In the first high court ruling on a refusal to sing the anthem, Presiding Judge Shoichi Maruyama rejected the teachers’ claim that pay cuts imposed on them by the Kitakyushu city government in Fukuoka Prefecture for refusing to sing the song be nullified, although the Fukuoka District Court acknowledged the claim in its 2005 ruling.
‘‘It cannot be acknowledged that an order over the assignment (to sing the anthem) immediately translates into a negation of teachers’ views about history and world, and it therefore cannot be said that it goes against the Constitution that provides for freedom of thought and conscience,’’ the judge said.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuits are 17 elementary and junior high school teachers and a teachers’ union in the city of Kitakyushu.
Because it sings the glory of the Emperor, some view the anthem as an extension of Japan's militaristic past. Wikipedia translates the lyrics into English thusly:
May your reign
Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations,
Until the pebbles
Grow into boulders
Lush with moss
And also provides information on past controversies:
Since Oct 23, 2003, 410 teachers and school workers have been punished for refusing to stand and sing the anthem as ordered by school principals. This has made recent headlines.
Schools have seen conflict over both the anthem and the flag, as the Tokyo Board of Education requires that the anthem be sung and that the flag be flown at events at Tokyo metropolitan government schools, and that school teachers respect both (by, for example, standing for the singing of the anthem) or risk losing their jobs. Some have protested that such rules violate the Constitution of Japan, while the Board, for its part, has argued that since schools are government agencies, their employees have an obligation to teach their students how to be good Japanese citizens.
Opponents respond that as Japan is a democratic country, a national anthem praising a monarch is not appropriate and that forced participation in a ceremony involving the singing of an anthem is against the freedom of thought clause in the Constitution (Article 19). The government stated at the time of the Act of 1999 that the lyrics are meant to wish for Japan to be at peace with the emperor as a symbol of unity.
In 2006 Katsuhisa Fujita, a retired teacher in Tokyo, was threatened with imprisonment, and fined 200,000 yen (roughly 2,000 US dollars), after he was accused of disturbing a graduation ceremony at Itabashi High School by urging the attendees to remain seated during the playing of the anthem. At the time of Fujita's sentence, 345 teachers had been punished for refusing to take part in anthem related events, though Fujita is the only man to have been convicted in relation to it.
As a way to avoid that type of punishment, teachers who are opposed to the compulsory singing of the anthem have tried to expand various English-language parody lyrics across Japan and through the Internet. The parodies take the Japanese syllables and replace them with English phonetic equivalents (for example, in one of the more popular versions, "Kimi ga yo wa" becomes "Kiss me girl, your old one"), allowing those who sing the new version to remain undetected in a crowd.
Commentors on Japan's answer to Dave's have said this ruling is typical of an era of increasing nationalism. I don't have my ear to the ground enough to comment on that, but browsing some blog posts and through Wikipedia has turned up some alarming stuff. Probably the, um, best quotations come from current Prime Minister Taro Aso:
In 2001, as economics minister, he was quoted as saying he wanted to make Japan a country where "rich Jews" would like to live.
On October 15, 2005, he praised Japan for having "one culture, one civilization, one language, and one ethnic group," and stated that it was the only such country in the world. Such statements seem to be in conflict with the fact Japan has various indigenous ethnic groups spread over its northern islands. At a lecture in Nagasaki Prefecture, Aso referred to a Japanese peace initiative on the Middle East, stating, "The Japanese were trusted because they had never been involved in exploitation there, or been involved in fights or fired machine guns. Japan is doing what the Americans can't do. It would probably be no good to have blue eyes and blond hair. Luckily, we Japanese have yellow faces."
Shinzo Abe gave Taro a run for his money, though. Not to change the subject, it was interesting to learn that both the national anthem and the national flag were only officially designated in 1999.