When A Flag Is Not A Flag

You could say that Toshihiro Ishikawa died for his country. He was the principal at Sera Senior High in Hiroshima Prefecture, a hotbed of the zealous pacifism that has gripped Japan since the end of World War II. When the local school board ordered Sera High to sing the national anthem at this year's graduation, the teachers' union objected that this would honor the imperial aggression that brought the bomb down on Hiroshima. Ishikawa held meeting after meeting to resolve the controversy--but to no avail. Distraught, the 58-year-old principal hanged himself on the eve of graduation. His note said, "I have no other choice, and I don't know anymore what's right and what's wrong."

Ishikawa's suicide inspired national headlines and a bout of soul-searching. Virtually alone among nations, Japan is still uncomfortable with its patriotic symbols. At the Olympics and other international events, Japan is represented by emblems dating as far back as the 10th century, but mainly for lack of anything more modern. At home, postwar governments have never granted official status to the rising sun flag, Hinomaru, or the medieval anthem, "Kimigayo." Only since 1989 has the Ministry of Education begun urging schools to raise the profile of Hinomaru and "Kimigayo," leaving thousands of school principals to shoulder the burden of history that crushed Ishikawa. "I feel so sorry for him," says Naonori Hamada, 59, a coffee-shop owner and graduate of Sera High. "He had to kill himself over the national anthem more than 50 years after the war."

In response to the suicide, the government said it would consider granting official status to Hinomaru and "Kimigayo." But that still puts the tough decisions in local hands. According to the Education Ministry, about 80 percent of all full-time high schools sang the anthem at graduation last year, but only 19 of the 102 Hiroshima high schools. That was the fourth lowest rate of any prefecture, and testimony to the depth of local pacifism.

In Sera, as in towns across Japan, the powerful teachers' union led the fight against reviving "Kimigayo." Sitting earlier this month in the late principal's room, where his desk was covered with white chrysanthemums and orchids, Sera High teachers criticized the archaic lyrics as out of step with a modern democracy. According to an official interpretation, the words praise the Emperor as a "lord" who should rule for thousands of years, until pebbles unite and grow into rocks.

The teachers are now calling for an open debate on the symbols of Japan. The last time the government took a poll, 84 percent approved of the rising sun as the national flag and 77 percent approved of "Kimigayo," but that was in 1974. Today, opinion seems badly splintered. The Yomiuri Shimbun recently urged the government to embrace the old flag and anthem, while another major newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, said the matter should be left to schools and students.

The problem: many young people can't relate to the solemn words and tune of "Kimigayo." Asked why he didn't sing the anthem before games, soccer superstar and teen heartthrob Hidetoshi Nakata says, "It ain't cool. It makes me feel depressed." An October survey by the Institute of the Nihongo-gaku (Japanese Language Studies) confirmed that most teens don't understand the ancient words. Many misinterpret the lyrics "by ages united to mighty rocks" as "the sound of the rocks." So now some scholars suggest a new way out. Rather than debate the old anthem, they want to write a more popular tune--one that reminds nobody of imperial Japan.