A chorus of critics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 August, 2004, 12:00am

This year, Japan is experiencing one of its hottest summers on record. Atsuko Watanabe, a veteran high-school teacher in Tokyo, felt a different kind of heat this week, however. She and 80 other teachers had to sit in a room and listen to an instructor talk about their 'delinquency'. Their offence? Refusing to stand up and sing the national anthem in front of the national flag during formal school ceremonies.

The teachers were attending the first day of the controversial 'repeat-offence prevention programme'. Altogether, 248 high-school teachers, headmasters and their deputies were summoned by Tokyo education chiefs.

'I believe in education that will prepare young Japanese to have a free will and act according to their own judgment,' said Ms Watanabe. She is against singing the national anthem in front of the flag because of their association with Japan's oppressive wartime militarism. 'It is a matter of conscience for me, and the issue is about the moral harassment of teachers,' she said.

In 1999, a bill was passed which defined the flag and anthem as national symbols, and hinted that they should be revered by the people. However, they were not forced to do so - unlike in the wartime - because of freedoms guaranteed in the constitution. Then, last October, Tokyo's education board sent out a memo saying that teachers, students and parents should stand up and sing the kimigayo (literally, 'your reign') anthem while facing the national flag at formal ceremonies. Critics believe that powerful Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara may be behind the order. He is known for his calls for greater patriotic fervour, and has significant influence over the appointment of education board members. In spring, officials visited each high school in Tokyo to check which were not following the order. Teachers who refused were put on the blacklist.

As punishment, their salaries were cut or payment was delayed. Those who still refused were sent on the special re-education programme - normally imposed on teachers blamed for sexual harassment or drunk driving. At the programme this week, the instructor only emphasised that civil servants should obey the local authority's policy, explicitly avoiding direct reference to the national anthem or flag. This is partly because the teachers have threatened to file a lawsuit, claiming that the order is unconstitutional. According to Ms Watanabe and her friends, this new trend is closely linked to calls from a re-energised conservative force for more nationalistic education and amendments to the pacifist constitution. 'None of us apologised for what we did,' she said. 'That is the least we can do to prevent Japan going in the wrong direction.'