In lawsuits brought by 171 current and former teachers and other staff members at public schools in Tokyo who were punished for not following orders that principals issued in connection with the Hinomaru national flag and the Kimigayo national anthem at school events, the No. 1 Petit Bench of the Supreme Court ruled Monday that “careful consideration” is needed in meting out a punishment more severe than a reprimand, such as a pay cut or suspension from work.

The ruling will put the brakes on the Tokyo metropolitan board of education’s practice of threatening with punishment teachers and other school staffers who do not follow the principals’ orders because of their views of history and the world. Some people regard the flag and the anthem as symbolizing Japan’s past militarism.

But education authorities’ tendency to use coercive measures against teachers and staffers in this kind of matter can be unwholesome and runs counter to the spirit of the Constitution, which guarantees the principle of freedom of thought and conscience.

While the Supreme Court last year found principals’ issuance of such orders constitutional, it said that such orders indirectly restrict a person’s freedom of belief and conscience.

The 171 plaintiffs were punished by the board for refusing to stand for the hoisting of Hinomaru or to sing Kimigayo or to accompany the anthem with piano at school events from 2003 to 2006. The Supreme Court on Monday said that their behavior is based on their views of history and the world and does not proactively obstruct school ceremonies, although it damages to some extent the order and atmosphere at a school event.

It then said that although a reprimand does not constitute abuse of power, imposing a pay cut or more severe punishment such as suspension from work requires “careful consideration” and the existence of “concrete situations” that justify such punishment. It added that just refusing to stand for the flag cannot be used as a reason for meting out such punishment.

It annulled the suspension from work of one teacher and a pay cut for another teacher but accepted a suspension from work of a teacher who took down the flag and reprimands for other teachers. But attention must be paid to an opinion by one justice that even a reprimand is excessive since it results in not receiving re-employment after a retirement age.

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