Something to sing about?

Japan needs an anthem that unites the nation


Last year, I attended my daughter’s elementary school graduation and the opening ceremony of her new middle school. Sitting through the rituals gave rise to a number of musings.

At the elementary school graduation in March I sat in the front row of the parents’ section. When the singing of “Kimigayo,” Japan’s national anthem, was announced, I saw the principal, vice principal and visiting school board officials stand up. None of the parents joined them. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a few parents who were videotaping sit down, while others remained standing.

A couple of weeks later at the junior high school opening convocation, I deliberately stood at the back to witness what would happen. There were about a dozen or so parents standing; most were filming, and one or two were late arrivals. What happened when “Kimigayo” was announced? Again, the principal, vice principal and school board officials stood up. Among the ranks of some 130 parents, about six to 12 joined them.

I’ve lived in this small city 17 years, and I could recognize the majority of the upstanding parents and what they do for a living. So who stood up last year? Those whose jobs depend on standing, who think their jobs depend on standing, or who are afraid their jobs depend on standing. Not everyone, of course, but two-thirds to three-quarters of those I saw rise to their feet could not be said to have done so freely.

While the principal and vice principal might have stood willingly, could they have kept their jobs if they had not? While the visiting school board officials might have stood up willingly, had they been instructed to do so? Does the school board fear someone might report them to the prefectural board of education or the education ministry if their employees stay put? Do they fear something might happen next time they need a favor from a higher level of government? Did the parents who are public servants stand up because they feared the possible consequences if they didn’t? Did my daughter’s classmate’s father, who did not stand up six years earlier, do so this time because he had changed his mind, or because he wanted to be hired permanently at the daisan-sector (quasi-public) company where he had a new job? How does this undercurrent of coercion give the people of Japan something to sing about?

At the junior high school opening ceremony this year I learned very little. I sat in the wrong part of the hall with the wrong set of parents. Farthest away from me, 20 to 30 parents and one or two new students stood up for “Kimigayo.” I was told this would happen because at one of the feeder elementary schools the chairman of the parent-teacher association had some level of “power” over a number of parents. He had drilled into them over the last couple of years that they were not really “loyal” Japanese citizens if they did not rise for the anthem. He had told the baseball team he coached that “standing up is part of being a baseball player,” and had benched those who had not.

Is it just possible that a greater number of citizens would stand up freely if they knew that not even one of their fellow citizens would be punished for staying put or rewarded for standing?

How do those people who stood and did not stand identify with the words and music of “Kimigayo”? Is the music too slow, boring or dirge-like to have any emotional effect? Would citizens identify more strongly with a happier, bouncier tune such as the “Anpan Man March”? Would they prefer something more rousing along the lines of “La Marseillaise”? How do the words speak to their identity as Japanese citizens?

Space does not permit an analysis of other national anthems. However, it is safe to say that a large number spent decades as popular patriotic songs before being adopted by public consensus. Many nations had competing choices. Public contests have often been held when newly independent countries needed a national anthem. “God Save the Queen” (which “Kimigayo,” meaning “His Majesty’s Reign,” is supposedly modeled on) originally spoke volumes to the national identity of Britain as it celebrated governance by a Protestant constitutional monarchy instead of a feared Catholic Stuart absolute monarchy. “O Canada” was adopted by unanimous parliamentary vote. “The Star-Spangled Banner” recalls the achievement of a band of underdogs holding out against an overwhelming, terrifying naval bombardment. “La Marseillaise” similarly celebrates heroic achievement.

The melody of “Kimigayo,” on the other hand, was commissioned during the Meiji Era in response to the fact that Japan, unlike the major powers of the time, did not have a national anthem. The version used today was approved by the Imperial Household Agency in 1880, and was imposed from the top down.

Since the Second World War, the continued use of “Kimigayo” — particularly in schools — has been a source of contention due to its association with past militarism and its glorification of the Imperial system. It was only legally adopted as the national anthem of Japan in 1999. In recent years, hundreds of Tokyo teachers have been involved in legal battles over the constitutionality of a local directive requiring them to stand and sing the anthem at school events or face disciplinary measures.

In light of these issues, is it possible that ‘Kimigayo’ fails the ultimate test of what a true national anthem is? Shouldn’t a real national anthem bring people together by bridging the divides of regional dialects and identity, economic class, and political loyalties? Judging by my observations at school ceremonies, Japanese society deserves a true national anthem that will unite and not divide them — an anthem that all citizens would be not only be willing to stand up to sing, but would want to stand up to sing.

Japan could have an anthem that celebrates the beauty of its countryside, highlights the wonder of its seasons, honors the toiling of its ancestors, declares the willingness of its people to work hard, or celebrates the aspirations of its citizens. I can imagine parents, teachers and students raising the roof with a song that celebrates equality before the law and equality of opportunity, praises the rule of law and the democratic process, or speaks to people’s future hopes and dreams. Any of these themes would give all those at school graduations something to sing about.

Have I missed any nuance in the word aikoku, usually translated as “patriotism” or “love of one’s country”? If not, do the educational authorities have a fundamental misunderstanding of what patriotism really means?

If you were to mark a map of Japan to show where schools consistently perform in the bottom 25 to 50 percent nationwide in post-elementary gakuryoku test results, you would find that the vast majority of these areas lie outside the major metropolitan centers. I live in one of these “shaded areas.” Our teachers and administrators usually spend their entire careers here, but they get transferred before analyzing what causes this phenomenon, or promoted before making a concerted effort to turn around these schools. In short, they can have “successful” careers whether or not they stand up for their students and schools, provided they stand up for “Kimigayo.”

Does patriotism include a love and respect for one’s fellow citizens? How is this shown when “Kimigayo” supporters punish those who do not stand? Is it unpatriotic to insist on an anthem that so divides Japanese society? If they have never tried to participate in an effort to find an anthem that everybody wants, how can “Kimigayo” supporters claim to be patriotic?

This is a discussion Japan’s citizens should be having. I suggest that a good first step would be to hold a contest open to musicians across the country to find songs that citizens identify with. Song choices could have trial periods during which the public could gauge which really capture the popular imagination and could stand the test of time. Meanwhile, it would be extremely helpful if the public asks itself what patriotism is, why they love Japan, and how patriotic those are who want an anthem that says nothing to a great number of Japanese and offends many others. Having a reasonable national debate about these issues would do much more than “Kimigayo” to foster aikoku in Japan.

One final question: Why do I fear using my real name?

“Nicholas Drapier” teaches English, shovels snow and gardens in rural Japan. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp