Few people are probably aware that the national flags of many countries are not, strictly speaking, national flags. There is no law, for example, that designates the Union Jack as the national flag of the U.K. In most countries, the national flag and national anthem are defined, as such, by custom rather than legislation.

No government can realistically compel its citizens to “respect” its flag, though people with nationalist ideals often believe they should be compelled to observe certain rites, like standing up when the flag is raised and singing the national anthem when it’s played. Such compulsion is inherently antidemocratic and potentially tyrannical, which is why elected governments are hesitant about legally defining flags and anthems.

In 1999, the Liberal Democratic Party got the Diet to pass a law making the Hinomaru the national flag (kokki) and “Kimigayo” the national anthem (kokka) of Japan. Many citizens were concerned, given that both are holdovers from Japan’s imperialist past. The LDP said that there was nothing to fear because the new law was only a recognition of the flag and the song.

But in the years since, the Education Ministry has compelled educators throughout Japan to raise the flag and play the anthem at public-school ceremonies. Exactly how they’ve managed to do this when there is nothing on the books that forces schools to carry out these rites is a mystery; or, more exactly, it’s a mystery to people who did not grow up in Japan, where ceremonies are a daily part of life.

The main instrument of this compulsion is the Gakushu Shido Yoryo, a set of guidelines maintained by the Education Ministry for public-school administration. The GSY contains a section on school assemblies, and the ministry has revised this section to include the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo.” To compound the feeling of obligation, the ministry carries out surveys to find out which schools comply.

The ministry thus pits local boards of education, which are financially beholden to the central government, against teachers, who tend to be more liberal-minded. The result has been turmoil. As early as 1999, the principal of a high school in Hiroshima Prefecture killed himself because he was caught between a board of education that demanded the flag be observed at school events and teachers who refused to do so.

Last October, Tokyo’s Board of Education issued its own manual on how to carry out ceremonies at public schools. Since the governor of Tokyo is Shintaro Ishihara, the most famous nationalist politician in Japan, it’s assumed the board didn’t need encouragement from the central government. The directives are detailed and mandatory. Teachers and administrators are public servants, and those who do not comply will be punished with pay cuts, black marks on their job records and possible dismissal.

Some have already been warned. The March 7 issue of Sunday Mainichi reported on 10 Tokyo teachers who had received admonitions for not standing when the flag was raised during school assemblies. Other teachers interviewed by the magazine said that the 10 were clearly being made examples of prior to graduation season.

According to the manual, graduation ceremonies must be held on a raised stage and the flag must be hoisted above the stage. The anthem is to be played right at the start with everyone standing. Each teacher is assigned a seat beforehand and must sit only in that assigned seat.

According to Sunday Mainichi, when a teacher refuses to stand, the vice-principal cites the teacher out loud in front of the assembly. Representatives of the board will attend graduation ceremonies and the seating assignments make it easier for these representatives to identify teachers who don’t comply.

There are no exceptions. On Feb. 10, the board distributed memos with questions submitted by teachers about the directives. According to the manual, the music for “Kimigayo” must be played live “on a piano or other instrument” by a teacher. It cannot be reproduced by means of a tape or CD. One teacher tested the waters by asking if it were permissible for a brass band made up of students to play the music. It was permissible, said the board, as long as a teacher conducted.

The strategy is clear. Though it cannot, by law, force students to stand and sing, the board believes it can force the teachers to do so, thus intimidating the students into thinking that they must follow suit. The strategy is even more insidious than it seems. Mainichi told of one popular teacher who had received a citation for not standing. Some former students found out and said to her, “Please stand up next time so that you can keep your job.”

By using coercion to get teachers to feign respect for the flag and the anthem, the Tokyo board shows that what it wants is docility, not patriotism. They may not get it. TBS has just reported that so far this graduation season about 200 Tokyo teachers have refused to stand. On March 11, 90 percent of the students at Itabashi High School remained seated during the anthem. And on March 12, some parents who attended the graduation ceremony at Toyama High School in Shinjuku held aloft symbolic yellow cards when the announcement was made to stand. They understand that freedom of conscience is guaranteed by the Constitution, something the board seems to have forgotten.