Sit down and be counted!


One chilly Friday morning last month, high-school teacher Noriyuki Ishida had probably the most stressful experience of his 35-year career.

His paymasters, the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education, had summoned the geography instructor and four others to attend a two-hour “study course.” The official in charge kicked off with a lecture on the duties of a civil servant. Then he reeled off a list of punishments for those who stray from the straight and narrow.

That’s when Ishida, 58, felt everything got a bit strange.

The bureaucrat, he said, talked about what happens to public servants caught drunk driving, embezzling school funds or sexually harassing students — adding ominously that repeat offenders may not only be sacked, but they could lose their retirement bonus and have their pension reduced.

“It was very upsetting,” Ishida said.

Mind you, neither soft-spoken Ishida — a husband and father of two — nor any of the other teachers had been accused of any of those misdemeanors.

What they had done, last spring, was defy a Tokyo education board instruction issued in October 2003 ordering them to stand and face the national flag and sing the national anthem during school enrollment and graduation ceremonies.

As a result, Ishida, along with about 220 other Tokyo public-school teachers, was told that he would be ordered to attend a “study course.” Those who failed to comply would be “held responsible.”

However, those teachers who remained seated were protesting against what one legal expert has labeled “patriotism by force.” In addition, many experts believe the municipal order was a violation of Article 19 of the Constitution, which states: “Freedom of thought and conscience shall not be violated.”

Hence, while the somber anthem played, they ignored requests by school administrators to stand. The official reprimands and study courses that followed — the broadest punishment of teachers so far in Japan — were Tokyo’s way of letting them know that, as promised, they were being “held responsible.”

Emerging after two hours from the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute for Education of Technology, the central Tokyo building where the course was held, the five teachers were met by a small crowd of supporters as a dozen or so municipal government “minders” and three police officers kept watch.

‘Abstract prattle’

Ishida had a hard time making sense of what had just happened. He found it peculiar that during a so-called study course — which he presumed would have included a discussion of the role of patriotism in education — the official in charge refused to even talk about the flag or anthem. And no time was allotted for questions from teachers.

“This was not a lecture worthy of making me spend half my day on it and miss my classes,” complained Ishida. “All for a bunch of abstract prattle lacking context.”

From the teachers’ perspective, the class was uncomfortably reminiscent of detention without charge — something hauntingly like Franz Kafka’s surrealistic 1925 novel “The Trial,” in which the protagonist is punished for some transgression, but never told what.

Naturally, the municipal government sees things in a different light. Asked why the courses never touched upon the teachers’ unwillingness to stand for the flag, the board responded it had only needed to address the act of disobeying an order, itself — the suggestion being that the flag and the anthem were beyond the scope of the proceedings.

For decades, many in Japan’s traditionally left-leaning teaching profession have opposed, as symbols of Japan’s militarist past, the Hinomaru (Sun) flag and the anthem, known as “Kimigayo” — whose original meaning was “Respectable You” or “Your Respectable Lease of Life,” but which was later interpreted to mean “His Majesty’s Reign.”

For decades, too, those teachers have been unable to resolve their differences with right-leaning administrators, such as the Tokyo education board, who argue that the symbols promote a healthy ethnic unity — as detailed in the following statement the Tokyo board e-mailed to The Japan Times:

“So that Japanese people may develop a sense of self-awareness and foster within themselves a love of country amid expanding globalization, and so that children and older students will grow up to be respected and trusted within the international community, it is vital that we cultivate a more proper recognition of the national flag and anthem together with a respectful bearing toward the two.”

Prior to Tokyo’s 2003 order, the standoff seldom came to a head. Sometimes teachers remained seated at school ceremonies, sometimes they stood. For every one who sang, many others lip-synched, just to keep up appearances. But few teachers worried about official rebuke.

Now, years after the 1999 enactment of a law making the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” the official symbols of Japan (although the government cannot force individuals to respect them), and at a time when many sense an erosion of Japan’s postwar pacifism in favor of a stronger military, teachers around Japan report mounting pressure to follow the patriotic line in earnest — some of it from fellow teachers they fear will denounce them.

Abusing official power

Yet, many teachers in Tokyo — said to be a bastion of left-wing sentiment among teaching ranks — are digging in their heels.

On Dec. 1, seven high-school teachers sued nationalist Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and members of his administration, accusing them of abusing official power by compelling them to stand and sing during the ceremonies.

The same day, a group of more than 100 university professors, lawyers and journalists filed a similar suit. This followed several other suits against the Tokyo government earlier in 2004 — all of which are still pending.

The study courses for people who had disobeyed the diktat, particularly those in the summer, were scenes of friction too.

According to 56-year-old English teacher Toru Kondo, who underwent his course in August and has joined in three suits against the Tokyo Metropolitan government, when the teachers were ordered write down their impressions of the course on a form, they saw it as a backhanded attempt at coerced repentance. Instead, they took the opportunity to vent their spleens.

“Sure, we wrote things down,” said Kondo. “We wrote that our punishment should be withdrawn. And we all wrote that it was absurd to be told to self-reflect when the courts had not yet decided our cases.”

Scholars see the clash as a test of how Japanese civil liberties stand up to times of social change — including plans to announce a new draft Constitution this November.

Hideo Shimizu, professor emeritus of constitutional law at the prestigious Aoyama Gakuin University, agreed with the teachers’ invocation of Article 19. He said that freedom of thought and conscience guarantees a citizen’s right to refrain from political expression — in this case, the singing of the anthem.

“As the [Tokyo board’s] punishment was clearly unconstitutional, I believe a judge would have to annul it,” said Shimizu.

But what if the courts decide against the teachers, and instead side with Ishihara’s reported view that the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” present “a giant opportunity to ponder our ultimate responsibilities in a human society in which belonging to either a state or an ethnic group is inevitable”?

“People who oppose the anthem and flag will be ever more silenced. More than that, they will be forced to fall in line, to sing and stand against their own convictions,” said 82-year-old Shimizu, who can vividly recall his own days as a World War II conscript. “I think it would be one step closer to a totalitarian, fascist world.”

‘Bountiful independence’

The controversy also points to conflicting currents in Japanese education today. On the one hand, the Ministry of Education, Culture,Sports, Science and Technology has called for a shift from “uniformity and passivity to independence and creativity” as being key to Japan’s global competitiveness.

The Tokyo board of education has echoed the same theme. In a document it published last year titled “The Tokyo Municipal Plan for Educational Vision,” for example, it praised as “model people” those who “think and act for themselves, with bountiful independence and creativity.”

But geography teacher Ishida wonders whether he can both think for himself and keep his job.

“To be honest, I’m scared,” he said. “If I’m punished again, my salary drops. If it happens once again, it drops more. Any more times and I might be forced to quit.”

Another graduation ceremony is only weeks away, and as there is no sign of the Tokyo board relenting, it is make-your-mind-up time for Ishida and many fellow teachers.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, anything against the law. So even if I’m ordered again by my principal to stand, I probably won’t be able to do it,” he said. “If I do, it’ll be an admission that what I did last March was a mistake.”

Like many both within and beyond the world of education in Japan, Ishida is probably also wondering how many others will remain seated like him the next time their bosses expect them to stand for the ode to the Emperor, whose words — from a 10th-century anthology of poems — read:

Kimi ga yo wa
Chiyo ni yachiyo ni
Sazare ishi no
Iwao to nari te
Koke no musu made

This can be translated into English as:

Thousands of years of a happy lease of life (reign) be thine;
Live (Rule) on, my lord, till what are pebbles now
By age united to mighty rocks shall grow
Whose venerable sides the moss doth line.