Tokyo Teacher Is Punished for Pacifist Stance

A Japanese national flag flutters in the wind at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's fallen warriors, including convicted World War II criminals.
A Japanese national flag flutters in the wind at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's fallen warriors, including convicted World War II criminals. (By Kimimasa Mayama -- Reuters)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

TOKYO -- When the national anthem started playing during a ceremony this year at Tachikawa Daini Junior High School, Kimiko Nezu, a soft-spoken but resolute home economics teacher, refused to stand and kept her mouth shut while others sang around her.

Nezu, a self-described pacifist, said she has done the same thing ever since the parliament designated the World War II hymn "Kimigayo" as the national anthem in 1999. She said she opposes the song because it was the same one sung as the Imperial Army set forth from Japan calling for an "eternal reign" of the emperor.

Previously, her protest brought nothing more than harsh stares from some students and parents. But the Tokyo school board issued an order in October 2003 that the anthem must be respected. Since then, Nezu, 54, has been punished by frequent transfers from one school to another and with temporary salary cuts. And in May, shortly after the incident at Tachikawa, she was suspended for a month. Officials warned that another offense could lead to her dismissal after 34 years of teaching.

The school board reaction was part of an effort by Tokyo and other school districts to enforce a new sense of pride in being Japanese. The measures were strongly backed by Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo and an outspoken nationalist, as a way to strengthen classroom patriotism.

The school board's mandatory rule has had a visible effect. At graduation ceremonies in 2004, 198 teachers refused to stand. After a series of fines and disciplinary actions, Nezu and nine other teachers were the only protesters this year.

"They are trying to weed us out of society," Nezu said. "The pacifists, the people who oppose nationalism in Japan. We are gradually being silenced."

The school board action is at the center of criticism throughout East Asia about rising Japanese nationalism. But it is also part of an ideological battle over the role of patriotism in Japan, where people are especially concerned about how the young will view their country.

"It is time our children learned to be proud of Japan," said Hitomi Nakayama, 48, a council member in Tokyo's Tachikawa City district. Nakayama, whose son has just graduated from the junior high school, has called for an investigation of Nezu's teaching practices.

"There is nothing wrong with paying respect to our flag and our anthem or in taking pride in our nation and heritage," Nakayma said. "Most of the world enjoys that right. Why shouldn't we?"

Displays of overt patriotism were controversial in Japan in the decades after World War II. But public discourse has been changing. When the parliament adopted the "Kimigayo" hymn, it also declared the traditional Japanese sun flag, a red disk in a field of white, as the official flag. Until then, the country did not have a legally recognized national flag or anthem.

As Japan has observed the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific this month, nationalist political leaders have gained prominence advocating a stronger role for Japan in the world. In the aftermath of Japan's economic recession in the 1990s, there is a growing popular notion that the country deserves clout commensurate with its position as the world's second-largest economy.

Citing the threat of international terrorism and concerns that North Korea may have nuclear weapons, members of the governing Liberal Democratic Party say part of updating the country's international profile involves military preparedness. They advocate a change in Japan's constitution, which was drafted by the United States after World War II and removed Japan's right to maintain a military or wage war. The change would allow the country to define its Self-Defense Forces as Japan's armed forces.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company