When the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” were recognized in law in 1999, the government assured the people that they would not be forced to observe them, apparently in light of the long-standing controversy over the symbols.

However, it appears education authorities around the country have since then intensified pressures on public schools to hoist the national flag and have students and teachers stand and sing the national anthem at their annual entrance and graduation ceremonies.

In postwar Japan, the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” — regarded by many as symbols of Japan’s militarism before and during World War II — have long been the focus of debate.

Since 1990, the Education Ministry has urged schools to use the national flag and anthem at ceremonial events to teach children to respect them. Opponents say this infringes on students’ and teachers’ freedom of beliefs.

For the second spring since the law took effect, almost all of the nation’s elementary, junior high and high schools followed the instructions, according to a survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology released last week.

Prior to this year’s graduation and entrance season in March and April, some local boards of education for the first time formally ordered principals of public schools to hoist the flag and sing the anthem.

The Kanagawa Prefectural Board of Education gave orders to this effect in March to the principal of Ayase High School, which a year earlier did not sing “Kimigayo” at its entrance ceremony. The board said school officials and teachers are obliged as public servants to obey the orders.

According to Shinichi Shimizu, an education board official, Ayase High’s principal had been saying that he was willing to have the anthem sung at a graduation ceremony but that he may not be able to because of protests from teachers. “We issued the order as a way to support the principal,” Shimizu said.

Education authorities in Sapporo and Chiba Prefecture also gave similar orders. Some teachers who disobeyed were reprimanded.

Public schools in Kunitachi, western Tokyo, had never used the flag or anthem during ceremonies until 1999. But this spring, all of them introduced the symbols after the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Kunitachi board of education last year punished 13 teachers at an elementary school in connection with the 2000 graduation ceremony.

During that ceremony, a dispute broke out between graduating students and the principal over the hoisting of the flag.

Following the incident, the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun ran a series of articles criticizing the state of education at public schools in Kunitachi, prompting rightists to blare threatening messages against the school from loudspeaker vehicles.

In Hiroshima Prefecture, 194 public school teachers were punished by the local education board in April and 107 in May for refusing to stand as “Kimigayo” was sung at the graduation and entrance ceremonies.

It was the first time education authorities penalized teachers over the issue in Hiroshima, where antiwar education has traditionally been emphasized in light of the 1945 atomic bombing.

The prefectural board of education in December served notice to schools that participants in ceremonies must stand up to sing the anthem. “The notice can be taken as an order,” a prefectural official said.

Even politicians are not spared when they try to resist Education Ministry instructions.

Keiko Funanami, an assembly member of Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward and a member of the assembly’s committee on education, angered some of her colleagues when she refused to stand as the anthem was sung at local school ceremonies to which she was invited.

Members of the Shinagawa assembly took up the issue in March, and representatives of the local education board said they will not invite her to school ceremonies again.

Shinagawa education officials said resistance is the wrong example to set for children at school ceremonies. But Funanami argued: “This is not my personal problem. We should not let public authorities step on the freedom of individual beliefs.”

Meanwhile, some schools appear to have come up with a face-saving compromise that avoids confrontation with teachers opposed to the flag and anthem while ostensibly following ministry orders.

Some Chiba prefectural high schools played a recorded version of “Kimigayo” at the beginning of graduation and entrance ceremonies, in which a large number of students entered the venues after the anthem finished.

Municipal schools in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, took a similar tack.

An announcement before the music was played instructed that each attendee could decide whether to stand or sit, a Takarazuka city official said.

“I believe some people may feel offended by the sudden legal justification (for the Hinomaru and ‘Kimigayo’),” the official said. “I hope they will gradually be accepted.” In these cases, Takarazuka and Chiba Prefecture reported to the Education Ministry that its orders concerning the two symbols were followed.

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