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All hail the Constitution’s vacuous guarantee of freedom of thought

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Fifty years ago this month, I faced an agonizing personal dilemma. As president of the student body at my Los Angeles high school, I was obliged to lead my fellow students, teachers and staff in reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the oath of loyalty to the United States of America, at our graduation ceremony.

What’s so hard about that, you might ask.

Well, seven years before, in 1954, two little words — “under God” — had been added to the pledge, and I felt them inappropriate to repeat. In addition, and much more conspicuously, I resolved not to stand while “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem, was being played and sung.

As it turned out, I was the only person on stage who remained seated for the anthem, though I was too dazed and nervous to check if anyone in the auditorium also refused to stand. I doubt anyone noticed that I omitted those two little words. But to me, it was a major choice.

These choices are very personal — at least they should be. And yet, just this month an incident has occurred in Japan that brought it all back to me; and I could well imagine the anxiety and fear felt by the victims.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this incident signals something very pernicious. If what took place in Osaka some two weeks ago becomes a national trend, we may see the legitimization of the kind of social fascism — and I use the word carefully — that once marked Japan’s eyes-wide-open march into darkness.

On June 3, the Osaka Prefectural Assembly passed an ordinance compelling public school teachers and staff to stand when “Kimigayo,” the national anthem, is sung at school ceremonies. It also obliges them to sing the anthem. This is the first ordinance of its kind in Japan.

The ordinance, which the assembly passed by 56 votes to 48, is set to take effect at the end of this month. The majority supporting the ordinance were members of Gov. Toru Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin no Kai party, along with three other lawmakers. The minority voting against it was made up of members of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito. Gov. Hashimoto is apparently planning to strengthen the ordinance in September, with provisions to punish violators with dishonorable discharges.

“Teachers and staff who deny the national anthem and flag,” he said, “should be discharged. I will absolutely not tolerate anyone who believes they can get away with hiding behind personal status guarantees.”

Fighting words from a governor whose approval ratings, according to the results of a poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun in January, have consistently been over 80 percent since his election three years ago.

Gov. Hashimoto is, in the words of playwright Ai Nagai, “a man who wants to make us sing.” In her award-winning 1994 play, “Utawasetai Otokotachi” (“The Men Who Want to Make Us Sing”), Nagai took up the fear and nervousness that people feel when their personal beliefs will not allow them to bend to the coercion of an institution.

“When I read about (the forced singing of the anthem) in newspaper articles, it disturbed me, even though it was not something that affected me directly,” Nagai told me in 2006.

“The public authorities do not allow freedom of choice in this matter and, as a result, more than 200 teachers have been punished for not standing to attention and singing the national anthem.”

At that time, public school principals were acting on directives from their boards of education. In Osaka Prefecture, since 2002 there has been a marked decline in the number of teachers refusing to stand for the national anthem. Perhaps this is what encouraged Gov. Hashimoto to bring the weight of law to bear on the heads of dissident teachers.

Nagai’s approach to this coercion is, as you would expect from a playwright, to depict it as a personal dilemma — a dilemma very similar to that which I experienced so many years ago — due to fears of reprobation by superiors and peer disapproval.

“Can you imagine that in our municipal schools today, teachers are subjected to questioning and are seriously reprimanded by the board of education for teaching that the Japanese Constitution ensures the right of freedom of thought to all citizens?” Nagai said.

“I wanted to get people to experience the absurdity of what is going on, and ask them if they think it is natural for a teacher to be called in and reprimanded by the principal for not standing to attention — and then for the school to employ the principle of collective responsibility, with all the teachers forced to attend a corrective study group,” she explained.

Nagai’s play takes up the case of a teacher who is coerced and scorned by the principal for refusing to stand.

It is one thing that social pressure is brought to bear on people who do not conform to the demonstrative conventions of national loyalty. This is by no means solely a Japanese problem. But the game-changer consists in the legalizing of duress, as seen in the new ordinance in Osaka Prefecture.

It was only in 1999 that “Kimigayo” officially became Japan’s national anthem; and the opposition to it being used to browbeat dissenting teachers is robust and motivated.

Teachers have been outspoken in the media about the importance of freedom of choice — and yet indications from the government point to an ever more ominous curtailing of individual freedom. On June 6, for instance, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional for school principals to order teachers to stand and sing the anthem in front of the flag.

However, institutionalizing loyalty, as the Osaka Prefectural Assembly and the Supreme Court have done, raises the stakes much higher — to the point where they have been sharpened into weapons for use against dissenting teachers.

When I decided to remain seated for my country’s national anthem at my high school graduation ceremony, the only thing I stood to lose was the approbation of my superiors and peers. Teachers and staff in Japanese schools may be facing a much more threatening dilemma if this ordinance takes on a life around the country.

You cannot force a faux-patriotism on children or their educators. Compelling them to mouth platitudes of devotion to emperor and country and go through the motions of respect for the nation’s symbols will not make them into better citizens.

True love of country is nurtured in the conscience of each and every citizen. The freedom to decide when and how to exercise that love is grounded in individual choice. An oath or a song or the pattern on a piece of cloth exist to symbolize that freedom, not rote devotion to nationalistic causes.

Creating a country that people will willingly stand up for should be the rightful goal of the patriotic lawmaker, Mr. Hashimoto. Force people to stand up, and they may someday turn their back on you — and choose to follow someone much more dangerous than you.