JPRI Critique Vol. VI No. 9 (September 1999)
Three Views of the Hinomaru and Kimigayo Vote

At Last, An Official Flag and Hymn for Japan
by Patrick Smith

The Law Promotes Blind Patriotism
by Kozy K. Amemiya

Flags and Anthems as National Symbols
by Sheila K. Johnson



At Last, An Official Flag and Hymn for Japan
by Patrick Smith

After votes in both houses of the Diet this summer, Japan will soon have an official flag and a national anthem for the first time in half a century. Should the world salute? Should we stand respectfully when the Japanese sing the thousand-year-old verses of "Kimigayo?"

The hymn and the Hinomaru, a red sphere on a white field, have long been in informal use. Declaring them national symbols may seem a formality, a straightening up in the country's musty chest of heirlooms. But there is more to the Diet's decision than that.

This is an important step in Japan's post-Cold War coming of age and the long, agonizing process by which it is re-entering the global community. The currents here are tricky. To fly the rising sun flag and praise the emperor's "happy reign," as Kimigayo does, is to wade into complex matters of history, memory, responsibility, and identity. That is precisely why one should applaud.

The Japanese now have to untie knots that have entangled them for 50 years. The rest of us are challenged to distinguish between the aggressive hubris of wartime nationalists and ordinary national pride. These lines were blurred after Japan's defeat when the U.S. occupation condemned the nationalist impulse. It declared that the Japanese would henceforth be "internationalists" instead. The result has been chronic confusion among the Japanese as to who they are and their place among others. Nationalism as a legitimate point of identity has been abandoned to the conservative elite that runs Japan and the right-wing fringe that has stood partly in the shadows--now apparent, now obscured--since 1945.

The missed truth is that one cannot profess an internationalist perspective without first possessing a clear sense of identity. We all suffer the unintended consequences. Ersatz internationalism has left Japan perversely detached from the community of nations. The Japanese therefore have much to gain by reclaiming the right to a clearly articulated vision of themselves. So do the rest of us.

Some Japanese--the Communist Party, for example, and the newspaper Asahi shimbun--object to the Diet's vote. The flag is tainted, they say; the anthem is inappropriate to a nation which aspires to democracy. The same protests are raised elsewhere in Asia.

This is the very debate Japan needs. What national flag has history left unspattered? Whose anthem is entirely free of anachronisms? One hopes that the Japanese will think these questions through, judge themselves dispassionately, and move on to other questions: If not the Hinomaru, what banner shall we raise? If not Kimigayo, what do we want to sing of ourselves?

Japan has much to resolve as to its record in this century. No Diet vote on the legal status of a flag and song will wipe the slate clean. At the same time, we should no longer expect Japan to sever its connection to its past, or to repress its idea of itself as a nation, as it wrestles with the vital questions of history and responsibility. That formula produces paralysis abroad and unhealthy tendencies at home. Germany is now struggling to articulate precisely this point.

The legislators in Tokyo may be out of tune with the times. The Japanese may want to adapt the verses that have come down to them, or drop them altogether. Sorting these matters out would be a good democratic exercise. The Diet's recent vote--rammed through without debate--is an inauspicious start. In the end, though, that is merely a symptom of the larger problem. It is time for the Japanese to sing something, at home and abroad. It is time they raised a standard that truly represents them among the rest of us. In the best of outcomes, they would fight this question out as ferociously as necessary. That would produce a flag worth saluting.

PATRICK SMITH is a former correspondent in Tokyo and the author of Japan: A Reinterpretation.



The Law Promotes Blind Patriotism
by Kozy K. Amemiya

When people see a red sun on a field of white on book covers, they know the books are about Japan. Many have also heard the somber tune of Kimigayo played at the Olympics whenever a Japanese athlete won a medal. So it may come as a surprise to Americans that only this past summer the Japanese Diet passed a bill to legally recognize the flag and anthem. The vote was overwhelming: 403 to 86 in the Lower House and 166 to 71 in the Upper House. Such a wide margin does not mean, however, that the bill had overwhelming popular support. On the contrary, the general public is more widely divided than ever over this issue.

The bill was passed thanks to business-as-usual political maneuvering by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), with no mechanism, nor intention, to let the opposition voices be reflected in the bill itself or in its enforcement. To be sure, public hearings were held at various sites, including in Okinawa, where opposition is strongest. Yet, such hearings functioned more or less as window-dressing for passage of the bill.

Most Japanese accept the "Hinomaru" (literally "the circle of the sun") as their national flag. However, many of them object to legislating its formal status. Many more people find "Kimigayo" (meaning "the reign of His Majesty") problematic because of its explicit wording revering the emperor. The Hinomaru and Kimigayo have always been controversial in post-World War II Japan. For many Japanese, both are reminders of Japan's fanatical nationalism in the past. To others, they are symbols necessary to knit together Japan's past, present and future. The controversy has often erupted at school graduation ceremonies where local Boards of Education have instructed the principals to include the flag and anthem and some teachers and students have refused to comply.

Last February the conflict drove a high school principal to suicide when he was caught between the two sides of the dispute. His suicide provided the LDP with the momentum to push through the legislation. Some politicians claim the bill will help "settle the dispute" by standardizing the use of the Hinomaru and Kimigayo in all public schools in Japan. But the law seems to force the opposition to swallow the contention of its supporters.

To obscure this fact, Cabinet Secretary Nonaka and other government officials have stated that the legislation neither forces schools to use, nor imposes upon individual students, saluting the flag or singing Kimigayo. Indeed, the new law has no clause for its enforcement or punishment. And yet, Nonaka added that teachers are legally responsible as public employees for teaching children the importance of respecting the national flag and anthem. One official of the Ministry of Education has stated that teachers are not allowed to refuse "their duties" on the ground of their constitutional right to freedom of speech and conscience. Thus, the new law will actually serve to tighten control over the performance of teachers by the Ministry of Education through local Boards of Education.

De jure or de facto, Kimigayo and Hinomaru have long been forced on teachers. Teachers who in the past refused to take part in revering Kimigayo and the Hinomaru in ceremonies were routinely punished with formal reprimands from their local Boards of Education. These reprimands often involved a suspension of a pay raise, and the punishment was kept in the teacher's record. Legalization will only add more clout to the conservative government's muzzling of such opposition.

I find this intolerance of different opinions and the resort to state power to silence opposition much more dangerous and harmful than the possibility that the Japanese government will use the national flag and anthem to turn Japan further to the right. The supporters of the law argue that it is important now to infuse patriotism in young Japanese and that the national flag and anthem will help do this. But when a large portion of the general public is against the legalization, ignoring their protest against the roles that Kimigayo and the Hinomaru played in the past is to create a mechanism for forcing obedience to state power with no questions allowed. If that forges patriotism, it will be a blind one. And blind patriotism can become a dangerous monster, as Japan's past history surely demonstrates.

KOZY K. AMEMIYA is a sociologist and member of the board of advisers of JPRI. She has written extensively about birth control in Japan and about Japanese emigration to Bolivia and Brazil.



Flags and Anthems as National Symbols
by Sheila K. Johnson

I have a good deal of sympathy for the views of both Patrick Smith and Kozy Amemiya. Smith regards the "regularization" of the Hinomaru and Kimigayo as being a healthy indicator of Japan's coming to grips with its World War II past. Germany, after all, never abandoned the famous Haydn tune of its anthem, although the words no longer speak of "Deutschland über Alles." And the present-day German flag certainly does not feature a swastika.

But I also strongly identify with Amemiya, who so disliked Kimigayo and all it stood for that more than thirty years ago she refused to sing it at her own high school graduation. Having grown up in occupied Holland during World War II, I still dislike hearing the German anthem, regardless of its words.

Flags and anthems are, of course, important symbols of nationhood. Until 1974, Australians sang "God Save the Queen" as their national anthem, and there is an active group of citizens that has long been lobbying for a new national flag that would do away with the English Unionjack in the upper lefthand corner.

In China there have been several adjustments since World War II. The Communist flag is, of course, quite different from the Nationalist one. But during the Cultural Revolution, China's national anthem, for all intents and purposes, was a stirring ballad called "The East Is Red" that lavishly praised Mao Zedong.

In 1983, when my husband and I were stuck on a tour-bus in Beijing and people were passing the time singing songs, he and I launched into "Dong-fang-hong" as our contribution. The tour-guide, clearly aghast, rushed up and tried to silence us. "We don't sing that any more," he warned.

"Well, then," we said, "why don't you sing us the new Chinese national anthem."

There was a long silence, during which we wondered whether he knew it or whether a new one even existed. Then he began an equally stirring song. "What does it say?" I whispered to my husband.

"I think it's an old World War II army song about fighting the Japanese," he whispered back.

I was tempted to say "Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose." But, clearly, when it comes to anthems and national flags it is important to catch the national ethos, so that citizens will be proud to be associated with both. It would be hard to think of France without the tricolor and the Marseillaise. In Japan, the Hinomaru has a long history--some say, going back to the samurai who repelled the Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century. Kimigayo, although the words are very old, dates only from 1880 and is quite definitely associated with the Emperor. One does wonder why, with excellent composers in Japan, a contest was not held to compose a more appropriate national anthem for the present day.

SHEILA K. JOHNSON is an anthropologist and editor for JPRI.


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