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Japan Approves Conservative Symbols

Rising-Sun Flag and Hymn to Emperor Are Confirmed in Shift to Right


By Don Kirk    International Herald Tribune

TOKYO - Parliament on Monday overwhelmingly confirmed Japan's rising-sun flag and a hymn to the emperor as the country's official symbols - and symbols, on a larger scale, of a shift toward conservatism.

While convoys of rightists rode through the streets of Tokyo shouting nationalist slogans and leftists protested outside Parliament, the upper house voted, 166 to 71, in favor of a law recognizing the legality of both the flag and the anthem as representing the Japanese people and state.

The vote, following easy passage of the same bill in the lower house last month, means that as of Friday, when Parliament adjourns, both the flag and the hymn will no longer be merely de facto emblems of Japan.

Officials say that citizens will not have to sing the anthem and bow before the flag with the zeal they were required to display in the years of imperial rule until the end of World War II, but Japan's leaders have made plain the nationalist sentiment behind the bill.

Both the flag and anthem ''have long histories and have already taken hold under customary law,'' Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said.

''It is very significant that they are now grounded in written law shortly before the start of the 21st century,'' Mr. Obuchi said.

Teachers in particular have strongly opposed the anthem, contending that it evokes the 1930s and early 1940s, when Japanese troops conquered much of China and Southeast Asia.

Protesters on Monday carried signs denouncing the bill, and one burned a flag outside a government building.

While Japanese routinely accept the flag, critics saw passage of the bill as a milestone on the way to a new order.

''It's very dangerous,'' said Sachiko Hayashi, a recent college graduate working for a large company. ''It's a step on the way to remilitarization.''

The bill, however, sailed through Parliament at a time of mounting concern here about Japanese defense policies, the military aims of nearby nations and an economy mired in seemingly intractable problems.

Conservative forces led by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, in power for all but a few of the last 40 years, ensured easy passage of the measure. A coalition dominated by the LDP, supported by the Buddhist-backed Komeito Party and the Liberal Party, actually a rightist grouping, supported the bill against strong objections only from the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.

Legalization of the flag, a red circle symbolizing the sun on a white field, appeared far less controversial than that of the anthem, which appears to grant almost holy status to the emperor for the first time since the defeat of Imperial Japan in 1945.

A poll conducted by the Japan Times last week showed that 89 of 100 people questioned approved of the flag while only 58 of 100 wanted the hymn to be the national anthem. The formal name of the anthem, ''Kimigayo,'' is translated as ''His Majesty's Reign,'' and the verse in translation venerates the emperor, who was officially a holy figure enshrined as a god in the Shinto religion until the Japanese defeat.

''Thousands of years of happy reign be thine,'' reads one verse in translation. ''Rule on, my lord, till what are pebbles now/ By age united to mighty rocks shall grow/ Whose venerable sides the moss doth line.''

The law was passed against the background of a wider debate about whether to revise the ''peace constitution'' adopted during the U.S. occupation of Japan under General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. The constitution forbids sending Japanese troops to fight overseas, a stipulation that many conservatives see as an outdated infringement on Japanese sovereignty.

Parliament is forming panels to study the need for constitutional changes, a hesitant first step that might ultimately lead to overhauling the constitution.