"Kimigayo", one would have thought, is a worthy ode, but not one to stir the blood or bring tears to the eyes. But in the past few months it has become the focus of a bitter controversy that has left one man dead and another seriously wounded and has divided schoolchildren, teachers and politicians.
The trouble centres on a parliamentary Bill, due to pass into law on Monday 9 August, which will give legal status to "Kimigayo", as well as to the Hinomaru, Japan's distinctive rising sun flag.
For years, the two have served as de facto national symbols at international sporting and diplomatic events, but under the Japanese constitution they have no official status. The same, in fact, is true of the Union Jack and "God Save The Queen" - but in Japan there is a very particular reason.
In the minds of many Japanese and their Asian neighbours, the flag and the song are inseparable from images of wartime Japan, and the ultra-nationalist governments that led the country to imperial conquest in Asia during the 1930s and to catastrophic defeat in 1945. As the Mainichi newspaper said in a recent editorial: "`Kimigayo' is associated with Japan's emperor- worshipping militaristic past, and therefore should not be forced upon the people of this country."
The rising sun flag has become well-enough established internationally to have shaken off most of its nasty associations, but the same is not true of the national anthem. The problem lies with the lyrics, a 1,000- year-old tanka, or 31-syllable poem, which, literally translated, go like this: "May the reign of the emperor continue for a thousand, nay, eight thousand generations, and for the eternity that it takes for small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered with moss."
The language is archaic and obscure; few ordinary Japanese, one suspects, ever really pause to think about its meaning which, on the face of it, is no more offensive than the more gung-ho verses of "God Save The Queen". But the position of the emperor in Japan is still deeply ambiguous, and to left-leaning types he is a symbol of the country's darkest moments. "It is incompatible with the principle of the sovereignty of the people, the defining principle of the constitution," pronounced the liberal Asahi newspaper of "Kimigayo". It is as if the swastika and odes to the Third Reich were still symbols of modern Germany.
The dispute is particularly intense in Japanese schools where children are supposed to hoist the Hinomaru and sing "Kimigayo" at graduation ceremonies.
For years, teaching unions and pupils have resisted this directive, particularly in Hiroshima, a centre of pacifism and left-wing politics since the first atomic bomb was dropped there on 6 August 1945. But recently, the local education board has put pressure on schools to comply with its directive. In February, the pressure drove one headmaster to hang himself the day before the graduation ceremony.
In June, another recalcitrant school principal was stabbed by a right- wing assailant after failing to order the singing of "Kimigayo". A pair of teenage boys near Tokyo who posted a discussion of the debate on their websites received abusive e-mails, accusing them of being "communist bastards". Last month, a teacher in Tokyo was given an official warning after refusing to play the piano accompaniment to the anthem.
The debate over the Bill has caused dissent in the Japanese parliament too, splitting the leading opposition Liberal Democratic Party. With characteristic hyperbole, Japan's touchy Asian neighbour and former colony, North Korea, has accused Tokyo of "rushing headlong towards the re-invasion of Asia" in its adoption of the symbols.
Sadaaki Numata, a government spokesman in Tokyo, said: "I do not see it as a move towards an assertive kind of nationalism but as a confirmation of the status quo." Polls show that few Japanese care about the issue and that those who do support the Bill, but without much enthusiasm. So why is the Japanese government choosing to push through such a symbolic measure at this time?
The reason most often given is the need "to settle issues of the 20th century within the 20th century". To this, Morohiro Hosokawa, a former prime minister responded: "If there is anything to settle, it is the need for reflection upon the war and reconciliation with people in Asian countries, not the delivery of the rising sun and `Kimigayo' to the 21st century, as if they were nothing."Reuse content