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The government will start working to legally recognize “Kimigayo” as the national anthem and the Hinomaru as Japan’s flag, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka said Tuesday.

“The time has come to fundamentally consider whether it is good to legalize the Hinomaru (Rising Sun) as the national flag and ‘Kimigayo’ (‘His Majesty’s Reign’) as the national anthem, based on the fact that they have long since been accepted as such” in society, the top government spokesman told a regular news conference.

Nonaka said Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi instructed him to launch the legal move, and he in turn assigned Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Teijiro Furukawa as head of a task force to pursue this end.

Naoto Kan, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters after hearing Nonaka’s announcement that the DPJ, the largest opposition party, endorses the government’s planned discussions on the issue and that the party already recognizes the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo.” He said the discussion will be necessary to form a national consensus on the issue.

Takenori Kanzaki, leader of New Komeito, said at a news conference later Tuesday that his party supports legislation validating the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo.” The question of whether to recognize the two symbols has been a sensitive issue because of their close links to the prewar and wartime emperor system and the Imperial Japanese Army.

Nonaka’s announcement followed the suicide of a Hiroshima high school principal apparently due to a dispute over a prefectural education board order that his school sing “Kimigayo” during its graduation ceremony. Principal Toshihiro Ishikawa, 58, of Hiroshima Prefectural Sera Senior High School in the town of Sera, was found hanged in a storage room at his home Sunday morning. He died shortly afterward.

According to the education board, Ishikawa had been negotiating with teachers at the school since Thursday over the anthem issue. The school held its graduation ceremony Monday, but the unofficial national anthem was not sung.

The Hinomaru has been raised every year at the school’s graduation ceremony, but “Kimigayo” has not been sung, the board said. The board ordered all prefectural high school principals to ensure “Kimigayo” is sung at their graduation ceremonies.

Teachers’ unions at the schools, however, have resisted the order fiercely.

Nonaka called Ishikawa’s suicide “a very sad incident” and added that the issue of a national flag and anthem should be studied fundamentally, instead of merely requiring schools to follow the Education Ministry’s orders.

Although the ministry a decade ago ordered prefectural education boards to instruct schools to hoist the flag and sing the anthem at their ceremonies, some schools still refuse to comply.

The teachers’ unions have objected to the directive, noting the flag and song are closely linked to the wartime emperor system and militarism. Neither has been legally designated as official.

The Japanese Communist Party, which has been a staunch opponent to official recognition of the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo,” recently softened its stance.

“The problem is that they (the two symbols) have been forced on (the people) through customary use,” JCP Chairman Tetsuzo Fuwa told reporters recently. “The way to solve the issue is to pass laws on a national flag and anthem.”

Fuwa added, however, that the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” should not be forced on schools even if they receive official validation. “People do not accept the Hinomaru because of its history as an emblem of invasions by Japan through the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras,” Fuwa said. “‘Kimigayo’ does not suit the Constitution, which stipulates that sovereignty resides with the people.”

The lyrics of “Kimigayo” celebrate the reign of emperors.

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