Sera High School Principal Toshihiro Ishikawa spent weeks last spring trying to persuade his teachers to allow the graduation ceremony to include a controversial song: Japan's national anthem.

The teachers refused, as they have for years, saying the somber, four-line hymn is part of the nation's aggressive World War II history and inappropriate for school events.

A school official who visited Ishikawa at home the day before graduation found him distraught and exhausted. "It's no good," the principal said. "Whatever I say, [the teachers] don't listen. If I say one thing they respond with 20. . . . They said if I kept insisting on the anthem, they wouldn't even agree to have the flag."

Ishikawa was found dead less than an hour later. He had hanged himself in the shed next to his house.

The principal's suicide shocked the country and underlined the sensitivities and mixed feelings that Japanese people have toward the national anthem and flag. While most countries take pride in such patriotic emblems, Japanese have argued about them for decades because of their association with the nation's bloody wartime legacy.

The conservative ruling party seized on Ishikawa's death as an opportunity to end one part of the long-standing debate. Parliament passed a law last month designating the song "Kimigayo" as the national anthem and the famed Rising Sun flag -- a red disk on a white background -- as the country's flag. Since Japan's defeat in World War II, the two emblems lacked legal status, although they have been used regularly.

"If the question [of the anthem] is left to teachers, more tragedies like the latest one will occur," said a government spokesman.

Under the new policy, the anthem was sung for the first time at the Aug. 15 ceremony marking the end of World War II. Government ministries have been told to raise the flag when appropriate, such as on national holidays. The foreign minister for the first time stood next to the flag during a weekly media briefing.

But the government is moving cautiously, and resistance remains strong.

"Our position is unchanged," said Akira Yamaima, a member of the teachers' union in Hiroshima prefecture where Ishikawa worked. "It's a historical fact that these were used in the war and were symbols of Japanese aggression. For that the government has to apologize and say clearly those actions will never be repeated. I don't think the government has done enough."

The anthem and flag came to symbolize the worst excesses of Japanese nationalism during World War II. The Rising Sun fluttered over countless outposts of Japanese occupation throughout Asia. The anthem captured the military's fanatic devotion to the emperor.

The emblems did not disappear after the war. The flag flies in front of Japanese embassies and is hoisted at official events. The anthem is played when Japanese athletes win Olympic gold medals.

But many citizens, while proud of their country, are indifferent to these symbols. Families do not display the flag. Spectators at sumo matches, rooted in Japanese Shinto traditions, hear the anthem only on the final day of a tournament.

The government has sought for years to increase the emblems' use, particularly by schools. A series of steadily more specific guidelines have encouraged schools to use the anthem and flag in ceremonies. In pushing for the anthem to be played at his school's graduation, Ishikawa was trying to honor Ministry of Education guidelines.

The pacifist teachers' union has emphatically opposed these efforts and says compulsory singing of the anthem violates freedom of expression. Therefore, students at some schools sing the anthem, others do not.

"It was in the back of our music book, but we never practiced it," said Kayoko Yano, a student at Keio University.

Under the new policy, teachers face threats of a reprimand if they don't go along.

"I think that with this legislation a correct understanding of the national flag and national anthem will be promoted in school education," said Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi when the law passed.

Still, while the government clearly wants the flag and anthem to be more widely used and understood, it is being cautious. It insists that the new law imposes no obligation on people. The Education Ministry said it would distribute additional historical material about the emblems as teaching aids, but said its guidelines remain unchanged. The finance minister declined to display the flag during public appearances.

Public opinion polls show greater support for the flag than the anthem. The flag's design has roots in the 13th century. It became popular with sailors and was officially adopted for use on ships in 1870. (It is not to be confused with the Japanese navy flag, which has 16 red rays emanating from the red sun disk.)

The melancholy song "Kimigayo," based on a 10th-century poem, was first used as an anthem in the 1880s in honor of Emperor Meiji. It extols the reign of "His Majesty" and calls for him to "rule on." But one of the biggest changes in Japan's postwar constitution was to transfer sovereignty from the emperor to the people.

The government says that the words no longer carry their wartime meaning. "It is reasonable to interpret the anthem as a prayer for the everlasting prosperity and peace of this country with the emperor as the symbol of the state," it said.

"If the government wants people to deepen their understanding toward history, they should have had more discussion," said Eiji Oguma, a professor at Keio University and an expert on national identity. "But they wanted their idea of history to be predominant. It's difficult to assume what will happen next. In that sense the government has failed."

The Japanese action aroused some concern among other Asians, who were victims of Japanese imperialism earlier in the century. "When I see the flag or listen to the anthem, I have the impression of Japanese militarism alive in my head. This is true for many Chinese," said Zhou Weiguo, a student at Tokyo University. Asian executives polled recently said they viewed the new law as a sign of rising Japanese nationalism.

Among Japanese, there has been a slight lessening of support for the flag and anthem after the law's passage, according to the Mainichi newspaper.

A 70-year-old man wrote to the national newspaper Asahi last week: "To force teachers to have the national anthem sung . . . reminds me of the war, when orders from your superiors were sacred. My mother used to put up the Rising Sun flag. . . . But watching the government action this time, I decided that I would not put up the flag."

At Ishikawa's Sera High School, the graduation ceremony last spring was conducted without the anthem. But during exercises the next month marking the beginning of the new school year, the new principal, his deputy and some parents and students sang the anthem, while teachers sat in silence.

Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this report.

CAPTION: FROM NATIONALISM TO PARTIOTISM (This graphic was not available)