The battle over whether or not to pass legislation giving the de facto national anthem “Kimigayo” and the Hinomaru flag official status has been a black-and- white, yes-or-no affair. There have been some legalistic, even occasionally Clintonesque, arguments presented in the Diet on the definition of the word “kimi,” as lawmakers attempted to skew it into a more democratic interpretation and thus lubricate its legalization.
One interpretation that has received little mention is that, in the second person, kimi could mean a lover, and since “yo” in the anthem context is often translated as “reign,” but can be understood as something like era, “ga” is a possessive, equivalent to “no.” On this interpretation, “kimi ga yo” could be understood as “You (my sweetheart) will always be.” Or, in a more contemporary idiom, “Baby, you’re forever!” One researcher told me that he found the poem in an ancient anthology of love poems, but I don’t think the Diet is talking about that.
The de facto status of “Kimigayo” was good enough for the editors of the Guinness Book of Records, who entered it as the national anthem with the world’s oldest lyrics, dating as they do to the ninth century. At the very end of the same century, Sugawara Michizane, now known as the patron spirit of education, used the term to address his teenage Emperor in a poem: “You, through coming springs and autumns, will become enriched . . . (Kimi wa, shunju ni tomitamai).” If the Diet wishes to overturn the interpretation of the nation’s symbol of education, that’s an internal matter, but I don’t think any meaning other than “Emperor” would be accepted. Those Japanese who oppose legalizing the anthem apparently feel the same way.
The words now under debate were voiced at least from the mid-1800s by the pro-Imperial activists who were pressing Japan into the Meiji Restoration. At that time, kimi definitely meant the Emperor, whom these activists supported over the opposition party of the shogunate. The rest of the lyrics are poetic expressions for perpetuity. So, it all depends on that first word: For whom exactly is perpetuity being wished?
This is where innovation comes in. Replace the argument about “Kimigayo” in its present form with a proposal to change the first word to one that genuinely represents the Japanese nation and people. A simple example would be “Nippon” or the ancient term “Yamato.” Thus, the meaning would be that Japan will continue forever. Nobody could fault that. Incidentally, a three-syllable word fits in more naturally than kimi; it would eliminate stretching ga to two syllables to fill out the beat, as is done now. Nippon is arguably three syllables in Japanese, Yamato certainly. (There are other instances in the song of musical and lyrical gears not meshing, but that’s another problem.) If anyone has a better idea for three democratic first syllables, contact the Diet.
Lyrics revised along these lines would be reminiscent of the English verse “There’ll always be an England . . .” and possibly similar expressions in other lands’ anthems, songs or slogans. In the United States, while the lyrics of the national anthem were never really changed, the government decided to avoid the bellicose second and third verses. Altering one word would be a smaller act than U.S. censorship of entire verses, albeit a bigger political problem.
As for the anthem’s wartime association, apparently “Kimigayo” was not really sung extensively during Japan’s 15-year adventure in China or during the Pacific War. It was a different matter with the flag, which was widely used.
The design itself is simple and exquisite. Flying against a clear blue sky, the white and red are so effective that a few years after the Meiji Restoration, the French government offered Japan a huge sum of money to purchase the design. The finance-strapped Meiji statesmen considered the offer, then decided that selling the design would be tantamount to selling the country and turned down the desperately needed cash.
Despite the negative images that have become attached to the flag in the modern era, the rising-sun design is actually ancient, though probably not used on flags and rendered in different color schemes. For example, in 1185 Heike warriors on their boats were countering volleys of arrows from the rival Genji forces on the shore. After the day’s battle, a Heike boat came forward with an open folding fan fixed to a vertical pole in the bow, a challenge to Genji archers to strike it down. The fan was red, the disk was gold and, the Heike believed, contained the spirit of the Emperor and the power to ward off enemy arrows. The Genji called their finest archer, Nasu-no-Yoichi, to answer the challenge. He rode his mount into the water, set a forked-head arrow in his bow, and with one shot sent the fan flying. A 19th-century poem puts it this way: “Though not autumn, a maple leaf falls against the clear sky.”
Of course, maple-leaf-red with a gold disk may not suit a national flag, but since the design predates by centuries Japan’s depredations in Asia and the Pacific, and since “sun” is part of the name of Japan itself, a new color scheme may solve the problem. Since those clear blue skies that make the present flag so striking are becoming rarer, perhaps blue could be used in the flag.
Before any of this could be carried out, of course, there would have to be a willingness to move away from confrontation and display the spirit of innovation that Japan points to with pride as the foundation of much of its present prosperity. Just as products can be adapted to suit the market, the flag and anthem can be altered to meet the requirements of Japanese society today.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.