Right to a minority opinion

The Tokyo District Court last week ruled illegal the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education’s policy of forcing school teachers to sing the national anthem “Kimigayo (Your Reign)” during school ceremonies. The court ruled that the policy violates Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and conscience, and Article 10 of the Fundamental Law of Education, which prohibits subjecting education to improper control.

The ruling should serve as a reminder that people’s right to a minority opinion should be protected and as a warning against any attempt to instill love of nation in children through legal or administrative means, including a revision of the education law.

The lawsuit filed by 401 incumbent and former school teachers targeted the board of education’s Oct. 23, 2003, instruction — that teachers must stand facing the Hinomaru (Sun) national flag and sing the national anthem during school ceremonies — and its policy of punishing teachers who defy the instruction. About 320 of the plaintiffs had received such punishment.

Noting that the Hinomaru and Kimigayo served as the spiritual backbone of the emperor-centered ideology and militarism in the past and that their religious and political neutrality cannot be recognized even today, the ruling stated that the rights of people who oppose hoisting the flag and singing the anthem should be protected by the Constitution.

It made clear that teachers are not duty-bound to stand and sing the national anthem or play the piano to accompany the singing — that they have the freedom to refuse to do these things. On this basis, it recognized that the board of education’s instruction caused mental distress to plaintiffs and ordered the board to pay 30,000 yen in damages to each plaintiff.

The main purpose of the lawsuit was to have the court forestall future moves to punish defiant teachers. The court ordered the board not to go after such teachers, saying the imposition of punishment would constitute abuse of power.

Although the board may regard the ruling as one-sided, the ruling also says that actively obstructing the hoisting of the flag or the singing of the anthem, or inciting students to refuse to sing the anthem, cannot be condoned. The board should ponder the gist of the court’s opinion: The national anthem and flag deserve respect, but that respect should not be forced.