Three judges at the Tokyo District Court have begun their deliberations in a group-action case brought by more than 400 public-school teachers challenging the right of the Tokyo Metropolitan Education Board to force teachers to sing the national anthem and to stand up to show respect for the flag. With the 26-month court hearing finally over, educators, parents and pupils across the country wait in suspense for the scheduled Sept. 20 ruling that could set the future tone of education in Japan.

Respect for the anthem and flag is something that should occur spontaneously. The Kimigayo anthem and the Hinomaru flag are controversial in Japanese society because of their association with Japan’s past militarism.

Since it was issued in October 2003, the Education Board’s anthem directive has transformed entrance and graduation ceremonies from intimate school occasions for pupils, teachers and parents into rigid, formalized affairs tightly overseen by bureaucrats. Teachers — with the support of parents — wasted no time in taking the board to court in January 2004, questioning the legality of the flag-and-anthem directive under two basic laws: the Constitution, which guarantees “freedom of thought, conscience and expression,” and the Fundamental Law of Education, which protects education from “unjust control.” Without waiting for the court’s decision, however, Tokyo’s educational authorities have dismissed eight contract teachers and imposed pay cuts or suspensions on more than 200 teachers who refused to comply with its diktat.

“This is not education, but coercion — and indoctrination,” Ms. Kimiko Nezu, a 55-year-old junior high school teacher, wrote in a protest to the board. Last month, Nezu, one of the 401 plaintiffs, was given three months suspension without pay for “disobedience.” What’s more, in a knee-jerk reaction to mass non-compliance by pupils at a high school last month, the board issued another directive holding teachers responsible for ensuring that all pupils stand up and sing the anthem.

In fact, as the plaintiffs’ legal counsel says, the current litigation finds a direct parallel in 1940s wartime America, when Jehovah’s Witnesses sought a court injunction against the West Virginia Education Board, which had made it compulsory for school children to salute the American flag and pledge allegiance to it. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld First Amendment rights for teachers and pupils. In this milestone verdict, Justice Robert H. Jackson ruled: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

This verdict was delivered in an America consumed with wartime patriotism, yet in today’s peacetime Japan nationalist fervor appears to be gathering steam as the political climate continues to become conservative. Already the teaching of patriotism, respecting the Hinomaru flag and the singing of the Kimigayo anthem have crept into the national curriculum drawn up by the Education Ministry, and the board maintains that this is the “legal” basis on which the directives were issued.

However, as Mr. Rokuro Hidaka, a sociologist and former professor of Tokyo University, observes: “Since the end of the war, there has always existed in Japan an undercurrent of an inclination to return to prewar values, and their ardent proponents are now leading this country.” He says that, in reality, the 1999 statute that recognized the anthem and flag originating in the Meiji period as the modern national symbols spelled victory for those who have long wished for “state ceremonies” at school. In the meantime, teachers feel straitjacketed and their morale has sunk. Many complain that inordinate amounts of time are spent on rehearsing for ceremonies, as no slip-ups are tolerated.

If the main purpose of education is “the full development of individuality,” as stated in the Fundamental Law of Education, there can be no room for coercion. With government influence being what it is over the judicial system in Japan, few would expect an unequivocal Justice Jackson-like ruling on Sept. 20. But it is hoped that in its ruling the Tokyo District Court judges will give full consideration to the ideals of freedom of expression and individuality emphasized in the Constitution and the Fundamental Law of Education.

In any case, whatever the verdict, the losing party will likely appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. A complete defeat for the teachers at the nation’s highest court, however, would have serious implications for democracy, not only in the nation’s schools but in society as a whole.

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