Lonely crusade to bring down the Rising Sun: Anger over the use of symbols from Japan's brutal imperial past has landed a supermarket owner in court. He spoke to Terry McCarthy in Okinawa

IT IS rare for an individual to take on the system in Japan. There is a saying in this conformist society that the nail that stands up will always be hammered down. Shoichi Chibana, a supermarket owner from Okinawa, is one of these rare individuals. In 1987 he burnt a Japanese Rising Sun flag to commemorate a gruesome wartime tragedy, and since then the full weight of the system has borne down on him.

This month Mr Chibana is due to appear in court for the 28th, and supposedly the last, time in a drawn-out case against him for burning the flag. It has been a traumatic time for Mr Chibana - since burning the flag he has been physically attacked, his supermarket has been set on fire and he has received death threats from right-wingers infuriated by what they saw as an insult to Japan.

Mr Chibana is a softly-spoken, good-humoured man. He works from dawn until after nightfall to keep his business going, and is far from the radical subversive the right-wingers make him out to be. But his story is a remarkable one.

First, the flag itself. The Rising Sun flag, or Hinomaru, is not officially Japan's national flag. The red disk on a white background is the flag used by the militarist government that invaded half of Asia in the Second World War, and is equivalent to the Nazi swastika.

After the war, when Japan's new constitution was drawn up, no reference was made to any national flag, nor to a national anthem. Yet by the 1960s the Rising Sun, along with the old Kimigayo national anthem, which praises the imperial system, were creeping back into use across the country. By the 1980s the Education Ministry was campaigning to have all schools fly the Rising Sun and sing the Kimigayo every day. But still the flag and the anthem have no official status.

It is this anomaly, and what some objectors in Japan see as a sneaking attempt by right-wing sympathisers to re-legitimise the symbols of Japan's wartime aggression, that set Mr Chibana on a collision course with the authorities in Okinawa.

But the roots of Mr Chibana's crusade go deeper - they lie underground in a narrow, dark cave at Chibichirigama, several miles from Mr Chibana's home in Okinawa island.

Mr Chibana leads the way into the cave holding a small candle, and stops inside the entrance to pray at a small shrine. He moves further in, up a slope and around a bend until no daylight is visible. He lowers his candle to the ground, and bones become visible - human bones.

In 1945, in this claustrophobic cave, 84 people died - 45 of them children - in an act of collective suicide as the island was overrun by US troops. The Okinawans, who are ethnically distinct from, and looked down upon by, mainland Japanese, had been told by the occupying troops of Tokyo's Imperial Army that the invading Americans would slaughter everyone they found, and that it was a great dishonour to fall into enemy hands. Confused, many Okinawans took the risk of going over to the US troops. But many did not and chose death instead.

Some 140 people had been sheltering from the bombing in Chibichirigama cave when the Americans approached. There was an anguished debate over what to do. In the end, fewer than 60 escaped, and the rest died by injecting themselves with rat poison, or by cutting their veins. Mothers killed their children by stabbing them in the neck.

In the cave, Mr Chibana pointed to a small jaw-bone that must have belonged to a very young child. 'You certainly cannot call it suicide for the children,' he said.

The story of the deaths in the cave was hushed up after the war. The locals did not like to talk about it, and it became known to Mr Chibana only in 1983 after a man who had lost 15 relatives in the cave while he was a conscript with the Japanese Army in Asia persuaded some old villagers to tell him what had happened. Mr Chibana and a few others visited the cave, and deep inside found the skeletons still lying there.

The mixture of horror and anger that Mr Chibana felt inside the cave that first time simmered inside him until 1987, when it was announced that a national athletics meeting was to be held in Okinawa, and that in the opening ceremony the controversial Rising Sun flag was to be raised. Mr Chibana went along, and after the flag had been run up, he calmly approached the platform and set the flag alight with his cigarette lighter.

'I'm against the kind of authority that can make mothers kill their children,' said Mr Chibana. 'The Rising Sun is the symbol of that kind of authority.'

He was arrested, but there was a problem of what to charge him with - precisely because the Rising Sun flag has no legal status. He was finally charged with trespassing and vandalism of a piece of state-owned material, with a value of about pounds 10.

But the trial has turned into an attempt by the authorities to justify the use of the Rising Sun flag as Japan's national symbol. Repeatedly during the trial the piece of material Mr Chibana burned has been referred to as the 'national flag'. At every sitting of the court the room is packed with right-wingers who heckle Mr Chibana. On several occasions Mr Chibana's life has been threatened in the courtroom in the judges' hearing, but the judges refuse to include these threats in the court records.

The case is nearing its end now, and Mr Chibana expects it to be finished by November or December. He does not think he will win, and does he particularly want to, on the charges specified. 'I admit I am guilty of burning the flag.' He has argued that the Okinawans, because of their unique suffering during the war, feel differently about the Rising Sun flag than do most mainland Japanese.

'I wanted to make those people who take the flag for granted to think again - about how they were used by the military government in the past and how they are being forced again to accept the Hinomaru flag and the Kimigayo anthem.'

(Photograph omitted)