National anthems have always inspired dissenters — but some countries treat their refuseniks better than others.
- By Alex MarshallAlex Marshall is the author of Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems (Windmill Books). He blogs about these songs at republicordeath.com.
If one person should be unimpressed by Colin Kaepernick’s “Star-Spangled Banner” protest — or those of the others now joining him — it is Kimiko Nezu, a slight Japanese woman in her late 60s.
Nezu is the world’s longest-serving anthem refusenik, a retired teacher who has been sitting through her country’s national anthem since her 20s, viewing it as a symbol of militarism. She has been fined, suspended without pay for up to six months at a time, and made to attend endless re-education classes for her stance against the 55-second song, “Kimigayo,” which calls for Japan’s emperor to reign until “the stones turn into boulders lush with moss.” Right-wingers used to occasionally turn up outside her house and chase her around Tokyo in sound trucks, calling for her to “go home” (they were implying she was North Korean). She was even once sent a knife blade in the post, a traditional death threat.
Nezu, in other words, has been through a lot more than Kaepernick. But she actually could not have more sympathy for him. “He’s only 28, and he’s doing something that puts his career at risk,” she says. “I was in my mid-50s when my actions really put me at risk of losing my job. My children had grown up by then, so [they] could look after themselves. But if I’d been in my 20s and had family responsibilities, then maybe I wouldn’t have done it. I’m deeply impressed.”
Kaepernick’s anthem protest may feel novel to some Americans. But national anthems are actually regularly protested around the world, both inside and outside sports. Their symbolic value and idealistic lyrics (“the land of the free and the home of the brave” is a case in point) have always invited listeners to use them to comment about the state of a country.
These protests are not just interesting in themselves: Their emergence, and the reactions they inspire, reveals a lot about the status of nationalism in countries. Take India right now. Over the past two years, several people have been thrown out of cinemas for refusing to stand for the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana” — a song that seems to be playing an increasingly public role with the resurgence of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Playing the anthem before screenings is compulsory in Maharashtra (the state that includes Mumbai) and common in other states like Kerala.
Mahek Vyas, 33, is one of those who has been affected, if by accident. At a cinema in Mumbai in 2014, his South African girlfriend decided not to stand for the Indian anthem and was harassed by people behind them. He decided to shout back and was beaten up for his trouble. Vyas does not see the incident as relating to a new atmosphere in India under Modi. “The party who actually decided to start playing the anthem in Mumbai was the Indian National Congress 15 years ago,” he says. But he does see attitudes around the song growing more strident. “They’ve started playing the anthem before sports events now because people react well to it,” he says. “But that doesn’t make sense. You don’t sing the anthem every day when you get to the office or when you arrive at an airport. I believe in India and the fact a lot of people lost their lives for our freedom, but it doesn’t mean you must have this showy nationalism and force it on people.”
Israel, too, has experienced recent prominent anthem refusals. In 2012, Salim Joubran, a Supreme Court justice, provoked debate by refusing to sing the anthem, “Hatikvah,” at a swearing-in ceremony. Joubran is both Christian and Israeli Arab, so it is somewhat difficult for him to sincerely sing about how his “Jewish soul yearns” for “the land of Zion,” but that did not stop nationalists from heavily criticizing his stance. There have been similar debates in countries including Serbia and France after soccer players have refused to sing their national anthems. (Far-right politician Marine Le Pen has unsurprisingly tried to get political capital out of any French player who has remained silent, whatever their reasoning.)
But it is in Japan where anthem protests have occurred for the longest time. They date to World War II, when the anthem played a prominent part in building a cult of personality around the emperor. After the war, a new teachers’ union was formed with the slogan, “Never send our students to the battlefield again,” and one of its founding aims was to oppose the anthem, prominently played at ceremonies signaling the start and end of school years.
Nezu says she happily sang “Kimigayo” as a child. She couldn’t have felt prouder to be Japanese. “I thought we were luckier than any other people. It was only sung on special occasions, so every time I heard it I felt excited,” she says. But at university she read about Japan’s wartime atrocities in China and Korea and decided she could simply never stand, the people who died in those countries having lost the opportunities she had.
She did not face any issues with her stance for most of her teaching career. But in the 1990s, the government, wanting to foster patriotism and even linking it to economic success, began trying to force teachers to stand. There were several flash points, notably in 1997, when children at a school north of Tokyo walked out en masse when the anthem was played, prompting weeks of nationwide debate about whether they were an example for others or the most appalling teenagers in the nation. Even manga were written about them.
It was in 2003 that things changed for Nezu. That year, the Tokyo city government, led by right-wing firebrand Shintaro Ishihara, said teachers would be punished if they refused to stand at that year’s first day of school and its graduation ceremonies. (Osaka later followed his lead under its own right-wing firebrand, Toru Hashimoto.) Most teachers fell into line, but Nezu and a handful of others kept refusing no matter what. She first had her salary cut for one month and then six. Then she was suspended for one month and then three. And every year she was also moved to a different school, sometimes a two-hour commute from her home, all seemingly in an effort to just get her to retire.
The fact that the Japanese public mostly accepted the harsh new policy perhaps shows the increased shift toward nationalism in the country — although it could also be that few actually understood the point the teachers were trying to make. The war was more than 70 years ago, after all. The anthem, to most modern ears, simply sounds like a call for a much loved emperor’s reign to last for a geologically impossible (stones turning into boulders) length of time.
“My family had no problem with me protesting,” Nezu says. “They knew they had a mother like me. But some teachers and friends tried to exclude me, and that caused a lot of pain. But whenever I was feeling weak, someone supported me, or a new teacher refused to stand, and I felt like I had to keep going.”
The mood in Japan has not changed since Tokyo’s largely successful clampdown. In July, a former prime minister told athletes to sing the anthem with gusto or “be declared unworthy,” according to the Guardian. It’s no surprise that Shinzo Abe has also regularly pushed the anthem, declaring its singing a sign of Japan’s confidence in itself.
Even after retiring in 2011, Nezu has not been able to leave the anthem behind. She’s currently involved in several court cases trying to overturn the punishments she has received and prove that forcing someone to stand for an anthem goes against his or her freedom of thought.
What lessons can Kaepernick learn from Nezu’s example? The realistic answer would be that he has achieved as much as he is going to by raising debate globally about both the state of race relations in the United States and how people treat such symbols as national anthems. Japan’s teachers have never achieved anything like that level of debate about the country’s war guilt, or the suitability of its anthem, in 70 years of protest; Nezu certainly hasn’t in her time. But perhaps the other lesson he should learn is that although people will quickly grow indifferent to his protest, that does not mean he needs to stop.
For Nezu, though, the main lesson for Kaepernick is slightly more prosaic: He should be grateful he’s not Japanese. “If a sportsman did that here, they would be exiled from the team,” she says. “Their career would be over immediately. That’s why I’m so impressed by his determination to do what he believes is right.”
Photo credit: THEARON W. HENDERSON/Getty Images