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Some university leaders say academic freedom in Japan is under threat after education minister Hakubun Shimomura called on Tuesday for such institutions to fly the Hinomaru and sing the national anthem at entrance and graduation ceremonies.

Smaller universities fear that the government might reduce their subsidies if they fail to comply.

The Hinomaru and the “Kimigayo” were legally designated as the national flag and anthem in 1999. Whether schools should fly and sing them is a controversial issue, with some critics citing their links to past Japanese militarism.

Of the 86 national universities, 74 displayed the flag and 14 sang the anthem at graduation ceremonies in March, according to the education ministry.

Some institutions are defiant, saying they will reject Shimomura’s call.

“We don’t need to comply with the request,” said Takamitsu Sawa, the head of Shiga University. “Our responsibility to taxpayers is to contribute through education and research.”

Sawa said his university displays the national flag during ceremonies but does not sing the anthem.

“I expect the government to respect the autonomy of universities,” said Juichi Yamagawa of Kyoto University, which does not display the national flag or sing the anthem at ceremonies.

At a gathering of the heads of national universities in Tokyo on Tuesday, Shimomura said it is “up to each university’s independent decision,” but said they should “appropriately decide the handling of the national flag and the anthem.”

He later told reporters there is “nothing at all” in his request that constitutes a violation of the universities’ autonomy or academic freedom guaranteed under the Constitution. Shimomura added that he made the request because it has become customary to raise the Hinomaru and sing the “Kimigayo” at ceremonies.

Nearly all public elementary, junior and high schools follow guidelines stipulating that they should raise the national flag and have their students sing the anthem at school events.

The guidelines do not apply to universities, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a Diet committee in April that displaying the Hinomaru and singing the anthem should be “carried out correctly” at universities operated with public funds.

Shimomura told the committee at that time he would “urge universities to comply,” which is a stronger wording than that prepared by education ministry bureaucrats, who suggested that he “urge” them “to take appropriate actions.”

The Hinomaru and national anthem are more sensitive issues in Okinawa. University of the Ryukyus head Hajime Oshiro said the issue might fuel anti-government sentiment amid ongoing protests over U.S. military bases in the prefecture. The university has not displayed the Hinomaru flag or sung the anthem since it was established in 1950, when Okinawa was still under U.S. control.

“We should first focus on university reforms, and then tackle questions concerning the national flag and anthem,” he said.

But university executives are aware of the fact that Shimomura’s comment came after an education ministry panel decided on Monday to allocate larger portions of government subsidies to national universities that carried out structural reforms in line with the government policy.

“I don’t think the government will cut subsidies over the issue of the national flag and anthem,” said the head of the secretariat of one national university. “But it may serve as a reminder for smaller universities” without concrete financial foundations that compliance might be necessary to protect their funds.

For some national universities, Shimomura’s call appeared to reflect Abe’s efforts to wield influence over educational institutions. The prime minister’s remark in April has also prompted experts in constitutional law to form a group dedicated to academic freedom.

They said universities should remain independent of state authority because only that way can academia evolve, and called on the government to retract its request.

But many scholars did not join the group out of fear the opposition would affect their university’s reputation or finances.

Kenji Ishikawa, a professor at the University of Tokyo, said the Constitution guarantees academic freedom in Article 23, a response to the prewar situation in which the government oppressed universities.

“It’s unlikely the government will enforce compliance as it did in the prewar era, but we need to stay alert as it may try to use its financial influence to make universities abide by the government’s policy,” Ishikawa said. “But such tactics won’t be accepted under the current Constitution.”Some university leaders say academic freedom in Japan is under threat after education minister Hakubun Shimomura called on Tuesday for such institutions to fly the Hinomaru and sing the national anthem at entrance and graduation ceremonies.

Smaller universities fear that the government might reduce their subsidies if they fail to comply.

The Hinomaru and the “Kimigayo” were legally designated as the national flag and anthem in 1999. Whether schools should fly and sing them is a controversial issue, with some critics citing their links to past Japanese militarism.

Of the 86 national universities, 74 displayed the flag and 14 sang the anthem at graduation ceremonies in March, according to the education ministry.

Some institutions are defiant, saying they will reject Shimomura’s call.

“We don’t need to comply with the request,” said Takamitsu Sawa, the head of Shiga University. “Our responsibility to taxpayers is to contribute through education and research.”

Sawa said his university displays the national flag during ceremonies but does not sing the anthem.

“I expect the government to respect the autonomy of universities,” said Juichi Yamagawa of Kyoto University, which does not display the national flag or sing the anthem at ceremonies.

At a gathering of the heads of national universities in Tokyo on Tuesday, Shimomura said it is “up to each university’s independent decision,” but said they should “appropriately decide the handling of the national flag and the anthem.”

He later told reporters there is “nothing at all” in his request that constitutes a violation of the universities’ autonomy or academic freedom guaranteed under the Constitution. Shimomura added that he made the request because it has become customary to raise the Hinomaru and sing the “Kimigayo” at ceremonies.

Nearly all public elementary, junior and high schools follow guidelines stipulating that they should raise the national flag and have their students to