Saturday, January 24, 2009


By: Philip J Cunningham
(published in the Bangkok Post 24/01/2009)

Anyone familiar with the dangers of nationalistic group-think - especially in Japan where a weakness to such thinking once led to a militant rampage across Asia that left 20 million dead on the mainland and eventually took Japan itself as victim - will appreciate that little acts of civil disobedience and the airing of contrary, disrespectful, even insolent, views are signs of a healthy system.

The power of the state is ever in danger of becoming overwrought and corrupted. As such, it needs a panoply of checks and balances, not just those provided by a neutral judiciary, not just the see-saw balance provided by the dynamics of a ruling party wrestling with the opposition, not just the clamour of self-interest from vested interest groups, but on the part of rugged individuals who buck the popular tide, and even outright eccentrics.

In any society it is the rare individual who chooses to sit down when everyone else stands up, or vice versa, because peer pressure is one of the most powerful and ubiquitous social control mechanisms known. Anyone with the temerity to march to their own drummer when everyone else is marching the other way, is apt to be seen as an obstruction to traffic, if not a menace to the glory of mass delusion.

Not all individuals who stake out unpopular positions are politically minded or intellectually savvy; some are gadflies who revel in being different, others seek to bring attention upon themselves, others yet may act for reasons unknowable not only to others but even to themselves.

But society is better off for its dissenters, cranks and eccentrics; most especially when calls for conformity of thinking reach high pitch.

Compassion for - or at least benign tolerance of - non-conformists helps fend off fascistic tendencies and makes society more fully human and humane.

Even when an act of civil disobedience is committed with every intent to challenge a taboo or make a pointedly politically incorrect statement, one does not have to agree with the implied statement to support the right of the individual to such idiosyncratic expression.

Looking through the long lens of history, lone dissenters and gadflies who challenge mainstream thinking have as much a role to play in keeping society balanced, stable and viable in the long run as upholders of the status quo, revered institutions and enforcers of the law.

Consider a headline from Japan this week: "Court rules refusal to rehire teacher who didn't stand for national anthem was illegal."

Mainichi Shimbun reports that a Tokyo teacher who refused to stand when the Kimigayo anthem was played at his school, was awarded over 2 million yen as compensation for the unfair punitive actions of the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education which refused his application for continued employment.

The Saruya Yuji case is a small victory, not so much for free expression, or more specifically in this case, the freedom not to stand - a thorny issue which was not technically addressed - but rather as a slap against the over-reaching hand of the city authorities eager to punish dissenters.

Hundreds of Tokyo teachers have been disciplined since 2003 when arch-nationalist Mayor Ishihara Shintaro made mandatory the previously controversial and sporadically observed flag and national anthem rituals in Tokyo schools. The school teachers who expressed themselves by refusing to stand - many close to retirement, with pensions and post-retirement options at stake - were punished in irregular and ad hoc ways by zealous city bureaucrats who acted in concert with Mayor Ishihara's uncompromising stance.

Deliberately refusing to comply with what might fairly be construed as obligatory state worship, the teachers who refused to stand made themselves stand out all the more. Subject to the national glare, they clung to their convictions as stubborn individuals in the best sense of the word, hardy individualists in a society where following the crowd is the norm.

Nezu Kimiko, a junior high school teacher in Tokyo, told John Spiri in Japan Focus that her refusal to stand was an act of defiance against militarism, imperialism and authoritarian edicts everywhere.

The Rising Sun flag has a complex political pedigree; it adorned Japanese fighting vessels and kamikaze craft during the war and was planted in conquered territory to mark Japanese rule. Likewise, the mournful Kimigayo, which means "In Your Majesty's Reign," was thoroughly associated with Emperor Hirohito, though the simple lyrics are sufficiently ancient and ambiguous to construe other meanings. More to the point, both these national symbols survived World War Two intact, unlike the hated flags and anthems of Nazi Germany.

That might explain the palpable ambivalence of many Japanese citizens who, either out of reticence or hard-learned lessons of the lost war, are rather diffident about their flag.

Still, judicial opinion and public opinion continue to be split on the issue. Previous court challenges in June 2007 and February 2008, one of which ruled in favour of the Tokyo administration's position, are still under appeal.

For what it's worth, the liberal-minded Emperor Akihito himself has indirectly expressed sympathy for the dissenters, not that militant defenders of the Emperor system necessarily care what the real Emperor actually thinks or feels.

Beware of those who punish others in the name of the nation's most revered symbols, for they are often hewing to their own vindictive agendas.

The January 18, 2009 Tokyo court ruling is not the last word on the matter, but it shows the health of Japanese democracy; there remains ample room for dissent against mandatory rituals of allegiance, even regarding the potent and highly-revered symbols of nation and emperor.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.