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Saturday, Feb. 10, 2007

Metro teachers sue over punishments

173 hit for snubbing 'Kimigayo'

Staff writer

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government was slapped with a lawsuit Friday by 173 high school teachers who were punished for refusing to sing the national anthem at school ceremonies and claim they were treated unjustly under a directive that violates their freedom of thought.

The plaintiffs, the largest group ever involved in a lawsuit over the "Kimigayo" national anthem and Hinomaru national flag, are present and former teachers at metropolitan high schools and schools for the disabled. They demanded the metro government pay a combined 95.15 million yen in compensation and rescind penalties.

The suit contests punishments doled out based on a metro directive that made singing of the anthem at official school events obligatory. All of the plaintiffs Friday were penalized in 2004 for refusing to stand and sing "Kimigayo" or play the piano accompaniment in graduation or matriculation ceremonies.

The penalties meted out included pay cuts and official warnings. At a news conference Friday, the plaintiffs called the directive unjust and "a harassment of teachers."

Last September, the Tokyo District Court ruled in a separate suit that the directive is unconstitutional. The metro government is appealing the case.

Retired high school teacher Naoyuki Hoshino claimed that Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara was "basically trying to force his fixation on every teacher and student" with the directive. The 62-year-old was punished for not abiding by orders at a graduation ceremony in 2004.

"We request that the metropolitan government refrain from threatening teachers with punishment," said Toru Kondo, 58, an English teacher at Kasai Minami High School.

Kondo was handed an official warning for not standing during the playing of "Kimigayo" at a graduation ceremony at Shinozaki High School in 2004.

Although standing and singing "Kimigayo" while facing the Hinomaru was obligatory, failure to abide by the rule was not punishable until the metropolitan government issued its directive in October 2003.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs claimed the impact of the suit reached far beyond school grounds and was shaping up to be "a battle to save the spiritual freedom of the Japanese people."

The focus of the trial will be on whether the court sees the directive as a violation of the teachers' right to freedom of thought and void the penalties.

In separate litigation last September in which 401 teachers sued the metro board of education over the content of the directive, the Tokyo District Court found the government guideline unconstitutional and ordered the board to pay 12.03 million yen in damages.

The court said teachers were not obliged to sing the anthem and the directive violated "freedom of thought and conscience."

The judge added that the directive breached the Fundamental Law of Education, which prohibits inappropriate interference in education by the government, and condemned it as meddling with Article 19 of the Constitution, which assures the right to freedom of thought and conscience. The metropolitan government filed an appeal with the high court.

The plaintiffs Friday, 80 percent of whom were involved in the September trial, according to their lawyers, assert that the verdict has not altered the board of education's tyrannical manner toward teachers.

Although the September ruling warned that punishing teachers under the directive was an abuse of power, Kondo said the metro government has not changed its stance.

It has so far disciplined 345 teachers in junior high schools, high schools and schools for the disabled.

Metro officials have claimed the directive was based on guidelines set in 1999 by the then Education Ministry that say schools must fly the Hinomaru during official ceremonies and teachers are obliged to lead students in singing the national anthem.

The metro board of education released a statement last September claiming the directive only compelled the teachers to "perform the act of singing or playing the piano, which does not infringe the freedom of conscience."

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The Japan Times

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