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Kimigayo: A Guide to Japan’s Controversial National Anthem

A dive into the shortest, most contentious national anthem in the world.

By 15 min read

With school graduation season past and the start of a new school year already in full swing, any teachers in Japan reading will probably be familiar with the Japanese national anthem, “Kimigayo.” Even if you don’t work in a school or university, all the fanfare around the new emperor, as well as this year’s upcoming Rugby World Cup means that you’ve most likely heard, or will hear, at least a snippet of its solemn melody right about now.

Short and slow, Kimigayo is simultaneously one of the oldest and youngest national anthems in the world. It’s also one of the most controversial. Heavy with a mixture of national pride, guilt, coercion, and conflicting influences, Kimigayo is an absolutely fascinating piece of music.

Let’s take a look at what makes these 11 bars (and just under a minute) of national symbolism tick.

What do the lyrics in Kimigayo mean?


Line 1 – 君が代は

Let’s start with the fundamentals. We’ll go line-by-line, starting with the first, most famous, and controversial:

君が代は = Kimi ga yo ha = May your reign

Originally, the first line read “Waga kimi ha” — “My lord” — but this was changed a few years later to its current form. It’s also been translated as “My lord’s reign.” There remains debate about who, exactly, “Kimi” is.

In the Heian period (794-1185) when the poem was written, “Kimi” would generally refer to one’s lord, but the emperor himself was often called “Okimi (meaning “Great Lord”) in earlier times.

Given that the Heian period was about infusing modern poetry with ancient influences, it’s far from settled whether or not this poem directly addresses the emperor. During the Edo period (1603-1868), “Kimi” would have referred to the shogun rather than the emperor, but this would switch formally with the founding of the Empire of Japan in 1868.

This etymological quandary caused much debate during the passing of the 1999 Act on National Flag and Anthem, which made Kimigayo the official national anthem. It was eventually decided that “Kimi” does refer to the emperor, but the emperor as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, and whose position is derived from the consensus-based will of Japanese citizens, with whom sovereign power resides,” according to then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, as cited by the Japan Policy Research Institute.

代 (yo) has several meanings, as you’ll also see in the next line. In this poem, the first yo is almost always translated as “reign,” but the kanji and word itself can also refer to generations and other such spans of time. Historically, Kimigayo seems also to have been sung as a wish for the long life of one’s guests and other non-lordly people of honor. The “lord” meaning is the most prevalent, so we’ll be focusing on that for this article.

Line 2 – 千代に八千代に

千代に八千代に = Chiyo ni yachiyo ni = Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations

Note the repetition of 代, but here in a slightly different context. When roles are hereditary and held for life, a generation is generally equal to a reign — thus wishing for a long line of succession as well as one person’s life. If we wanted to be a bit poetic, we could appreciate the contrast between the life of one person and 8,000 generations.

Line 3 – 細石の and Line 4 – 巌いわおとなりて

細石の = Sazare-ishi no = Until the pebbles
巌となりで = Iwao to nari de = Grow into boulders

You may well have seen sazare-ishi at Shinto shrines. Sazare uses the same kanji meaning “slender” or “fine,” but here refers to a pebble. Sazare-ishi look like rocks made of thousands of little pebbles and are often regarded as sacred. It’s said that they grow out of these pebbles over the course of centuries.

Line 5 – 苔の生す迄

苔の生す迄 = koke no musu made = Lush with moss

To say Japanese poets are fans of nature is a bit of an understatement. The moss here adds life to the stone, which otherwise might be a bit barren despite its sacredness. Moss is soft, and notably (for English proverbs) doesn’t grow on rolling stones. It might also, therefore, be a sign of peace and tranquility to counter the growing boulders.

The translation of the poem I’ve used so far comes from Christopher Hood but a more poetic one by Basil Hall Chamberlain is as follows:

Thousands of years of happy reign be thine;
Rule on, my lord, until what are pebbles now
By ages united to mighty rocks shall grow
Whose venerable sides the moss doth line.

When do Japanese people sing Kimigayo?

Every day since the early postwar period, national broadcaster NHK has opened and closed its broadcasting on radio and TV with Kimigayo. Nowadays this is limited to a few stations, as most run 24-hour broadcasting. Sumo tournaments play it before their awards ceremony, as does the opening ceremony of Japan’s baseball league. Naturally, it’s also played at international sporting fixtures.

Most notably (and controversially — see below), though, it’s sung in public schools for graduation and entrance ceremonies. Nowadays, teachers and students are required to sing the national anthem and show respect to the flag — and face disciplinary action if they don’t.

Singing and standing aren’t mandated by law except in the aforementioned school ceremonies. If you’re not Japanese (and don’t fancy singing), it’s polite to stand for the duration, and face the Japanese flag.

[…] teachers and students are required to sing the national anthem and show respect to the flag — and face disciplinary action if they don’t.

The long and short (history) of it

The history of Japan’s national anthem spans more than a thousand years. Kimigayo is a tanka poem, made of five sections of 5-7-5-7-7 sound units respectively. These have been written literally since records began with the 8th Century Man’yoshu, Japan’s first poetry anthology.

Before the Heian Era, tanka had already become the dominant poetic form in Japan, then fallen out of fashion in favor of Chinese poetry (called kanshi), then came full circle as Japan stopped sending envoys to China and started to look inward culturally.

A renewed focus on waka (Japanese poetry) led the Heian Era to become one of the most fruitful for Japanese literature, especially in the imperial court. This period gave birth to the novel form, as well as poetry written among the court for everything from personal letters to the emperor’s coronation.

It’s from this intense period of literary creativity that we get Kimigayo, as a tanka poem. It first appeared in the 905 imperial anthology “Kokin Wakashu,” the Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times. Not all of the poems in the anthology have named authors, and sadly Kimigayo is one of the anonymous ones.

Given that it’s a wish for the long life of one’s ruler (be they lord or emperor), Kimigayo saw a lot of use at ceremonial occasions, both for common people and the samurai class. By the late Edo Period (1603-1868), it was sung as a festive New Year song, especially by the Satsuma Clan in southern Kyushu. They would go on to be one of the major architects of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which dissolved the shogunate and gave political power back to the emperor, and the subsequent founding of the Empire of Japan. Members of the Satsuma Clan would go on to fill many positions in the new government.

An old song for a new time

The Meiji Restoration was defined by fierce strong nationalism and increased foreign relations. The “Sakoku” period of total isolation ended just a few decades earlier. This was a difficult and sometimes violent time for newly-landed foreign interest in Japan, so military regiments from Britain, America, and other countries were dispatched to protect businesses and individuals.

John Fenton was an Irish bandmaster who arrived in Japan attached to just such a regiment in 1868, the same year as the Meiji Restoration.

Talking to the Japanese military band in Yokohama, and noting the lack of national anthem, Fenton offered to create one if they could provide the words. The band connected him to Iwao Oyama, one of the architects of the modern Japanese military and someone well-versed in Japanese and Chinese literature. Notably, he was also from the Satsuma Clan. Oyama suggested the words of Kimigayo be put to music — and Fenton set to work.

Given Fenton’s own British pedigree, it might not be entirely a coincidence that the theme of Kimigayo is similar to the UK’s national anthem “God Save the Queen.” Unfortunately, Fenton’s new melody created for Japan’s new national anthem ranged somewhere from “lacking in solemnity” to “completely unsingable,” according to historian Alex Marshall. It also relied on the rather non-traditional brass band.

Author Alex Marshall calls Kimigayo the most controversial national anthem in the world.

It was revised a few times by Japanese composers before settling into its current form — a Japanese-style melody by Hayashi Hiromori with a Western-style harmony by German composer Franz Eckert. It was adopted by the Empire of Japan and dispatched to its embassies in 1888 as part of its desire to match the great colonial powers of the time in national symbols. Two years later, as part of the “Imperial Rescript on Education,” elementary school children were required to sing Kimigayo on national holidays.

The early Showa period, and the end of the Taisho Period (1912-1926), when Hirohito (29 April 1901 – 7 January 1989) acted as regent, marked a great escalation of Japanese nationalism and overseas expansion. Schoolchildren in Japan and its colonies were ordered to sing Kimigayo every morning. Soldiers would turn to face their homeland while they sang their prayer to the emperor.

Under Hirohito’s reign, the military and much of the government fell under more direct imperial control, and Japan entered World War II on the side of Germany and Italy. Notably, Hirohito was not charged with war crimes after the Japanese surrender, but many believe he was responsible for some of the most shameful events in recent Japanese history. Whether he was a powerless figurehead or the true commander-in-chief (so to speak), the strength of the cult of personality that surrounded him in wartime is undeniable.

Why exactly is Kimigayo so controversial?

In his book, “Republic or Death!: Travels in Search of National Anthems”, author Alex Marshall calls Kimigayo the most controversial national anthem in the world.

In the early 20th Century debate began in earnest about the subject of the anthem, with competing arguments that “Kimi” referred to the emperor, the Imperial Household, or the state as a whole. Christian leader Uchimura Kanzo (1861-1930), who had a history of refusing to venerate the emperor, argued that Kimigayo was not, in fact, a national anthem at all.

“Its purpose is to praise the emperor,” he wrote at the turn of the 20th Century. “A national anthem ought to express the feelings of the people.” Pre-war textbooks explicitly stated that it was a prayer for the emperor’s eternal reign, though nowadays it officially refers to Japan, with the emperor as its symbol.

For those (like me) comfortable nowadays with the idea of “God Save The Queen,” praying for the long reign of the emperor doesn’t immediately strike me with discomfort. Historical context comes into play, however. While Germany and Italy changed their national anthems (and Germany its flag) after WWII, Japan did neither. While the emperor renounced his divinity and the new constitution redefined him as a symbol rather than a ruler, he didn’t abdicate.

Kimigayo was originally banned by the postwar American occupation, but this was lifted with the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which also ended the occupation.

For practically all participating countries, the aftermath of WWII was a period when concepts of nationalism and its symbols were interrogated and considered. For Japan, it kept the same flag, anthem, and emperor all the way until 1989.

The Japan Teachers Union (JTU) was set up shortly after the war, and one of its flagship policies was opposition to Kimigayo, the song which they believed justified and encouraged their students to lay down their lives in service of a terrible regime. In 1950, official guidelines called for the national anthem to be sung at entrance and graduation ceremonies in public schools, but the strength of the JTU and general opinion among teachers meant that these were widely ignored. Sometimes one person would play the national anthem through headphones, or first thing in the morning when no-one would be around to hear it. Most didn’t do anything at all.

Sometimes one person would play the national anthem through headphones, or first thing in the morning when no-one would be around to hear it. Most didn’t do anything at all.

The outpouring of patriotism that followed the death of Emperor Hirohito and the coronation of Akihito (i.e. Emperor Heisei) meant that “guidelines” turned more into “rules.” In 1989 the singing of Kimigayo and display of the national flag at entrance and graduation ceremonies were made compulsory, with punishments for teachers if they did not comply.

Kimigayo becomes codified

The 1990s would mark a turning point. In 1995, the JTU ended its formal opposition to Kimigayo. Use of the anthem in schools had gradually spread, but an organized protest in a high school in Saitama in 1997 garnered national news coverage. In response to a new principal’s demands that the anthem be played at the entrance ceremony, teachers cut the PA system and staged a walk-out while the principal was left singing alone on the stage. The same teachers organized a separate, unofficial graduation ceremony in 1998 to avoid having to play the national anthem.

The next year, the Hiroshima Board of Education cracked down on teachers avoiding Kimigayo. Ignoring their protests that the anthem harkened back to a militaristic past, or infringes on their rights to the constitutional freedom of thought and expression, they insisted that it be played. At Sera High School, principal Toshihiro Ishikawa was ordered to play the national anthem, and make sure that all the teachers stood and sung. After weeks of debate and pleading, and with seemingly no way to reconcile the ideas of his staff and his bosses, Ishikawa hung himself just a few days before the graduation ceremony.

These two events, in particular, galvanized political support for codifying Kimigayo as the national anthem. In 1999, the song officially entered into law as a national symbol of Japan. It shares a bill with the Hinomaru flag, which is the red-circle-white-background design that we know today.

Debate in the National Diet over the bill was short but fierce, centering mostly around the idea that “Kimi” refers directly to the emperor. This was not befitting for a modern, democratic nation, argued opponents, and especially one with a recent history of colonialism under the same anthem.

Proponents focused on the anthem’s de facto use and the redefinition of the emperor as a symbol of Japan, rather than its ruler. However, voting ran mostly along party lines, and polls at the time showed that about 60% of Japanese people thought Kimigayo was already the official national anthem.

A problem of education

The modern controversy surrounding Kimigayo centers almost entirely around schools. Sweeping education reforms in 2006 codified patriotism into the Japanese national education system, describing one of the purposes of Japanese education as “to nurture an attitude […] to love our country and our home.” Opponents in the Diet argued that state-organized patriotism could lead to a return to the nationalism of the early 20th Century.

Article 19 of Japan’s constitution enshrines freedom of thought, conscience, and expression. Teachers who protest the national anthem have often called upon Article 19 to defend their actions, casting it as a refusal to honor a nationalistic symbol.

While the 1999 law might have been designed to clarify things, instead it created further confusion. There remains no definition of what constitutes “enforcement” when it comes to making people stand and sing. It’s not clear whether, if a student refuses to stand, the student or their teacher should be punished, and how. When teachers do protest, punishments range from official reprimands to fines and forced unpaid leave and firing. There have even been threats of jail time. With no official stance, it depends on the Board of Education and the individual situation.

It’s not clear whether, if a student refuses to stand, the student or their teacher should be punished, and how. When teachers do protest, punishments range from official reprimands to fines and forced unpaid leave and firing.

The Japanese Supreme Court has also played a role in the controversy. In 2003, 500 teachers brought a lawsuit against the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, claiming that rules over the national anthem curtailed their freedom of thought. The Supreme Court sided with Ishihara, saying that while the rules were an indirect breach of freedom, they weren’t unconstitutional. This decision has been reiterated several times, most recently in 2011 where it was said that the rules were necessary in order to ensure a smooth running of the ceremonies and appropriate education in line with the law. In short, regardless of what their personal beliefs may be, teachers are public servants and thus must follow the government when it comes to doing their jobs.

A lot can happen in 55 seconds

That said, stricter laws and the simple passage of time has seen protest diminish. In my (very unscientific) poll of four teachers, all of them believed that it’s the right thing to do to sing the national anthem.

“It’s the national anthem, so I think it’s obviously important to sing,” one teacher told me. “It refers to the emperor as a symbol of Japan, and as it’s a beautiful poem I don’t see any bad aspects myself,” one told me.

Another agreed that it was OK to sing the national anthem and that younger people don’t feel the wartime connotation as strongly as older generations.

“People who don’t want to sing should be respected,” they said.

For such a short song, Kimigayo manages to pack a lot in. While a 2013 poll by NHK found that the vast majority of Japanese people consider themselves “patriotic”, for some, Kimigayo still holds imperial and wartime connotations.

For now, though, Kimigayo serves all of us as a short, slow and ancient reminder of the power of national symbols.

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