To some they are symbols of national pride, to others icons of a militaristic past. “Kimigayo,” the national anthem, and the Hinomaru, the national flag, have been perpetual sources of controversy because of their contentious historical backgrounds. Following are some basic questions and answers about the two symbols:

What do the lyrics of “Kimigayo” mean?

“Kimigayo” (“The Emperor’s Reign”) is based on a poem written in the Heian Period (794-1185) and contains lyrics not commonly used in modern Japanese.

In Japanese, it goes: “Kimi ga yo wa, Chiyo ni yachiyo ni, Sazare ishi no Iwao to nari te, Koke no musu made.”

This can roughly be translated as: “May your life (reign) continue for thousands of years until pebbles by age become a mighty rock and moss forms on its surface.”

Who wrote the music?

John William Fenton, who in 1869 worked as an instructor for the British military band in Yokohama, wrote the music to accompany the poem, whose author is unknown. The piece was recommended by an officer in the Satsuma clan for use as the national anthem.

Why have the two symbols caused controversy?

In its ruling on a lawsuit filed by Tokyo high school teachers opposed to singing “Kimigayo” during school ceremonies, the Tokyo District Court said last September that the flag and anthem connote Japan’s militaristic past.

“It is an undeniable historical fact that the Hinomaru and ‘Kimigayo’ were the spiritual props of Imperialism and militarism from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) until the end of World War II,” presiding Judge Koichi Nanba stated in his verdict, adding that the two are not yet unbiased symbols.

When did it become an issue?

In 1989, the national curricula guidelines for schools were revised to instruct teachers to sing “Kimigayo” while facing the Hinomaru during official school ceremonies. Those who did not abide by the order were given warnings from their local education boards.

But the new guidelines caused controversy when a high school principal in Hiroshima committed suicide in 1998 after he was unable to resolve a conflict between the board of education, which ordered him to force the school to sing the song, and his teachers, who were adamantly opposed.

The debate reached a new level in 2003 when Tokyo introduced a controversial directive. What does that directive say?

The Tokyo directive added stricter punishments for refusing to abide by the orders, including salary deductions and cancellation of rehiring contracts.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has stated that the directive is based on the curricula guidelines set by the central government and aimed at nurturing students’ respect for the anthem and the flag. They claim it is the obligation of teachers to instruct students, and that performing as instructed does not implant any ideology and cannot be construed as a religious act.

How many teachers have been reprimanded?

According to the Organization of Reprimanded Teachers for the Retraction of the Unjust Punishment Involving Hinomaru & Kimigayo, 388 teachers have been reprimanded under the Tokyo directive since 2003. Most have filed lawsuits demanding that the metropolitan government retract the order.

On what grounds are people opposed to singing the song?

Many of those opposed to the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” are not against having a national anthem or a flag. What they resent is being forced to value such icons, an act that they say breaches their constitutional rights.

Hanae Kiryu, a member of the Network for Charging Enforcers of Hinomaru and Kimigayo, said that Tokyo’s directive violates Article 19 of the Constitution, which grants freedom of conscience.

“I do not know if I would be against mandatory singing if Japan had a different symbol for its flag and a different song for its anthem. But the current flag and the anthem have specific implications and there is no reason for anyone to be obliged to sing it,” he said.

What are the supporters of the flag saying?

Tadamasa Fukiura, president of Eurasia 21 Research Institute and the author of more than 30 books on flags, suggests that those who resent the design of the Hinomaru as a symbol of imperialism are merely antiestablishment people who have no regard for the origin of the design.

“When the war ended there weren’t any suggestions to change the flag of Japan. There is no other symbol that better represents the country because it has been the established design of the country,” he said.

It is reasonable for some to interpret the two as symbols of Japan’s past militarism, Fukiura admitted, but it would be wrong to link wartime issues to historic symbols that go far beyond World War II.

Where does the Emperor stand on this issue?

During an Imperial garden party in 2004, Emperor Akihito reportedly told a member of Tokyo’s board of education that it is “desirable that (teachers and students) not be forced” to hoist the Hinomaru and sing “Kimigayo.”

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