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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Teacher traces aversion to 'Kimigayo' to the war

Staff writer

Toru Kondo is a good man.

News photo
Toru Kondo

The 58-year-old teacher has coached his public high school's baseball team and worked for 35 years to fund his three daughters' education.

Kondo is also polite. He always asks for permission before he lights up a cigarette -- one of his few objectionable habits.

But he is an unrepentant rebel when it comes to the metropolitan government directive requiring teachers at public schools to sing the "Kimigayo" national anthem and face the Hinomaru national flag at school ceremonies. He has violated this order twice over the last three years.

"The consequences of sitting for 40 seconds during a school ceremony were much greater than I thought," said Kondo, who teaches English at Kasai Minami High School in Edogawa Ward. "But I don't regret what I did."

Even though the Hinomaru and "Kimigayo" were recognized by law as national symbols in 1999, many people still link them with the nation's militarist past.

Singing the anthem at school ceremonies was not mandatory until the Tokyo Metropolitan Government issued the contentious directive in October 2003.

Failure to follow the directive drew punishment meted out by the metro board of education.

Since the directive came into force, 346 teachers at public elementary, junior high and high schools have been penalized for failing to pay due heed to the national symbols. By the time graduation season ends at the end of this month, the tally of reprimanded teachers will undoubtedly have grown.

Kondo stuck to his opposition to the flag and anthem during the March 12, 2004, graduation ceremony at Shinozaki High School in Edogawa Ward, where he was teaching at the time.

He remained seated for the 40 seconds "Kimigayo" was played despite being ordered by the vice principal to stand. He was called to the principal's office for questioning afterward and later summoned by the metropolitan board of education. The board did not allow a lawyer to accompany Kondo and handed him an official warning.

Kondo claimed his opposition to "Kimigayo" and the Hinomaru stem from his father's experiences during the war as a worker on the South Manchuria Railways Co. in what was then Japan's puppet state of Manchukuo in northeastern China.

"My father told me of the atrocities committed by the Japanese army, so I still feel apologetic about what Japan did to China," Kondo said, regarding the flag and anthem as legacies from that dark episode in Japan's militarist past that don't even merit him lip-syncing "Kimigayo" at school ceremonies.

In March 2005, Kondo was slapped with a pay cut of about 50,000 yen for disobeying the order a second time -- the punishments get heavier in accordance with the frequency of offenses.

Kondo was transferred to Kasai Minami High School in April that year despite his wish to stay in Shinozaki. Since then, he has been absent on paid holidays when ceremonies are held.

A third infraction would cost him six months of pay cuts -- or nearly 300,000 yen -- which he says is too much of an economic sacrifice for his family.

But in defiance of the metro directive, Kondo became secretary general of the Organization of Reprimanded Teachers for the Retraction of the Unjust Punishment Involving Hinomaru & "Kimigayo," and has worked with 230 of its members to fight the metropolitan board of education.

Tokyo is the only prefecture with a directive that mandates punishment for violators. Other prefectures, however, including Niigata, Fukuoka and Hiroshima, have also punished teachers for not singing "Kimigayo" at school ceremonies. Except for Tokyo, official warnings are the norm, and penalties are not ratcheted up.

The legitimacy of the metro directive has received split decisions in court.

Last September, the Tokyo District Court ruled that teachers have "no obligation to sing 'Kimigayo' and face the national flag," saying the directive violates the constitutional right to freedom of thought and conscience. The court ordered the metro government to pay 12.03 million yen to 401 teachers.

Other rulings, including the only judgment by the Supreme Court, which came last month, claim issuing the directive does not violate the Constitution because it does not deny teachers historical or world views. The top court also said public school teachers have a duty as civil servants to abide by the order.

The National Congress of Parents and Teachers Association of Japan remains undecided, claiming "Kimigayo" is sung at its events but only on a voluntary basis.

"We are not in a position to comment on the legitimacy of the directive," said an association member who asked to remain anonymous.

Regardless of the several lawsuits questioning the legitimacy of the directive, the metropolitan board of education maintains that the order is based on education ministry guidelines and was issued to help students cultivate a love for their country and to respect the flag. The board further claims being obliged to sing the anthem is not an infringement on freedom of conscience.

Kondo remains defiant.

The veteran teacher, who researched famed black American writer Richard Wright's "Native Son" for his college thesis, is an expert on the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Kondo is also inspired by Rosa Parks, the mother of the modern day civil rights movement who instigated a historic movement by disobeying a bus driver's order to give up her seat to a white man 62 years ago.

"One must protest something that is depraved. That's what I've always told myself and my students," Kondo said.

"I like Japan and I'm a patriot in the real sense, because I believe in the Constitution. The problem is that there are so many people trying to change the structure of the country."

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