Not waving, but suing

Observations on symbols

Not previously noted as a litigious lot, Japan's high-school teachers have been taking to the law courts in droves in recent weeks. There were the 107 teachers from Kanagawa prefecture who filed a lawsuit at the end of July; the 25 who lodged a complaint at the Tokyo district court the same month; and the five retired teachers who took their grievance to the same court on 2 August.

They aren't protesting over class sizes, low pay, unaffordable housing or classroom disruption. They are asserting their right not to stand before Japan's national Hinomaru flag and sing the "Kimigayo" national anthem during school ceremonies. Both flag and anthem have strong associations with Japan's militaristic and emperor-worshipping past, say teachers and unions, and they are invoking a constitutional right to freedom of thought and conscience.

"Kimigayo" - in English "His Majesty's Reign" - is said to be the oldest national anthem in the world, its origins dating back to the 9th century. But it was only in 1999 that a government ruling defined it and the Hinomaru (the familiar, red- on-white, "rising sun" flag) as "official" national symbols. Then in 2003 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government made standing and singing compulsory in state schools, and the battle between authorities and refusenik teachers began.

As the dispute drags on, both parties are increasingly opting for litigation, while the authorities have begun resorting to ever more bizarre methods of enforcement. Moles from the board of education in Fukuoka prefecture, in Japan's southerly island of Kyushu, have been reporting back on how enthusiastically the "Kimigayo" has been sung at school ceremonies. Schools judged to have sung too quietly - six during graduation and another five during commencement - were given verbal warnings.

Individual teachers in Tokyo, meanwhile, face "retraining" - lectures, written assignments and closed-door sessions designed to force teachers and principals to evaluate their "obligations as public servants" and encourage them to "reflect on their actions". The programme has been labelled "thought control" by outraged educators, 137 of whom filed last year for an injunction against retraining and sought a nominal -10,000 (£50) in damages.

Non-compliant teachers also face financial penalties, including pay cuts of 10 per cent for up to six months. It is not surprising that, among older teachers especially, quitting is a common response. Of the 250 teachers reprimanded in Tokyo last year, a fifth promptly resigned. Not that the punishment stops there. The five retired teachers who took their case to the district court most recently claimed to have been unconstitutionally denied supply teaching jobs.

To understand why so many teachers risk so much to take a stand on this issue you need to look to events of 60 years ago, commemorated this very month: the bombings of Hiroshima and Naga-saki. After the devastation of war, Japan embraced a new, pacifist identity - and the vehicle for this peace-loving ideology was the education system.

Time has moved on, however, and so has Japan. The country now casts itself as victim, not aggressor, in the Second World War, a view lent credibility by the global commemoration of the atomic bombings. Past militaristic sins forgotten, Japan is considering whether to ditch Article Nine of its constitution, which renounces aggression.

Today's litigant teachers see themselves as the last guardians of postwar pacifist idealism. But as their stern treatment by officialdom shows, they are marching out of step with modern Japan.