As national symbols go, few can define the identity of a state as succinctly and evocatively as the national flag and anthem. Whether in time of war or peace, the national flag and the anthem unify the country and dignify national pursuits. These are icons that are fundamental to a nation’s standing in the community of nations and must, therefore, be regarded with utmost respect and solemnity. Laws can be made and unmade, but a nation’s flag and anthem, in their very symbolic nature, carry a weight that must not be trivialized by political caprice.

Last week, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi decided to submit legislation to the Diet that would give the Hinomaru (Sun Flag) and the “Kimigayo” song legal status as the nation’s insignia and anthem. If nothing else, this sudden move gave a strong impression of haste. After all, the current ordinary Diet has been in session since late last year and is due to adjourn today.

True, the government plans to have the Diet session extended well into August, but the extra session is intended to give the government a supplementary budget and keep the sputtering economy alive. However, the timing of legislation on basic national values such as the national flag and the national anthem should not be treated in the same breath as a quick-action budget bill.

As a matter of fact, successive conservative governments have taken an eclectic, common-sense approach when it came to the wisdom of putting the Hinomaru and the Kimigayo on the statute book. The standing argument is that both the Sun Flag and the Kimigayo, which has been traditionally translated as “His Majesty’s Reign,” have long been treated as the national flag and national anthem of Japan and no legislation is necessary to validate a generally recognized fact.

Such political pragmatism makes sense. After all, whether it is the Olympics or other major international sports events, the Hinomaru is hoisted and the Kimigayo sung whenever a Japanese athlete stands atop the winner’s podium. Instantly, national pride fills the heart of all Japanese, whatever their political belief and ideological bent.

Beyond the international sports arena, the emotional attachment to the Hinomaru and the Kimigayo is, unfortunately, more circumspect — given their association with Japan’s mili
tarist past in the first half of this century. While opinion polls have suggested that more and more Japanese have come to terms with both symbols, pitched battles are still fought in schools. The latest controversy came to a head last February over an Education Ministry “guideline” that requires all public schools to observe the flag-and-anthem routine at school entrance and commencement ceremonies.

While a ministry “guideline” has no force of law, the underlying pressure is such that a senior high school principal in Hiroshima Prefecture chose suicide instead of confronting the issue. That unfortunate incident sparked a national furor and gave the flag-and-anthem advocates the emotional breakthrough needed to seek legal recognition of the national flag and anthem. The government argues that the Hinomaru-and-Kimigayo legislation is intended to help “nurture a sense of patriotism” among the public.

The bill is simple, containing only two clauses specifying that the Hinomaru is the national flag and the Kimigayo the national anthem. Unlike the more coercive language used in other countries, there is no provision for enforcement. While all this is admittedly aimed at appeasing the skeptics, that is totally beside the point. As national symbols, the national flag and anthem must not be tainted by political expediency.

The fact is that the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been pushing the flag-and-anthem legislation, has no clear political mandate. The party was badly hobbled in the Upper House election last year. With help from the fence-sitting New Komeito — which fought that election as a nongovernment party — the LDP has managed to get sensitive and controversial bills — without substantial deliberations — through Parliament despite a tenuous hold on power.

To be sure, under a parliamentary democracy, the Diet has the final authority to decide the issues of the day, big or small, with a majority vote. Unlike a single-issue budget bill, however, the debate on the national flag and national anthem, which are symbols of the nation, must not be settled by a simple majority vote along party lines. A hasty attempt at enforcing national symbols that do not win the hearts and minds of an overwhelming majority of the people will end up creating a national symbol of permanent division.

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