The Tokorozawa High School Entrance Ceremony Incident
by Robert William Aspinall
This report was writen by Robert William Aspinall
Robert William Aspinall
Visiting Lecturer, Department of English
Faculty of Language and Culture, Nagoya University
Field of Specialty
Japanese Education System and Politics
Snail-mail: 464-01 Faculty of Language and Culture, Nagoya University,
Furo-cho, Chikusa-ku, Nagoya 464-8601, Japan
Voice-mail: 052-789-5703 (Office)
FAX: 052-789-4873 (Administration Office)
Office: #106, School of Infomatics and Sciences
The Tokorozawa High School Entrance Ceremony Incident
For a short time in April 1998 events at one high school in Saitama
prefecture caught the attention of Japan's national media. The student
council at that school had decided to boycott the official entrance ceremony
organised by the school principal, and organise a ceremony of their own.
Why would such an apparently minor incident attract such a lot of attention?
The purpose of this article is to explore the reasons why, not only the media,
but also commentators on the Left and the Right of Japanese politics(*1)
felt that events at Tokorozawa High Schools were so worthy of comment.
Within any given education system there is no doubt that from time to time
events at one particular school can assume a very symbolic purpose that can
transcend purely local issues. The various pressure groups and political
parties that are involved in a discourse about education at the national
level can sometimes pick on the example of one individual school to illustrate
the arguments they are trying to make. For the media, it is easier to tell
a story about one school, with clearly identifiable teachers, parents and
children (some of whom can be portrayed as heroes, victims or villains),
than it is to discuss the education system as a whole. For example, it is
difficult now for anyone to discuss the history of the education system
in England in the 1970s without referring to the case of William Tyndale
School. This London elementary school became the focus of a fierce row
about the issue of 'progressive' teaching methods versus 'traditional'
teaching methods.(*2) The teachers and pupils of this school became pawns
in a national struggle over the values and purpose of the English education
system as a whole.
It is too early to say whether Tokorozawa High School will become as
famous (or infamous) a case in Japan as William Tyndale School became
in England. However, for a large Part of 1998 a significant amount of
discourse on education in Japan made reference to it. The story of the
entrance ceremony incident was used by both Left and Right for their own
purposes. Before looking at these broader issues surrounding events at
this school, however, it is first necessary to review the specific events
themselves. Therefore the first section of this article will deal with
the actual events at the school. Later sections will deal with the issues
of the national flag and national anthem, and the debate about the meaning
of controversial terms like 'freedom', 'independence', 'rights', and
'democratic education'. Finally the changing nature of conflict within
the education system will be discussed.
Events at Tokorozawa High School 1997-98
Tokorozawa High School is one of the better academic high schools in
Saitama prefecture. It has a long history and a tradition of student
activism and independence. Unlike the majority of high schools in Japan,
Tokorozawa students do not wear uniforms and have quite relaxed regulations
about hairstyle. On April lst 1997 a new principal arrived there. His name
was Uchida Tatstuo, and he had the reputation of being one of the
prefecture's top principals. Sources inside the prefectural board of
education were reported as saying that his mission was to 'normalise'
Tokorozawa High School.(*3) This begs the question of why the school,
in the eyes of the Board of Education, needed 'normalising'. Subsequent
events were to show that the main area of concern for the Board of Education
was Tokorozawa's refusal to fly the national flag or sing the national anthem
at school ceremonies. Since 1989 every Board of Education in Japan
had been instructed by Mombusho to enforce The flying of the hinomaru and
the singing of the kimigayo at school entrance and graduation ceremonies.
By l998 Mombusho had achieved (at least on paper) a very high level of
compliance to these instructions. Tokorozawa High School's continued,
open refusal to follow suit was considered a challenge to the authority
of Mombusho, to Saitama Board of Education and to the whole system of
'guidance' and regulation by which schools in Japan are governed.
Principal Uchida decided to stamp his authority onto his new school
from the moment he arrived there. His new tenure began on April 1st, 1997,
and one of his first jobs was the supervision of the school entrance ceremony.
At the teachers' meeting held on April 8th to discuss plans for this ceremony,
Uchida announced that this year's ceremony would include singing the national
anthem and flying the national flag. Representatives of the two teachers'
unions objected saying that the plans for the ceremony had already been made
before Uchida's arrival and that they should not be changed now. The new
principal stuck to his guns however and there was a stalemate between the two
sides. A further meeting was held the following day, the day of the ceremony
itself, but there was no sign of an agreement being reached. According to
accounts of the meeting from those who were there, Uchida abruptly walked out
of the meeting taking a cassette tape of the national anthem, a tape-recorder,
and the flag with him.(*4) He proceeded to the Sports Hall, the site of the
ceremony, where parents and students had already been kept waiting for
30 minutes beyond the scheduled time for the opening of the ceremony.
What followed was pure farce. The principal's first words to the assembled
parents and children were lost because the power to the Public Address
system had been cut, and then when he tried to play the cassette of the
Kimigayo, he found that someone had taken the tape. General noise and
confusion reigned. Even before Uchida had finished the opening address,
homeroom teachers started to take new students to their classrooms.
Soon the only people left in the sports hall were Uchida, the vice-principal
(Mr Endoh) and the head of the school office (Mr Yarmazaki) - in other words
the school' s senior management team. Undeterred, they continued the
Once the farce was over a joint committee of teachers and students
demanded that the principal account for his 'reckless behaviour', Uchida
replied that it was his job to manage the school in accordance with the
course of study guidelines from Mombusho. The students put forward the
argument that their opinions should be considered and that teachers and
students should consult together on equal terms. Uchida replied to this
by saying that students and teachers were certainly not equal: the former
must be guided by the latter. At this point it seems that the student council
decided that they were not going to get very far with Uchida through
negotiation. Instead, they decided that future disagreements over the
organisation of ceremonies would better be resolved by the students
organising their own, alternative ceremonies, The first test of this new
approach would come in March the following year with the school graduation
ceremony. The student council started making plans in November, announcing
that it would replace the usual graduation ceremony with a student-organised
'graduation memorial ceremony'. The teachers' meeting and the PTA both
approved this plan. Faced with this ultimatum Uchida announced that he had
no objection to a studernt-oganised ceremony per se, but that all the students
must also attend the official ceremony which would contain the flag and the
anthem. When the day of the two graduation ceremonies came attendance for
the 'official' ceremony was poor while the unofficial ceremony was performed
in front of a packed audience. At the end of his first year in the job Uchida
had to face the fact that he had not yet stamped his authority on the school.
In consultation with the Board of Education he began working on a strategy
that would bring success in the coming year.
In March 1998 Uchida and the Board of Education decided that the time had
come to use threats to bring the recalcitrant students and teachers of
Tokorozawa High School into line. First of all the teachers were informed
that if they did not attend the next official ceremony (the entrance ceremony)
their action would be regarded as an infringement of official orders, and
they would be open to censure or punishment (this could take the form of
a written censure or the withdrawal of pay). Then, on March 31st, a letter
was sent by the Board of Education to the parents of all of the children
who were due to enter the school the following month. The letter informed
them that if they wanted to be sure of their child's entrance to the school
they should make sure that they attend the official entrance ceremony.
This letter referred to their children as 'candidates for entrance' thus
implying that their acceptance by the school was not a foregone conclusion.
It was very unusual for a phrase like this to be used at such a late stage
in the entrance procedure. At the end of March, with only a few days to go
before the start of the school year parents are normally certain about
which school their children will attend. It seems that the Board of
Education's choice of words here was unprecedented. On April 3rd, Uchida sent
out a letter of his own to the parents of new students which repeated the
threat to exclude them if they did not attend the official ceremony.
Meanwhile relations between Uchida and the teachers deteriorated further.
On March 28th, at a meeting for new students and their parents, one teacher,
Takenaga Koichi, told the parents that it was the opinion of Tokorozawa High
School teachers that only the unofficial ceremony should take place.
For his pains Takenaga received a written warning from the Board of Education.
He was not supposed to undermine the authority of the principal in public.
This punishment caused outrage among the other teachers and on April 2nd
a letter was delivered to the Board of Education demanding the recall of
Uchida i.e. that he be sacked as principal of Tokorozawa High School.
The PTA supported this demand, and on the following day presented a petition
of their own calling for Uchida's transfer. It was at this point that outside
forces began to get involved in the dispute. Nichibenren, the Japanese
Lawyers Association, sent messages of encouragement to the student council
and the PTA. The national media also started to notice that this had
the making of a national new story.
April 7th 1998 was the day of the two entrance ceremonies. The official
ceremony was held first, to be followed shortly after by the unofficial
'celebrate entering school ceremony'. The media were present in force.
Over 100 members of the press and TV companies were gathered outside
the school. Also outside the school were a collection of right wing sound
trucks which projected, at high volume, slogans like 'Close down Tokorozawa
High School, the school that is opposed to the national flag and the national
anthem!' In spite of threats to exclude them, about 40% of new students
failed to attend the official ceremony, going only to the unofficial one.
The other students attended both ceremonies. Therefore, as in the previous
year, the unofficial ceremony had turned out to be more popular than the
official one. The threats of Uchida and the Board of Education had not had
the desired effect. Furthermore, all of the new students were able to enter
the school. The threat to exclude those who failed to attend the official
ceremony had proved to be a hollow one.
The Issue of the Flag and the Anthem
As far as their content is concerned, the only significant difference
between the official and unofficial ceremonies held at Tokorozawa High School
was that in the former the national symbols of the flag and the anthem
were used and in the latter they were not. Why is the use of these symbols
a cause of such controversy in Japan? It is to this issue that we must now
In order to understand this issue fully it is necessary to analyse the
historical background to the controversy. Legally speaking Japan does not
have a national flag or anthem. However the universal use of the Hinomaru
flag and the Kimigayo anthem at the places and events where countries
normally display their national symbols gives them a de facto official status.
Controversy surrounds both symbols because of their association with wartime
and prewar Japanese militarism and imperialism. Unlike its Axis allies,
Germany and Italy, Japan did not change or modify its national symbols
after the war. Critics on the left interpreted this as a failure to signal
a clear break with the past. Actually, in October 1945 SCAP, as part of
its program against militarism, had sent out orders forbidding the official
raising of the Hinomaru, only to reverse the decision in 1949. hoping,
rather optimistically, that from then on the unmodified flag would become
a 'symbol of peace.'(*5) This failed to happen, and both the flag and
the anthem have been controversial ever since.
It was inevitable that the flag and the anthem would become a contentious
issue between Left and Right within the Japanese education system.
Ever since the Minister of Education, Amano Teiyu, announced, in 1950,
that raising the flag and singing the anthem would be 'desirable'
(nozomashii), the ministry and conservative politicians have consistently
tried to extend recognition of these national symbols into schools. Their
aim has been to instil patriotism into children. The Japan Teachers' Union,
Nikkyoso, for its part, has been opposed to the re-introduction of the flag
and the anthem into school life for two main reasons. Firstly, they share
the opinion, outlined above, that the flag and the anthem are reminiscent
of war and imperialism, and, secondly they are opposed, in principle, to the
authorities giving orders to schools about how to conduct their affairs,
in this case school ceremonies.(*6) The second objection came to the fore
in the mid-1980s when Mombusho stepped up its efforts to increase recognition
of the flag and anthem.
The debate on education in the 1980s was dominated by Prime Minister
Nakasone's Ad Hoc Council on Education, or Rinkyoshin. One of its proposals
concerned the compulsory flying of the flag and singing of the anthem
at school functions. The need for increased patriotism was justified
by Japan's increasing internationalisation. It was argued that Japanese
people could not properly learn to respect foreign cultures until they had
learned to respect their own. (*7) Nikkyoso and other opponents saw this
as merely the latest justification for a long established effort by
conservative forces to turn the clock back to prewar style jingoism.
The Ministry of Education responded to Rinkyoshin's call for greater
recognition of the flag and anthem by including in its 1989 revision of
the course of study guidelines (gakusyu shido yoryo) a change in the wording
concerning regulations about the flag and the anthem. From now on flying
the flag and singing the anthem at school ceremonies was no longer to be
merely desirable (nozomashii), it was to be something that 'must be done'
(suru mono to suru). (*8) Prior to 1989 over half of elementary and senior
high schools had failed to comply with ministry wishes. The figure for junior
high schools was a little over 60%.(*9) The ministry was now aiming for
100% compliance and was prepared to discipline principals who resisted.
In every prefecture boards of education were instructed to compile lists
of which schools did and which schools did not fly the flag and sing the
anthem. In 1991 125 school principals (90% of whom were in Kochi prefecture)
were disciplined, the first to be so punished under the new rules.(*10)
In schools with strong union representation and a militant leadership the
school principal now found him or herself in a difficult position. They
would be punished by their superiors if they did not comply with the
regulations, but they would meet with resistance and disruption if they did.
In many cases the principal and vice-principal tried to find ways around
this dilemma by obeying the letter of the law while appeasing opponents
by enacting the regulations in meaningless or even farcical ways. There are
reports of the vice-principal singing the anthem alone while playing the tune
on a small cassette player, (*11) and of principals running the flag up
a flag pole, leaving it there for a few seconds, and then pulling it down.
(*12) Reports of flags being flown in inappropriate places, for example
on the tops of buildings, in the corners of playing fields or amongst copses
of trees, are even more numerous.(*13) On one occasion high school students
chose to fly koinobori carp streamers from the flag-pole in place of the
In spite of continued resistance and disruption, there is evidence that,
by the mid-1990s, Mombusho was beginning to consider the dispute to be over.
In terms of the official statistics of compliance there is no doubt that
it has achieved its aims. (*15) Thus, when Nikkyoso made its 1995 decision
to omit any reference to the flag and the anthem in its campaign policy
document, it looked like it was bringing an end to a lost battle. However,
the minority left-wing teachers' union, Zenkyo has accused Nikkyoso of
surrendering to the enemy by giving up this fight. The staff of Tokorozawa
High School consists of members of both of these unions as well as teachers
who are not members of any union. Whatever their personal feelings on the
subject were, they found themselves in April 1998 plunged right back into
conflict over the flag and anthem.
Arguments over words: Tokorozawa students and
the meaning of Freedom,Democracy and Right
in the contemporary Japanese education system
The way in which the two sides at Tokorozawa conducted their battle of
words over the flag and the anthem was highly significant. They helped focus
attention onto one of the key ideological areas of dispute between Left and
Right in the contemporary Japanese education system. This was the dispute
over the meaning and practical implications of the democratic terms and
conditions that had been written into the defining documents of the postwar
Japanese education system by the American occupiers and their center-left
Japanese allies(**). Since the Occupation there has been continued
disagreement over the meaning of 'freedom' and 'democracy' as well as related
terms like 'democratic education' (the achievement of which was one of
the main goals of the American Occupiers). Now, in the 1990s, the concept
of 'children's rights' has been added to this controversial list. Japan's
ratification of the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child provoked a national
debate about the nature of children's rights in Japan. We will consider
these terms one by one before discussing the overall significance of
this controversy about meaning.
What do Japanese people mean when they talk about 'freedom' in relation
to the education of children? The most commonly used Japanese word for
'freedom' is jiyu and in the debate surrounding Tokorozawa High School
this word was usually used in the phrase jiyu na Kofu or 'School Ethos of
Freedom'. Supporters of the students used this Phrase in a positive way,
and praised the students for standing up for freedom. Critics, on the other
hand, claimed that the phrase was a sham that disguised the manipulation of
the students by Communists. Another commonly used phrase in the debate was
jishu-jiritsu, which means independence in the sense of standing on one's own
two feet and making decisions for oneself. Tokorozawa students were also
praised on the letter pages of the Asahi Shimbun for their shutaisei.
This is another word for independence, and one that has been used often
in the debate on education in Japan. It is something that the Left believes
should be encouraged in schools and universities. Thus, when the Tokorozawa
students claimed that they were standing up for the freedom and independence
of school students, they immediately immersed themselves into a much broader
discourse on the aims and values of the education system. In 1991 the student
council had drawn up a 'Bill of Rights' to codify exactly what they were
striving to achieve. (This Bill of Rights is reproduced in full as an appendix
to this article.) The students' concept of freedom included freedom of
expression, freedom of conscience and the freedom to organise their own school
activities: in other words, the freedom to act as an individual and to
organise things independently of adult authority. As it stands, the Bill of
Rights is hardly a revolutionary document. It does not include anything about
student participation in the design of the school curriculum for example. Up
until the 1998 incident the only outward way in which Tokorozawa High School
was different from other Japanese high schools was in its lack of school
uniform (including its lack of strict regulations about hairstyles).
Nevertheless, it only took a few gestures for Tokorozawa High School to get
itself involved in a larger ideological struggle between Left and Right.
Documents published by the two Saitama high school teacher unions that
made reference to Tokorozawa's entrance ceremony included favorable references
to the students' jishu-jiritsu, The teachers in the school consistently
supported the students in their interpretation of the concepts of freedom and
independence. Also, letter writers to the Asahi Shimbun and to other liberal
or leftwing publications (for example the weekly magazine Shukan Kinyo)
praised the students for standing up for these ideals. One letter made
the point that by refusing to bow before the old imperialist symbols of
the hinomaru and kimigayo, the students were striking a blow for student
independence and autonomy. They were refusing to accept their place within
the school and within society as mere 'subjects' (shinmin) of the emperor,
but instead were asserting their own rights as citizens of a democracy.
In other words the Left and the centre-left in Japan supported the Tokorozawa
students' interpretation of 'freedom' and 'independence'. The Right, however,
had a different view of the matter.
On July 8th, l998 the Yomiuri Shimbun, a newspaper that is sometimes both
mouthpiece and thinktank for the centre-right in Japan, ran an editorial about
education reform. This editorial specifically singled out the Tokorozawa
students and the teachers who supported them, for criticism. It accused them
of 'misunderstanding' the concept of freedom. If teachers want to have more
freedom, the editorial argued ,then they must "act with a strong sense of
self-discipline and high moral standards. Their quest for freedom must be
coupled with a sense of self-discipline." The Yomiuri is in favour of
a certain amount of extra 'freedom' in the education system in the form
of dereguration and decentralisation. In common with most organised business
opinion in Japan, the Yomiuri recognises that the very rigid and centralised
education system that helped Japan to 'catch up' with the West in economic
development after the War is now in need of major overhaul. The business world
is keen to see more flexibility and more choice in education, as well as the
introduction of more business-style management into educational administration.
(*16) The problem for the Right is how to achieve these ends without
contributing to various, contemporary problems that are perceived to be
the product of a break down of the traditional discipline and authority
of Japanese schools.(*17) This explains the heavy stress the Yomiuri
editorial placed on 'self-discipline' and 'moral standards'. The Right hopes
that by emphasising these elements the education system can be made more
flexible and 'freer' without the danger of an explosion of anarchy in the
classroom. Furthermore, from the perspective of the Right, one of the key
elements in any 'moral education' must always be 'patriotic education'.
As was mentioned earlier this patriotic education necessarily involves
respect for the national flag and the national anthem. This respect must be
taught to all Japanese children. The Right does not believe that any
'flexibility' in the education system should include the option of doing
without the flag and the anthem. By doing what they did in April 1998,
therefore, the students of Tokorozawa High School posed a double threat
to the Right's vision of the direction of education reform. By refusing
to respect the flag and the anthem they posed a threat to
'patriotic education', and by disobeying the instructions of the principal
they posed a threat to school discipline. For the Right, this is clearly
a case of the abuse of 'freedom'.
During the Occupation the concept of 'democratic education' gained favour
in Japan. Today it is unthinkable or a mainstream politician or education
expert to speak out against the idea of democracy in education.
Instead, and predictably, disagreement between Left and Right has been about
the meaning of these terms. Basically, both sides defined the terms to suit
their own political purpose. When the Occupation was over, the Right was
dominant in national politics, and with the unification of the Liberal and
the Democratic parties to become the Liberal Democratic Party in 1955,
they were able to stamp their authority on a period of unbroken rule that
continued until 1989 (when the LDP lost its majority in the Upper House for
the first time) It therefore suited the Right to have a fairly centralised
definition of what democracy meant. In the case of the education system,
they argued that the Minister of Education had legitimate authority over
the national education system. He (and in LDP administrations it always was
a he) was the representative of the democratically elected government,
a government that served the interests of the whole nation, not just a part.
It was his duty to consult with the various interest groups and regional
groups that were involved with education, but after consultation his decision
must be final. In this way a national education system that treated all
Japanese children the same could be preserved.
The Left had a different view about democracy and education. Until it split
into two in 1989, the most powerful group on the Left in the area of education
was always the Japan Teachers' Union, Nikkyoso. At its height, this union
represented the vast majority of school teachers in Japan. However, in
Japanese law it was not recognised as their national spokesperson.
For example, because teachers' wages were set at the national level the union
could not take part in meaningful wage negotiations. At the prefectural
level however the teachers union was recognised as the legal representative
of its members. It therefore suited the union to push for more
decentralisation of the education system. If more power were handed over from
Tokyo to the prefectures then the influence of the union would be increased.
The union also did not like the way in which prefectural superintendents of
education were always appointed rather than elected. Furthermore their
appointment had to be approved by the Ministry of Education. Nikkyoso pressed
for the introduction of elections to decide the superintendent of education
and the Board of Education. Briefly, during the American occupation these
posts had been elected. However, the Americans soon reversed their decision
when they found that election campaigns for Boards of Education turned out to
be highly politicized. Nikkyoso was in favour of a return to this kind of
election for both ideological reasons and for practical reasons of increasing
its own influence and reducing the power of Mombusho.
Disputes between the right and left over the meaning of 'democracy' and
'freedom' have gone on for the entire postwar period. More recently a new
dispute has come about concerned with the notion of 'rights' and specifically
'the rights of the child'. Japan ratified the United Nations Convention on
the Rights of the Child in 1995. All sides in Japan said they supported this
convention. However, as with the argument over the meaning of 'freedom' and
'democracy', dispute and ideological disagreement revolved around the meaning
and implications of the words contained in the convention. This disagreement
was heightened by the fact that, unlike the constitution and the Fundamental
Law of Education, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was not written up
in a Japanese language version that everyone could agree on. Japanese is not
one of the official languages of the UN and therefore it was up to each
concerned Japanese group to come up with their own translation. It should not
be surprising that the translations that each side came up with were one that
suited their own ideological and political purposes. Thus Mombusho offered
a translation and an interpretation of that translation that enabled them to
submit a report to the UN saying that Japan was complying with all of the main
articles of the convention. Nichibenren, the lawyers' organization, arrived at
a translation and an interpretation that was far less flattering to
the Japanese education system. The teachers unions agreed with the lawyers'
version of the convention.
For both the Right and the Left the acceptance of the language of 'rights'
marked a key change of direction in the ideological discourse on education.
Previously, the Right had been mainly concerned with fostering patriotism and
conservative social and moral values within the nation's young, while the Left
had been concerned with promoting pacifist and anti-imperialist education.
Both sides had agreed that equality was important, i.e. that educational
provision should be more or less the same across the whole nation and for all
social groups. By shifting the debate into the area of human rights, however,
both sides have introduced an inevitable individualism into the debate.
Both sides would argue, of course, that they have always been interested in
the individual, or, more specifically, in education that aims at developing
each person's individual personality. However, up until very recently, this
concern with the individual had always been expressed in terms of the
individual as part of a group. From his or her earliest days each Japanese
child has been trained in how to be the member of a group. Teachers regard it
as one of their main tasks to foster this ability to co-operate with other
people, and scholars of comparative education have remarked that this is
one of the key areas where Japanese schools (especially elementary schools)
differ from those in the West.(*18) Both the Japanese Left and Right
agreed with this function of the education system. (Where they differed was
on the content of the curriculum.) However, by shifting the focus of attention
onto individual human rights both sides will now have to face up to the
possibility of the weakening of group-centred education. With more choice
given to children and their parents about what subject to study and what
school to go to, the tendency of Japanese students to stay with the same group
of classmates (their homeroom) for most of their time in one school will be
diminished. More choice and variety will inevitably undermine the egalitarian
consensus that so characterized the postwar education system. Individualism
will begin to assert itself in various ways. In the case of the Tokorozawa
incident the most notable feature that emphasised this new development was
the students' reliance on lawyers to protect themselves when they were
threatened with exclusion by the principal and the Board of Education.
This is one of the features that marks the Tokorozawa dispute out as a new
kind of conflict within the education system. It is to this aspect that we
New Patterns of Conflict Within the Education System
Some aspects of the Tokorozawa conflict look familiar to students of
conflict within the Japanese education system. The issue of the flag and
the anthem is not a new issue. The tendency for right wing sound trucks to be
attracted to the site of conflict is depressingly familiar. Furthermore, this
is not the first time that a principal has overruled the wishes of a majority
of his staff tried to impose his decision on them. What are the features of
the Totorozawa conflict, therefore, that mark it out as being worthy of
special attention? What are the features that may make it the harbinger of
a new type of conflict in Japan's school system?
The main difference between the Tokorozawa conflict and previous types of
conflict at Japanese schools is the fact that, at Tokorozawa, the challenge
to the Right was led by school students whose main slogans involved the
language of freedom and rights. In previous conflicts, the opposition to
right-wing management had been led and organised by the teachers' unions,
and the slogans they had used had invoked leftwing or trade unionist ideals.
At its height, Nikkyoso had seen itself, with some justification, as the
central pillar of the Left in Japan, not just in the education system, but
in the country at large. It was one of the main supporters of the Japan
Socialist Party (JSP), which for most of the postwar period provided the main
political opposition to the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), between
1955 and 1993 the perpetual party of government. Also, Nikkyoso was usually
the most powerful union within Sohyo, the giant federation of public sector
unions, most of which had a left or centre-left slant.
By 1998, however, this political situation had changed beyond recognition.
Between 1992 and 1998 the JSP was reduced from being the main opposition party
in the Diet to a mere rump. In 1989 the public sector union federation, Sohyo,
merged with the private sector federation, Domei to form Rengo, an
organisation that pursued a conciliatory line toward management and
government. Lastly, also in 1989, Nikkyoso split into two, following internal
wrangling about affiliation with Rengo. It seemed that in a few short years
the entire edifice of the Japanese Left had crumbled away. Only the Japan
Communist Party (JCP) emerged from this period stronger than before, (In part
it capitalised on the misfortunes of the other organisations of the Left.)
Before 1989, most of the conflict between management and teachers that
occurred in schools was part of a wider picture of conflict between Nikkyoso
and the government. This does not mean that the pattern of conflict, nor its
intensity, was the same in every school in Japan - far from it. American
anthropologist, Thomas Rohlen has shown how the conflict varied from
prefecture to prefecture and from individual school to individual school
depending on local circumstances.(*19) However, he also showed how some
of the most bitter conflict within schools was brought about by developments
at the national level. When Nikkyoso split into two, the more moderate of the
resulting parts (the one that retained the name Nikkyoso) opted for a more
conciliatory policy toward Mombusho and the government. The other part, which
adopted the name Zenkyo, decided to continue the struggle, but because its
membership comprised only about 10% of Japan's school teachers, its influence
was clearly less than that of the old, united union, which in its heyday had
had a membership rate of over 90%.
Many commentators believed that the above developments would herald the end
of conflict within the Japanese education system. The interesting thing about
events at Tokorozawa High School in April 1998 is that they illustrate
a pattern of conflict different from that which bad gone before. It is true
that the origin of the conflict was the national campaign to enforce the
flying of the national flag and the singing of the national anthem. However,
in their act of defiance against the principal and the Board of Education,
the students of Tokorozawa High School did not see themselves in taking part
in any national campaign. Instead they regarded themselves as standing up for
their own rights as individuals and members of an individual school. They
received messages of support from other schools, and help and advice from
outside (as well as a huge amount of media attention), but their campaign
to run their own school ceremonies was primarily a localised affair. If any of
the students had been punished for their actions they would have defended
themselves as individuals with rights rather than members of a group. It is
this stress on human rights and individualism that marks the Tokorozawa
dispute out as a new type of conflict within the Japanese education system.
Conclusion: The Significance of the Tokorozawa Incident
When the leaders of Tokorozawa High School student council decided to
organise their own entrance ceremony for April 9th, 1998 they probably had no
idea of the size of the controversy that would ensue. What they could not
possibly have known was how well their actions, and the actions of the
principal, would suit the purposes of both Left and Right in Japan as they
engaged in their neverending ideological war of words. The fact was that
the conflict between students and principal at Tokorozawa High School took
place on the fault line that runs right through the middle of the Japanese
education system. On one side stood those in favour of more freedom, autonomy
and independence for students and teachers. On the other stood those in favour
of responsibility, moral education and patriotism. Both sides believed that
their agenda would cure the ills afflicting schools in contemporary Japan.
Furthermore, each side blamed the other for (willingly or unwillingly)
promoting policies that were detrimental to children and to society as
a whole. Up until the late 1980s, conflict between Left and Right was centred
around the long-running conflict between government and teachers' unions.
Changes within the unions and the national political parties in the 1990s
have made this picture much more complex than it used to be. However, the
Tokorozawa High School incident can be viewed as a reminder that the basic
ideological differences between Left and Right have not gone away. It is the
way in which these differences are manifested in actual conflict that has
Tokorozawa High School Student Council Bill of Rights
People have the right to live freely. The right to freely organise student
activities is a universal request of Tokorozawa High School students. Various
rights are necessary for this purpose. In the past the repeated efforts of
large numbers of Tokorozawa High School students has achieved this aim.
Furthermore, during the past various rights were protected. Many of these
rights were achieved within the context of a relationship of trust between
students and staff. To preserve the freedom won it is necessary to achieve
self-government for ourselves. The break down of this self-government will
bring about a loss of rights. In the case of threat that this self-government
will be destroyed, this must be prevented at all costs.
Here we enact the "Student Council Bill of Rights" and recognise the value and
meaning of the right to freedom.
1. A school is made up of students and staff. The individuality of all of
these people is recognised and the claims of these people should be
2. In order to improve school life the freedom of self-governed, democratic
school activity is guaranteed.
3. Freedom of expression, including clothes and hair styles, is guaranteed.
4. Freedom of conscience is guaranteed.
These freedoms are valid so long as they do not violate another person's
rights. No one should forget that these freedoms are always accompanied by
responsibilities. Because the ideal of freedom does not involve damage to
the rights of others, it follows that, whatever the situation, rights must
always be guaranteed..
22nd February, 1990 Students' General Meeting
(**) The postwar constitution and the Fundamental Law of Education (both 1947)
(*1) Neither the 'left' nor the 'Right' in Japan is a monolithic entity of
course. However, for the purposes of this article I will often refer to
the opinions or the motives of one or the other as if it were a unified
whole. This is justified by the fact that the controversies discussed
here are mostly those that divided people clearly into members of one
camp or the other.
(*2) See Gratton and Jackson (1976)
(*3) Yamazaki (1998) p.194. The Japanese word used was seijoka.
(*4) Yamazaki (1998) p.195.
(*5) Cripps (1996), p.81
(*6) Interview with Yoneura Tadashi, secretary of Saikokyo (Saitama High
School Teachers' Union), 22 March 1996
(*7) gakko un'eikenkyu (Journal of Education Management Research) March 1995
Special edition on the Hinomaru and Kimigayo.
(*8) Cripps (1996), p.83
(*9) Cripps (1996), p.84
(*10) Asahi Shimbun 25 July 1991 They were reprimanded or warned
(*11) Cripps (1996), p.86
(*12) Interview with union members at Urawa Commercial High School, Saitama,
20th September 1995
(*13) Cripps (1996), p.90 and the author's own experience at high schools
in Saitama 1989-1992
(*14) 1990 graduation ceremony, Kumagaya High School Saitama. Interestingly,
this is another Saitama high school with a long history and a good
(*15) On 17th October 1998 the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that a Mombusho
survey had found that the national flag was flown at 98% of ceremonies
held in primary, junior high and senior high schools in March and April
of that year. The figure for singing the anthem was 80%.
(*16) See Keidanren (1996) fir a summary of the business world's proposals
for education reform.
(*17) These problems include bullying and school violence, as well as
an increase in truancy. There is also a new category of problem
referred to as gakkyu hokai or 'classroom breakdown' i.e. the breakdown
of the teacher's authority within the classroom.
(*18) See White (1987) for a standard work on this subject
(*19) Rohlen (1984)