Wrapped in the Flag

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TIM LARIMER TokyoJapan took note when Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and his aides last Tuesday tucked into a bento-box lunch of plain white rice with a reddish pickled plum in the center. The allusion to the Japanese flag was no accident: Obuchi and his team are trying to pass legislation that would officially recognize the flag and the national anthem. It's a risky power play that is dredging up nationalistic sentiments, but Obuchi and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are pressing ahead. When reporters asked how the lunch tasted, the Prime Minister answered: Simple and nice.

If only passions about Japan's national symbols were so uncomplicated. Because of their associations with Japanese militarism, the de facto national flag and anthem have never been officially sanctioned. Though routinely used at public functions, they often trigger controversy. One frequent battleground is Japan's school system. Each year debate rages over whether to play the anthem during graduation ceremonies. The Ministry of Education insists that schools raise the flag and play the song; the teachers' union vociferously objects. In February, a high school principal in Hiroshima committed suicide after getting caught in the middle of one particularly nasty dispute. Obuchi's decision to enter into the minefield has convinced many Japanese that his views are shifting sharply rightward. The government has gotten more conservative, says Masami Yamazumi, a retired professor of modern Japanese history. The flag debate is in this context.

Why would Obuchi, who has enjoyed surprising popularity since coming to office a year ago, step anywhere near such a delicate issue? The official explanation is that he wants to eliminate ambiguity over the use of these symbols to avoid incidents like the one at the Hiroshima school. The more likely motivation is complex but reveals the tactical prowess of Obuchi and his leading strategist, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka. Though conservatives in the LDP have long wanted to officially sanction the symbols, in the past they couldn't count on public support. But sentiment is shifting in their favor. Nearly 60% of Japanese recently polled by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun favor recognition for both the flag and the anthem. It's a potent issue, in part because the anthem's lyrics are ambiguous. The song is called Kimigayo, and kimi is generally accepted to signify emperor. Since the late 1800s, the lyrics have been interpreted to mean may the Emperor's rule last a thousand years. After World War II, however, many Japanese began to regard such praise for the Emperor as unacceptable. Obuchi and his supporters contend that, in the current context, kimi merely refers to Japan. Singing may Japan last a thousand years, they argue, is perfectly acceptable. This kind of parsing of words is typical of Obuchi's ability to finesse delicate issues.

To enact the legislation, the LDP needs backing from other parties. Obuchi thus invited the opposition New Komeito party to join his fragile two-party coalition; in return New Komeito agreed to support him on the flag issue, even though as recently as May the party's leaders had expressed reservations about any such legislative tinkering with Japan's national symbols. For Obuchi, it's a masterful stroke. He strengthens his coalition, reduces his reliance on his other partner, the Liberal Party, and further weakens the main opposition force, the Democrat Party. Obuchi is a crafty man, says Hideyo Fudesaka, a Communist Party parliamentarian. He's very skilled in political maneuvering.

As Obuchi steps out in front of the nationalistic parade, he's likely to consolidate support within the LDP. But he also risks painting himself as an ultra-conservative. Opponents of the flag law were stunned after reading an essay published in last week's U.S. version of TIME (which also appears in the Letters section of this edition) in which Obuchi nominates as Person of the Century Emperor Hirohito, whom many modern Japanese associate with World War II. Obuchi is a hidden right-winger, asserts Minoru Morita, a political analyst. It is a downward spiral to the old days before the war, says Shoichi Chibana, an assemblyman in Okinawa who was arrested in 1987 after burning the flag. The government is trying to bundle people into a community with one value.

Kenji Goto, a journalist who has followed Obuchi throughout his career, says the Prime Minister's calculation is more benign. Obuchi is old-fashioned, Goto says. He was a small boy when the war ended. He sees the Emperor as if he were the father of the Japanese rather than a political leader. Indeed, at the Prime Minister's residence, a photograph of Hirohito is displayed alongside one of Obuchi's own father.

If the flag and anthem law is passed as expected this month, it will cap an amazing year for Obuchi since he took office in July 1998. On his watch, Japan has passed banking-reform legislation, an economic stimulus package and new defense guidelines with the United States that enlarge Japan's military role. With that record, Obuchi arguably doesn't need to drape himself in the flag for public support. But Japanese have learned not to underestimate this politician's sense of timing.

With reporting by Donald Macintyre, Sachiko Sakamaki and Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo