In “Japan at War: An Oral History,” Hideo Sato recalls being forced to hoist the Hinomaru flag in tandem with the playing of the “Kimigayo” — “His Majesty’s Reign,” the Japanese national anthem — as a schoolchild in the 1940s. If the flag reached the top of the pole too early the teachers would beat him.
More than 60 years on, he’s “chagrined that they still raise the flag.”
Today, public school teachers in Tokyo are being beaten — if only metaphorically — for refusing to stand when the “Kimigayo” is played at school functions such as graduation ceremonies. Kimiko Nezu, a teacher at a Tokyo junior high school, has been suspended without pay for between one and six months every year since 2003. This year’s suspension, if it comes, will be her last.
“This time the board will dismiss me rather than suspend me until June, when I’m scheduled to retire,” she says.
For most of Nezu’s professional life, the majority of schools did not bother playing the “Kimigayo” and raising the Hinomaru. And when schools did hold these patriotic rituals, teachers who dissented by not standing at attention for them were never punished. All that changed in 2004.
“These punishments trace back to rightwing (Tokyo) Gov. Shintaro Ishihara,” says labor activist and filmmaker Akira Matsubara. “Other regions of Japan don’t punish dissenting teachers, or in the rare cases that they do, the punishments don’t become cumulatively more severe.”
For Nezu, this one simple act of dissent — refusing to stand — has destroyed her career.
“It’s not just the suspensions,” she explained. “For years I’ve been denied the opportunity to be a homeroom teacher. I am severely marginalized at the workplace. Moreover, they transfer me to a different school every year. My commuting time is up to two hours. This is all to punish me.”
And it’s not just the Tokyo school board that is punishing Nezu. A number of students — who Nezu speculates are fed propaganda by their parents — are sarcastic or even hostile. Last year it spilled into violence.
“I was pushed on the stairway by a teenage boy and dropped all my books. It was terrible.”
In addition, Nezu has to live with hate mail and phone calls. Callers and writers tell her to quit teaching. A common taunt is, “Why don’t you go live in North Korea? You’re not Japanese!”
“It can be disheartening to constantly get that sort of message,” says Nezu.
For teachers like Nezu the issue is not about disrespecting Japan or its institutions. Rather, it’s an act of defiance against what they see as authoritarian edicts which have, in Japan and elsewhere, led to militarism or war.
Of course, Nezu is not the only teacher who has suffered under strict measures taken against dissenting teachers. Some 400 teachers have refused to stand over the past few years, and while many have received reprimands, only three have been suspended for repeat offenses: Nezu, Junko Kawai, a special education teacher, and Tadashi Fushimi, a high school science teacher.
In addition to his suspensions in 2003 and 2004, Fushimi received a 10-percent pay cut. Fushimi, like Nezu, gets frequent punitive transfers. He’s now teaching at his third school in five years, which is virtually unheard of. The school’s solution to his refusal to stand has been to station him outside to “guard” the gate during ceremonies. While Fushimi admits feeling some relief because he no longer faces the possibility of spiraling penalties, he feels pained that colleagues and students inside are being forced to stand.
“As a child I was expected to stand for the ‘Kimigayo’ and Hinomaru, which I did,” he said. “At first I had no idea why. Later, when I learned history and that the ‘Kimigayo’ was glorifying the emperor, I felt betrayed. I don’t want my students to feel that same betrayal.”
Fushimi, Nezu and other teachers have also been subjected to “re-education sessions” (“saihatsu boshi kenshu”) aimed at helping them see the error of their ways. To protest this punishment, Nezu and others came to their sessions wearing clothing emblazoned with messages of dissent and reaffirmation of their opposition to compulsory expressions of patriotism. They received further penalties for wearing such clothing.
Another case involves Katsuhisa Fujita, a teacher who distributed fliers before his high school’s graduation ceremony requesting that those who felt uncomfortable with the “Kimigayo” and Hinomaru rituals show their feelings by refusing to stand. The school board took him to court for disorderly conduct for, they claimed, delaying the ceremony for five minutes. The prosecutor demanded Fujita serve an 8-month prison sentence for allegedly causing the delay. Instead, the court ordered Fujita to pay a fine of ¥200,000. He has appealed, but a final decision by the Supreme Court is not expected until 2010.
On Sept. 21, 2006, the Tokyo District Court ruled in favor of 400 teacher-litigants — up from the 150 instructors that initiated the case — in a suit against the capital’s school board. The court sided with the plaintiffs on all counts, ruling that: 1) Teachers have no obligation to stand, sing, or play piano at ceremonies; 2) punishments for teachers who do not stand are unacceptable; and 3) the Tokyo government must pay each plaintiff ¥30,000 yen in compensation. Moreover, the judge wrote, forcing teachers to stand violates Japan’s Fundamental Law of Education.
Undeterred, the Tokyo Board of Education has appealed to the Supreme Court. Again, a decision is not due until 2010. In the meantime the board continues to harass and punish educators who do not obey the dictates of bureaucrats.
More recently, in a separate case, a group of 12 contract teachers and one clerk who had refused to stand won a lawsuit against the Tokyo school board.
On Feb. 7, the Tokyo District Court awarded each litigant approximately ¥2.1 million for their inappropriate dismissal.
Despite the monetary settlement, filmmaker Matsubara considers the victory only partial.
“On the one hand the judge ruled that the principal’s decree — that teachers who refused to stand be punished — was ‘rational’; on the other hand the judge considered the school board’s punishment excessive.”
Matsubara is optimistic that the decision will bear fruit for Nezu, who faces possible dismissal, when she has her day in court. A victory could mean the return of years of lost wages for Nezu.
In 2006 Matsubara published a 90-minute DVD, “Against Coercion,” subtitled in English, documenting the teachers’ struggles. The DVD shows Nezu cheerfully enduring her suspension sitting outside the school gate on severely hot days, as well as teacher protests, tense confrontations between supporters and bureaucrats, and details of the lawsuits.
Critics see the crackdown as part of a trend toward nationalism in Japan over the past few years. In August 1999 a law instituting the Hinomaru as the official flag of Japan, and the “Kimigayo” as the national anthem, took effect. That same year, a school principal in Hiroshima, feeling caught between the demands of the school board and teachers who refused to participate in the graduation ceremony’s patriotic rituals, committed suicide.
Several events have fueled the rightwingers’ determination to instill patriotism in students and punish dissenters. For one, the media focus of recent years on Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s has stoked public anger and offered nationalists an opportunity to push for a more hardline Japan.
Tokyo Gov. Ishihara, for example, in a call for economic sanctions against North Korea in 2004, complained, “Japan’s foreign policy is immature; it is always based on humanitarianism.”
In 2003 the Japanese government supported the invasion of Iraq, provoking debate on the future of Article 9 of the Constitution, the “no war clause.”
On this issue, Ishihara said in 2004, “I am wondering who made such a nonsense Constitution. I cannot find any historical reasonability in it.”
One of only a few boxes ticked on the agenda of conservative ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who resigned in September 2007 after just a year in office — was revising Japan’s Fundamental Law of Education, which called for the “nurturing of truth, peace, and justice.” In its place, Abe and his allies passed a bill that demanded schools instill “a love of one’s country” in children. Some critics of the new law saw shades of an 1890 edict that decreed children must recite stanzas of patriotic praise before the portrait of the Emperor.
In “Against Coercion,” Hirokazu Ouchi, a professor at Matsuyama University, sees a clear link between the move toward “patriotic education” and militarism.
“The meaning of the patriotism to be incorporated is clear. It is to develop people who will voluntarily follow the government’s orders for war,” he explains. “The imposition of ‘Kimigayo’ and the Hinomaru embodies the worsened Education Law. Therefore, resistance to ‘Kimigayo’ is a struggle to refuse war efforts at school, as well as to defend the freedom of thought and conscience.”
In “Japan at War,” World War II veteran Hiroyasu Kobayashi says, “I wonder what war is. I wonder why we did it. Young kids worked so hard. Without complaint. It makes me seethe.”
Nezu and hundreds of her fellow “conscientious objectors” believe they have the answer.
For more information about the “Against Coercion” DVD, contact Akira Matsubara in English or Japanese at email@example.com. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org