Emperor Akihito said Thursday that he prefers teachers and students not be forced to sing the “Kimigayo” national anthem and pay respect to the Hinomaru national at school ceremonies.

More than 200 teachers in Tokyo have been punished by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for refusing to stand and sing the anthem at graduation and enrollment ceremonies this year.

During a conversation with the Emperor at an Imperial garden party, Kunio Yonenaga, a member of the Tokyo metropolitan board of education, said, “It is my job to get all schools in Japan to hoist the national flag and sing the national anthem,” sources said.

But the Emperor responded, “It is desirable that (teachers and students) not be forced” to do so, they said.

It is rare for an emperor to comment on the flag and anthem, which are considered controversial due to their links to Japan’s militarist past.

Shingo Hamoda, vice-grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, later assured reporters at a news conference that the Emperor was not commenting on the appropriateness of any particular administrative policy.

“He was simply speaking about the general common feeling that it is desirable for the national flag and anthem to be hung and sung voluntarily,” he said.

The Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” became the official flag and anthem of Japan in 1999.

On Oct. 23, 2003, the Tokyo education board issued an order requiring all metropolitan government-run schools, including schools for the disabled, to display the Hinomaru and sing the “Kimigayo” during enrollment and graduation ceremonies.

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