The Japanese national anthem is called "Kimigayo," or "Imperial Reign." Click here to listen to it.
Now, what jumps out at you first has to be the brevity; the song is mercifully short. And there are none of the hystrionics of the US anthem, what with "bursting in air" or "land of the free" being dragged out to a minute each of awful caterwauling. No, this song takes less than a minute. The tune itself is actually rather stirring, and, dare I say it, Japanesey.
The lyrics, on the other hand, are a bit different. Taken from an anonymous poem from the Kokinshu, a poetry anthology from the early 10th century, they run as follows:
Kimi ga yo wa
Sazare ishi no
Iwao to narite
Koke no musu made
May your Imperial reign
Continue for a thousand years,
And last for eight thousand generations,
Turn into boulders
Covered in moss.
So, the poem is a paean to the Emperor. And it's only about the Emperor; there's no mention of Japanese people, the Japanese government, or Japanese culture, which is a problem insofar as you consider those things maintaining an existence outside the Emperor, I suppose. It was chosen as the national anthem in the late 1800's, when Japan was in a desperate rush to catch up to the modernized Western nations. Interestingly, part of the reason for the choice of this poem was its resemblance to the English national anthem, "God Save the Queen"; it was an attempt to gain legitimacy as a nation by mimicking one of the major powers.
Of course, that was more than a 100 years ago, and the paths of the two sovereigns in question have been rather different:
During the war, the King and the future queen, lacking any real power, simply put their efforts into raising the spirits of a country under attack. Today, the Queen is just some rich old woman. If she's a symbol of anything, it's of the former glory of an Empire that no longer exists.
The Emperor - specifically, Hirohito - was the figure behind which the Japanese attempted to conquer much of Asia. His divine status is what gave Japanese soldiers the right to rape the inferior people of Korea and China. Eternal allegiance to him was the rallying cry of men leading suicide charges or flying their planes into ships. His refusal to surrender prolonged the war and allowed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens to die needlessly. Basically, he bears a large burden of responsibility for a war that devasted every part of Japanese society - a responsibility that neither he nor the government ever acknowledged. He remains a potent symbol, both inside and outside Japan, of that past.
Clearly, there is a difference now in singing a song of praise for the Emperor.
But this is their anthem. It's sung at ball games and at the Olympics. It's sung at every school function. In fact, it's not just sung, it's often required to be sung at school functions. Interestingly enough, the national anthem - along with the hinomaru flag - was not officially granted that status until set down in a law in 1999; a response to a case in which a principal, sandwiched between the protests of teachers who refused to sing the anthem at a graduation ceremony and the demands from the Ministry of Education to force them to comply, ultimately committed suicide. Teachers in Tokyo that refuse to stand to sing the song due to its association with the Emperor and Japan's militarism - history teachers, I would hope - have actually lost their jobs on this account. Apparently, since 2003, 401 teachers have been punished for refusing to take part in anthem-related events. Recently, the Tokyo District Court ordered the Tokyo Board of Education to pay damages for any teachers reprimanded for their refusal to sing the anthem, but the Board maintains that, schools being governmental agencies, teachers have a responsibility to teach their students how to be good citizens.
Which raises the question, is loyalty to the Emperor what constitutes a good citizen?
Next time: what Japanese people think - or don't - when singing the anthem.