When the vice principal ordered them to "sing the national anthem" at graduation earlier this month, Kappei Iwasaki and most of his fellow seniors remained stone silent. Some booed angrily.
Only a handful of the 286 graduates of Tokyo's Showa Senior High School stood to sing, as did fewer than half the parents. The teachers, too, stayed seated in silent protest.
Last August, Japan's government designated the anthem as a national symbol, along with the country's familiar red and white flag. Since then, officials have pressured public high school principals to make their students honor the anthem and flag at the graduation ceremonies held this month across the country.
Objection to the two symbols lies in their associations with war. In the run-up to World War II, the Japanese government used the same flag and anthem to rally the nation against its enemies in the name of then-Emperor Hirohito.
But the symbols themselves aren't the only reminder of Japan's years of militarism. For some students and social critics, today's promotion of the flag and anthem are reminiscent of how authorities once insisted that the nation act and think in lock step.
In this case, principals have largely obeyed the official edicts, despite the objections of their students. Last year in Tokyo, just 7.2 percent of public high school graduation ceremonies included the anthem, a one-line hymn to the emperor. This year, nearly 90 percent did.
"I had no choice," says one principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
High school students have demonstrated a good deal more pluck. "I'm proud that our school is known for its independent, freethinking spirit," said Mr. Iwasaki, chairman of a student committee that opposed the use of the flag and anthem, in a graduation address. "But I'm so sad, and it is a real shame, that the flag was placed on the stage and the anthem was blared in this hall against our will."
Japanese media report similar instances of student opposition at other graduation ceremonies.
Some experts see dangerous portents in the struggles between administrators and students. "What is happening in the schools could gradually spread across the nation," says Shuichi Kato, an independent historian who lives in Tokyo.
Mr. Kato argues that the government is strengthening its powers to control the populace. He cites a series of legal changes last year, including measures that enhance the role of Japan's military, allow police to eavesdrop electronically on suspects, and create a national identity number system.
These are signs, says Kato, that Japan may be heading toward neo-nationalism, a charge that politicians and government officials reject.
But Japan's economic relations with other Asian countries and its post-war security alliance with the US constitute a much different environment than existed in the 1930s. "Whether the government can realize [a new kind of nationalism] or not depends on public opinion," Kato says.
In 1989, Japan's Education Ministry added a stronger sense of obligation to a guideline urging schools to sing the anthem and fly the flag at convocation and graduation ceremonies. The ministry then began tracking each prefecture's rate of flag-flying and anthem-singing at school ceremonies. Using the flag has always been more popular than the anthem, which strikes many Japanese as more evocative of the militarist past.
In many prefectures, the guideline was quietly adopted. But in some places, especially where powerful, leftist teachers' unions opposed the symbols, school administrators were caught in the middle.
In February 1999, the principal of a high school near Hiroshima killed himself the day before graduation because he could not resolve the conflict between the local school board and his school's faculty.
His death gave the government an opportunity to enact a law last August, designating the flag and anthem as official symbols, though both had long been in customary use. Proponents said they wanted it to be easier for principals to teach children to respect their national symbols, as well as those of other nations.
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said at the time that "the law doesn't oblige the nation," but since late last year the Education Ministry has pushed hard in four parts of the country with low rates of anthem-singing: the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, Mie Prefecture, and Kanagawa Prefecture.
In Tokyo, where the city government is lead by an avowedly nationalistic politician, education officials last year wrote each principal urging the use of the symbols. Members of the authority later individually contacted some of the principals.
The city's school board, which operates somewhat independently of the local government, also sent every public high school principal a question-and-answer manual stressing the importance of using the symbols. Regarding principals who don't follow the guideline, the manual says, "their responsibilities can be questioned."
The Tokyo principal who spoke on condition of anonymity interprets the campaign this way: "It was an official order."
The pressure continues. On March 7, Education Minister Hirofumi Nakason said in parliament that music teachers who don't teach the anthem to elementary school students should be reprimanded under a law governing public servants.
"The government intends to create a new sense of national identity by legalizing the national symbols and pressuring the schools," warns Hidetaka Ishida, a professor of semiotics at the University of Tokyo.
But some students, both at the high school and university level, are resisting.
Schools and government institutions were asked to fly the flag in celebration of Emperor Akihito's 10th anniversary on the throne last November. At one Tokyo university, a group of students dragged down the flag raised on their campus.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society