No national consensus on national symbols

by and

Staff writers

Although the Lower House approved a bill Thursday to legally recognize the Hinomaru as the national flag and “Kimigayo” as the anthem, the government’s rush to ram the bill through the chamber has highlighted the divisions, rather than solidarity, of the populace on an issue intended to symbolize their unity.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and his No. 1 aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka, have said sanctioning these symbols will help put an end to the guilt many Japanese still feel over their country’s wartime misdeeds and give them more confidence about Japan before the turn of the century.

“By legally recognizing them, I hope the Japanese people will have a sense of pride, and their love for this country will grow,” Nonaka said.

However, a recent opinion poll by the Mainichi Shimbun shows that over 50 percent of respondents either oppose the bill or feel that the Diet should take more time to debate the issue and that the government should not approve the bill during the current legislative session.

Even in Obuchi’s Liberal Democratic Party, there are varying degrees of support for legally recognizing the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo,” as evidenced at the extreme right by some legislators’ demands for a provision that would oblige people to respect the flag and anthem.

Although such a provision was not included, it indicated that for lawmakers, the issue was as much a matter of conscience as a matter of politics, and that the formation of a consensus at the public level was anywhere but near.

Throughout, the argument has raged over whether the flag and anthem, which were in use at school ceremonies and public sports events even before the war, really suit a modern-day Japan.

Much of the aversion toward the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” come from their close association with wartime militarism and the prewar emperor system.

The main battleground for the issue has been the schools.

Education Ministry guidelines call on schools to raise the flag and play the song at graduation ceremonies and sports events, but the Japan Teachers’ Union vehemently objects, saying they don’t have to follow the guidelines because neither symbol has legal status in Japan.

In February, a Hiroshima high school principal who had been ordered to ensure the anthem and flag were honored at his school’s graduation fete committed suicide after having a dispute with teachers over the issue.

Following the incident, Nonaka became a strong proponent of officially recognizing the flag and song, saying it would prevent the recurrence of similar tragedies.

“If they are legally recognized, such confusion at entrance and graduation ceremonies at schools will diminish,” agreed Setsu Kobayashi, a professor of law at Keio University.

As long as Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of thought and conscience, it is unlikely the people will be forced to sing the anthem even if it is legalized, he added.

But opponents are unconvinced, saying they believe passing the bill will irk many teachers and students and not resolve the existing conflict between the government and the union.

They also fear that passage of the bill will provide the legal grounds for forcing schools to raise the flag and sing “Kimigayo,” although the government has during Lower House debate denied such a possibility.

Of the two symbols, there is greater controversy regarding “Kimigayo” than the Hinomaru. Many people consider it an unsuitable anthem for contemporary, democratic Japan because it is broadly interpreted as praising “the reign of the Emperor.”

Yasuhiro Okudaira, a constitutional scholar, maintains the song’s lyrics run counter to the ideals of the postwar Constitution, under which the Emperor is a mere symbol of the state.

Making a song that praises the Emperor’s reign gives the monarch greater political significance, he said. “The anthem should be for and about the Japanese people. How can the Emperor be the main theme of the anthem?”

As a result of the rush to move the bill through the Lower House, deliberations apparently failed to leave the realm of bickering over the parsing of phrases, such as securing government confirmation that “Kimi” in “Kimigayo” means “Japan that holds the Emperor as the symbol of the state and the unity of the people.”

Critics say lawmakers failed to properly consider the more profound meanings of the issue, including discussion of possible alternatives that might gain more public support.

In addition, the public’s attitude toward the bill was affected by the perception of it as political gamesmanship.

Factors supporting this impression include the LDP rushing to push the bill through the legislature in the wake of the suicide, the LDP-Liberal Party alliance — coupled with New Komeito — holding a comfortable Diet majority and a relative lack of other pressing issues.

The whirlwind debate has both supporters and skeptics of the bill agreeing the quest for a greater public consensus on the symbols should not end with its passage.

Even Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Liberal Party, has expressed caution over using a law to help national symbols take root with the public before building a consensus.

“I’m not opposed to the anthem and flag bill, but I personally feel that patriotism should flow naturally from the bottom of one’s heart,” he said. “National symbols should be recognized as a result of such a public consensus.”