Staff writer

HIROSHIMA — Ichiro Yuasa’s daughter did not attend her high school’s graduation ceremony this March because she did not want to sing “Kimigayo.”

Unlike graduation ceremonies in the previous six years, the principal of her school had decided to raise the Hinomaru flag and have “Kimigayo” sung at this year’s ceremony, following an order from the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education.

The board’s order — conveyed in writing in December and verbally in February — called on public high schools to ensure that the de facto flag and anthem be honored at their graduation and entrance ceremonies. Principals could face disciplinary action if they disobey such an instruction.

“The principal seemed to be in agony because he had to obey the order, about which he himself had doubts,” Yuasa said.

The principal was not alone in agonizing over the education board’s instruction.

On Feb. 28, the day before his school’s graduation ceremony, Toshihiro Ishikawa, principal of Sera High School in Sera, Hiroshima Prefecture, hanged himself, apparently torn between the education board’s order and fierce opposition from teachers.

The tragedy spurred legislation to make the Hinomaru the nation’s flag and “Kimigayo” the anthem. Monday’s passage of the bill, however, is unlikely in reality to help resolve problems faced by principals and teachers, especially in Hiroshima.

The city’s experience with the atomic bomb during the war brought it to develop a different set of educational principles particularly focused on peace and human rights.

“Forcing the students would violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of thought and conscience,” said Yuasa, 49, a public servant.

“What meaning is there when a school raises the Hinomaru and has ‘Kimigayo’ sung at its ceremonies simply for the sake of formality?” he asked.

As it turned out, he said, only a few students along with the principal, vice principal and some senior guests sang “Kimigayo” at the graduation ceremony of his daughter’s school, while most students just stood in silence.

Accustomed to ceremonies without “Kimigayo,” many students were not ready to accept their school’s sudden policy change, or more accurately, an about-face by the prefectural education board.

In a statement in February 1992, the board had said the lyrics of “Kimigayo” may run counter to the ideals of the postwar Constitution, which stipulates that sovereignty rests with the people. It also said the Hinomaru’s association with the war and prewar Imperial system should be taught at school.

The statement was meant to avoid “confusion” at schools caused by the Education Ministry’s guidance in March 1989 mandating that elementary, junior high and high schools nationwide hoist the Hinomaru and have “Kimigayo” sung at entrance and graduation ceremonies.

Thus, for six years since 1992, public schools in the prefecture had settled on their own way of handling the issue at school ceremonies; setting a flag on a tripod but not singing the anthem. Today, however, school principals and teachers in Hiroshima are coming under strong pressure from conservative forces, as seen in the recent turnaround in the prefectural education board’s policy.

In October 1997, Ryozo Ishibashi, a prefectural assembly member of the Liberal Democratic Party, asked the LDP headquarter’s education committee to look into “the problems” in Hiroshima.

He said education in Hiroshima Prefecture has been biased against the Emperor, flag and anthem under the strong influence of the teachers’ union and the Buraku Liberation League, a nationwide citizens’ group for descendants of a former outcast class calling for an end to discrimination.

Subsequently, the Education Ministry investigated Hiroshima and issued orders to the prefectural board of education, telling it, among other things, to ensure that the flag and anthem be respected at ceremonies.

Ishibashi acknowledges that the legal adoption of the flag and anthem would do little to change such a situation, although it “enables us to win the argument” with those rejecting the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo.”

Indeed, a 46-year-old elementary school teacher, who declined to be named, said the legislation would simply cause further annoyance to principals because education in Hiroshima is deeply rooted in antidiscrimination principles that run counter to the lyrics of “Kimigayo.”

“Hiroshima has its own ways of conducting education,” she said.

Meanwhile, Yuasa, who has been involved in protests over a U.S. military base in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, sees enactment of the flag and anthem law as an attempt by the government and the LDP to unite the Japanese people in the event of “emergencies” referred to in revised Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines.

Likewise, a number of citizens’ groups and individuals have been voicing concerns over what they see as Japan’s inclination toward nationalism.

But Mitsuo Okamoto, a law professor at Hiroshima Shudo University, specializing in peace studies and head of a citizens’ organization that opposes obliging individuals to honor the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo,” remains optimistic about Japan’s democracy.

His organization, formed in February by 15 various citizens’ groups in the prefecture, collected about 70,000 signatures nationwide, but mostly in Hiroshima, calling for the resignation of the chief of the prefectural education board following the suicide of the Sera High School principal.

He said that unlike in the prewar period, it is no longer possible to unite the Japanese people into one now that the society allows individuals to have different values.

“I have trust in our people. I believe that democracy in Japan is not that weak.”

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