The government has finally put the Hinomaru flag and the “Kimigayo” anthem on the statute book. This has hardly put the matter to rest, however. By rushing the flag-and-anthem bill through the Diet Monday, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party chose to ignore the feelings of a large segment of the public who don’t feel comfortable with the whole idea.
There is nothing wrong, or unusual for that matter, with giving legal recognition to a national flag or anthem by an act of Parliament. Many countries do that; some even put them in their constitution. By the same token, many countries, especially those with long histories, are equally happy with a national flag and anthem that few know at what particular point in history become the national symbols. More often than not, universal acceptance of nation al symbols — whether language, flag or anthem — is a matter of tradition and custom.
That the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” have become national symbols — and are equal in status to all national flags and anthems in the family of nations — was never in dispute. When Japan was admitted to the United Nations in 1956, it was the Hinomaru that was hoisted at the U.N. headquarters, along with the flags of all fellow U.N. members. When Japanese athletes win gold medals at the Olympics, the “Kimigayo” is played and everyone stands as a symbol of respect.
To ensure Diet passage of the controversial legislation, the Liberal Democratic Party made the bill as simple as possible: a brief, two-clause statement that says the Hinomaru is the nation’s flag and the “Kimigayo” the nation’s anthem. There is no stipulation regarding compulsory observation, nor is there provision for sanctions. With a majority of its own in the Lower House and the assured cooperation of its coalition partner, the Liberal Party, and its partner-in-waiting New Komeito in the Upper House, the LDP put the bill on a fast track at the committee stage and, as expected, saw it clear both chambers without much of a fight. As a matter of fact, the bill passed with a majority much larger than the combined number of seats held by the LDP and its two allies.
This is beside the point, however. The painful fact is that there was sizable opposition to an act that supposedly unifies the nation. As it turned out, 86 lawmakers in the 500-member Lower House and 71 in the 252-seat Upper House voted against the bill, plus some who chose to abstain. These are significant numbers, for they reflect the sentiment of a substantial segment of the population.
As past surveys have shown, few Japanese have quarrels with the sun flag, but many feel uncomfortable with the lyrics of “Kimigayo” (Your Majesty’s Reign). The song was composed when the Emperor was the absolute monarch. Many people, rightfully, feel the anthem is a paean to the Emperor, incompatible with the spirit of the postwar Constitution. Hence, some politicians have argued that the government should not have lumped the flag and the anthem into one package.
On a more politically charged level, opponents to the Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” view them as symbols of Japan’s militaristic past and the government is wrong to give legal blessing to symbols that still evoke passionate feelings among those who suffered under the boots of the Imperial Japanese Army and its political stooges. The feelings are not limited to war victims overseas. At home, pitched battles have been waged at many schools over the treatment of the flag and anthem.
As the visual and vocal symbol of nationhood, the flag and the national anthem are, no more and no less, symbols. They become symbols of peace if the nation is at peace with itself and the rest of the world. If they become symbols reminiscent of Japan’s military past, it is because we have not taken sufficient action to purge ourselves of those wartime wrongdoings. The world doesn’t see the lack of attrition in Japan over the terrible things the Japanese military once did to neighboring countries as a matter of political timidity. Rather, it is seen as the reflection of national character. If politicians in a democratic society cannot come to terms with the nation’s past, the voters have only themselves to blame.
The haste of the legislation notwithstanding, the government must keep its word and make sure that the public — and schools — can express their feelings toward the flag and the anthem as a matter of conscience. The public must make sure that the nation’s flag and anthem stand as symbols of peace and international trust. So long as the nation is at peace with itself and the rest of the world, national symbols will speak for themselves.
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