passage was provided for students in wheelchairs. This, ironically, deprived them of their last chance in school to demonstrate what progress they had made toward recovery. Until last year many had managed to walk all the way to the table because ceremonies were held on the floor.

The 1999 law does not say explicitly that people should respect the national flag and anthem. The government, in fact, has been at pains to emphasize that the law is not intended to inculcate patriotism into children’s minds. Yet, as metropolitan officials point out, the education ministry’s curriculum guidelines urge teachers to have students sing “Kimigayo” at graduation and enrollment ceremonies. Teachers who do not comply are liable to disciplinary action.

What seems at play here is a game of subtle coercion. It is likely that children will feel obliged to sing the anthem if they are repeatedly told to do so. If teachers are warned, for example, that they will be punished if their students refuse to sing the anthem, they will likely exhort their classes to follow the rules. Thus pressure on teachers will likely translate into pressure on students.

Opinion polls show that Japanese people have mixed feelings about the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo.” Many say they like both the flag and the anthem, while others say they like the flag but dislike the anthem. And those who experienced war say they cannot bring themselves to accept the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” despite Japan’s democratic transformation following the end of World War II. In short, the Japanese nation has yet to cast off the baggage of history.

The official drive for compliance, if pushed too far, could create a misguided sense of patriotism — the kind of herd mentality that once engulfed this nation. It could encourage conformity in public education at a time when creativity is badly needed. That is why a great deal of sensitivity is required in dealing with the flag and anthem controversy — and why the issue should be kept at arm’s length from public education.