Retired officials from the Tokyo Metropolitan Office of Education urged the metropolitan board of education on Monday to stop forcing schools to sing “Kimigayo” during ceremonies and to rescind its punishment of teachers who refused to do so.

The education board issued a notice in October to the principals of metropolitan government-run schools that all teachers are to rise and sing the national anthem while facing the Hinomaru flag, which is to be displayed at the center of the stage during the ceremonies.

The notice also said that teachers failing to obey principals’ orders to stand and sing “Kimigayo” would be punished. More than 200 teachers have since been reprimanded for not following the instructions. A petition signed by 110 retired education office officials calling on the board of education to reconsider its actions was submitted to the board Monday.

The board consists of one metropolitan government official and five people who hold other occupations.

“It is a clear fact that while the academic guidelines (set by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry) stipulate that the anthem should be sung and the Hinomaru flag should be displayed at school ceremonies, these guidelines are not meant to enter into the private thoughts of students and force them to obey,” the petition says.

It says that in the course of the Diet deliberations leading up to the enactment of the law recognizing “Kimigayo” as the national anthem and the Hinomaru as the national flag, the opinion of the legislature was that the law itself should not force individuals to regard the song and the flag as national symbols.

Kazuo Sako, one of the retired officials who signed the petition, said during a news conference that the board of education’s notice runs counter to the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and conscience.

As civil servants, the teachers are obliged to respect the Constitution, Sako added.

“I myself experienced a militarist education during World War II, and I believe school education is something that must not be affected (by such things as the board’s order or its enforcement),” the 73-year-old Sako said.

While the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” officially became the national flag and anthem under a law enacted in 1999 after much debate, their status remains a sensitive issue due to their links to the Imperial system and Japan’s militarist past.

So far, two lawsuits have been filed with the Tokyo District Court by teachers, claiming that the directives of the education board are unconstitutional.