Since Japan's defeat in World War II, tacit taboos have
prevented outward displays of patriotism and stifled
debate. Last year, however, the Tokyo metropolitan
government ordered teachers and students to sing the
anthem at graduation. In March, the school board
punished nearly 200 teachers for disobeying, and
Japan's Emperor said Thursday that no one should be
forced to face the flag and sing the national anthem â€”
both potent symbols of Japan's brutal 20th century
invasion of Asia.
In unusually blunt remarks Thursday at the royal
family's annual autumn garden party, Emperor Akihito
expressed his opposition to the school board action.
"It is desirable that it not be compulsory," Akihito
replied, after Tokyo school board member Kunio Yonegawa
said he was trying to make all Japanese students raise
the flag and sing the anthem.
"I thank the emperor for his wonderful words," Yonegawa
said, with a quick bow, during the exchange, which was
aired by Japanese TV networks.
It's unclear what affect the emperor's remarks will
have. But they could help defuse anger in China, South
Korea (news - web sites) and other Asian countries where
many still harbor bitter memories of Japanese invasions.
Japan's patriotism debate has centered over whether
children should be taught to be proud of their history
and culture in schools. It has grown heated following
adoption in 1999 of the red-and-white "Hinomaru" and the
"Kimigayo" as the official flag and anthem, both
longtime national symbols.
Some conservative lawmakers say Japanese children lack
national pride and that schools should teach them to
love their country. Lawmakers and politicians have
called for changes to an education system that boasts
nearly 100 percent literacy but is widely criticized as
placing too much importance on competition, conformity
and rote learning. Some schools have begun grading
Although Japan's postwar constitution grants the royal
family no official powers, the emperor has a central
role in the debate.
Akihito's father, Hirohito, was revered as a living god
until Japan's surrender led him to renounce his
divinity. He reigned when Japan invaded Asia in his
name, and his responsibility for wartime atrocities
remains a topic of historical debate.
Yasuo Moriyama, a spokesman for the Imperial Household
Agency, said the emperor was only expressing a
long-standing view that it's not a good idea to mix
patriotism and education. "The emperor just said
something that is common sense," Moriyama said.