Japan cracks down on rebel pupils who refuse to sing

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The Independent Online

Tokyo's education authorities have ordered head teachers to make sure students stand to attention and sing the national anthem. The move follows a rash of protests by students and teachers since Japan made standing for the anthem compulsory in 1999 in an attempt to encourage patriotism.

The directive, which was issued by the city's board of education to heads of public primary and secondary schools, says students should show respect for the Kimigao, a hymn to the emperor that means "his majesty's reign," and for the "rising sun" flag, the hinomaru.

"Principals must thoroughly ensure all school personnel give appropriate instructions to all students based on official curriculum guidelines," a board official said earlier this week.

Hundreds of teachers across Japan have been disciplined in the past six years for refusing to obey the law by remaining seated, wearing peace ribbons or feigning sickness to avoid school ceremonies. Many teachers in this still strongly pacifist country bitterly resent being forced to stand to attention for symbols they associate with Japan's militarist past.

More than 300 public schoolteachers in the capital are suing the Tokyo educational board to reverse the directive, which they say is unconstitutional. "If Germany did this they would call it what it is: Nazism," said one of the teachers, Eishun Nagai.

Ministry of Education guidelines specify that teachers who ignore orders to stand and sing will be punished. Officials in Tokyo, which has taken the hardest line on the issue under the nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, have been dispatched to school ceremonies to ensure the flag is displayed prominently and the anthem sung with sufficient gusto.

In one case, a music teacher, Sato Miwako, sued the government after she was suspended for refusing to play the anthem on her piano. The teacher, a committed Christian, called the 1999 directive "unbelievable" and said when she heard she had to play the song "it was as if my life was being crushed". In 2004, a retired teacher, Katsuhisa Fujita, was arrested after he ignored staff protests to stop hectoring parents to stay seated for the anthem during a graduation ceremony.

Tokyo alone has handed out warnings, suspensions, pay cuts and sackings to more than 300 education staff for anthem-related offences since 2003.

The number of protesters has plummeted in the wake of the tougher measures; just 50 people were disciplined last year and the figure is expected to fall further this year.

Parents are also increasingly inclined to stand. Two pacifists, Yoshihisa and Midori Yoshida, were the only parents to stay seated during their son Yu's primary school graduation ceremony last month.

"None of the teachers and pupils, except us, refused to stand up," said Yoshihisa Midori. "But we are very satisfied and proud of my son."

The anthem and flag law was introduced by the government of Keizo Obuchi in an attempt to restore symbols tainted by their wartime past to the centre of national life. But it immediately ran into opposition from the teaching profession.

Tokyo issued the latest directive after learning that some schools were still dragging their feet.