Punk anthem sets Japan spluttering

WHEN KIYOSHIRO Imawano recorded his punk version of the Japanese national anthem, it was hardly an original gesture.

The Sex Pistols, after all, did it 22 years ago with "God Save The Queen", and Jimi Hendrix electrified audiences at Woodstock with a psychedelic version of "The Star Spangled Banner". But in Japan, iconoclasm is a risky business: as a result of his song, Mr Imawano finds himself besieged by angry patriots, without an album and, potentially, without a record company.

The anthem is question is "Kimigayo", an extremely solemn ode to the Emperor which, on the face of it, cries out for the Sid Vicious treatment. "May the reign of the Emperor continue for a thousand, nay, eight thousand generations," drone the words, a red rag to any self-respecting punk rocker.

The version recorded by Little Screaming Revue, Mr Imawano's band, is straightforward enough: the same lyrics, and the same tune, supplemented with frenzied drumming, booming bass and a Hendrix-like solo by the Revue's guitarist. As the second track on the Revue's new CD, it had been due for release in October. But the song and the album are on indefinite hold - as of last week, it was unclear if they would ever be released.

"Kimigayo" is a peculiarly controversial national anthem and this is a sensitive moment in its history. To Japanese old enough to remember, it is irrevocably associated with the period of history known in Japan as the "Dark Valley" - the 15 years leading up to Japan's surrender in August 1945. After the war, Japan had no official anthem for 54 years, although "Kimigayo" was discreetly used at events such as sporting medal ceremonies.

Just this month, after bitter debate, legislation was passed to give it official status. The Japanese opposition parties filibustered their way through a 21-hour debate in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the bill. It was this controversy which appears to have prompted Mr Imawano's record company, Polydor, to cancel his punk version. "We did not want to give the impression that we were taking sides on an issue that has so divided national opinion," a spokesman said.

But there is a more specific fear lurking in Polydor's mind: Japan's small but noisy right-wingers, who routinely torment companies and individuals judged to have slighted the Imperial institution. "It's an insult to the nation, to the Imperial Family and to the country," Hidenobu Niki, of the Japan Youth League, said of the punk rocker's work last week.

Already, Mr Imawano's agent has started getting anonymous phone calls from unappreciative nationalists. Such groups often have links with Japan's gangster syndicates, the yakuza, and although no specific threats have been made, the message is clear. As Clint Eastwood once said, in a different context: go ahead, punk, make my day.

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