Friday 24 February 2012

Wider Still and Wider

It’s almost that time of year again. We all have to file into the sports hall, bow, stand, look solemn, bow some more, sit, listen to interminable droning from various random dignitaries, bow again, stand, sit, clap (maybe), bow, stand, sit, stand bow, bow bow, clap (maybe), sing stand (are we still standing? I forget) bow listen bow sit stand clap (maybe) stand bow bow stand bow, bow bow bow bow…

Congratulations kids! You’ve finally graduated High School! Six years of spirit-crushing tedium are almost over, but not yet; we have to celebrate first. With more crushing tedium.

Celebration Japanese style. This is how we do it.

You’ll notice the clapping is optional, but the standing and bowing aren’t, and that’s where the fun starts (well, I say ‘fun’. That’s clearly a lie), because all that standing and bowing are for, among other things, the national anthem and the flag. In Tokyo it’s compulsory, and in much of the rest of the country it’s optional in the same way going to the toilet is; you’re entitled not to, but if you don’t it’s going to get very messy and unpleasant very quickly.

It’s a contentious issue because for many people the flag and anthem still carry difficult overtones of WWII, the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere and all that surrounded it. Plus of course the anthem is basically a panegyric to the Emperor. What kind of backward country would have a paean dedicated solely to the adulation of an unelected, unaccountable, hereditary Head of State as a national anthem?

Well, yes. There is that.

The thing is though, in England we’ve generally had a fairly suspicious view of overt displays of nationalism (I’m working up to that Samuel Johnson quote, clearly). It’s not that we aren’t capable of being nationalistic – clearly we’ve benefited more than most from an unquestioning devotion to the glory of the Mother Country – so much that banging on about it has always felt unnecessary and excessive. England expects every man will do his duty. Not makes or forces, expects.

Grand displays of national pride are a bit embarrassing, to be honest. If you have to insist on people honouring your national symbols, then frankly they’re not worth honouring. If you have to force people to respect you, then it’s not respect you’re going to get. It’s almost a classic double-bind.

We’ll skip over the fact that being ‘proud of your country’ is a fucking stupid position to take anyway. States are pretty much modern phenomena and are largely artificial constructs. Again, we know a bit about this in the UK having constructed a fair few ourselves over the years, something which has always worked out well.

Mission Accomplished

      "But I love my country!"

Really? All of it? Unconditionally? Then you’re a fucking idiot. Loving or being proud of aspects of it is fine, in fact it’s actually desirable. Maybe the founding principles ring true for you; maybe there are any number of important ideas, people, or movements to have emerged from your home which might not have done in other places or societies. Maybe, on balance, you feel that your governments and institutions have brought more good than bad to the world. Though that last is stretching it a bit, I know.

But if you’re looking to take some of the personal credit than you have to take some of the blame as well. You’re just as responsible for the war atrocities as you are for the Olympic medalist - which is to say, maybe a fraction of one cent/penny/yen of your taxes trickled down to them - but you’re probably a damn sight keener to identify with the latter.

Many people want to feel part of something bigger, no matter how impossibly remote that thing may be. It’s almost always comparable to a bacterium in the gut of that gold medalist taking credit for the winning time. Or maybe a barnacle on the flank of a whale feeling it's making an important contribution. I’m proud of my son, my wife, my friends and family, and my students and colleagues, occasionally. But my country? Any country? No. Nationalism – patriotism – is a useful conceit for elites to invoke to more easily exploit those beneath them, and as such is the last refuge of the scoundrel (there we go).

Well, there and your mum's bedroom

So we in Britain have a reassuringly long history of being suspicious of blatant patriotism. You’ll note that I’ve used three different terms to refer to my home country (correctly, I might add. England, Britain, and the UK are not wholly interchangeable), and not got anywhere near using the full name yet. We’ve always had a confusing and continual history of immigration and emigration, assimilation and subjugation, and straight up invasion and conquest. As such, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is, in its current form, less than 100 years old. And it’s hardly unusual in that.

Yet it contains smaller elements of continuity stretching back much further. My old school, for example. It's pushing 400 years old (and not private, the residual class warrior in me must point out), so it’s older than the countries of many of you reading this. And you know how many times we sang the national anthem while I was there? You know how often we raised and saluted the flag? You know how often we pledged allegiance to queen and country?

She can raise my flag anytime, etc etc

Never. I never even saw the Union Flag except as a retro punk re-appropriation on someone's kitbag, and you’d be hard pressed to describe my school as a hotbed of modern laissez-faire liberalism. Despite insisting we all march down to the parish church once a year to commemorate the founding of the school by murdering Bach, the staff recognized that there are bigger, more important ideas to instill in children’s minds than unthinking obedience. And the bigger the idea, the more locally it should be grounded.

So, when the band strikes up Kimigayo, will I stand? Of course. I’ll stand for the same reason I stood during the hymns at my cousin’s wedding, even though I didn’t believe a word of them either. I’ll stand because I value the opinions of those around me, and because I know that most of them are standing for the same reason. I’ll stand because sitting solves nothing, especially in my case.

If I sit, as the sole non-Japanese in the room, it could become an easy, immediate representation of the Us vs Them division the brouhaha around the flag and anthem is concerned with. If I sit then it’s a direct admission that these symbols are meaningful, when they really shouldn’t be. If I sit it could be seen to prove that the people who insist upon standing might actually have a point.

My standing doesn’t prove the opposite of course, but it is at least ambiguous. Besides, that same band will earlier have spent a good 10 minutes playing what is essentially an imperial hymn to the expansion of the British Empire and the righteousness of British global dominion, so I feel it all balances out in the end.

I guess the last word really should go the Emperor himself, as he's ostensibly the man this is all about. Apparently when asked about the flag and anthem situation in schools, he said that, "It is not desirable to do it by force." He sounds like a smart cookie. I hope his reign continues for eight thousand generations.


  1. To add to the last thread in your tapestry...And may those generations be blessed with the wisdom of tailors who know how to dress their Emperors appropriately.

  2. Don't stand....slowly rise and take the "crucifiction pose" and keep it until it's done or you are politely whisked away. No one in that room will ever forget you. And a video would just be awesome.

    Symbols and meaningless gestures.

    My students DREAD the Kocho sensei's endless a Japanese twist on the Chinese water torture.

  3. Will - And also blessed with observant children with loud, loud voices.

    Chris - I laughed at that. Do I get bonus points if I pull a Sad Jesus face and tilt my head to the side?

    Maybe the teachers who don't want to stand are missing a trick. They should stand, but all wear novelty bow ties which they make silently rotate during the anthem. This is a country with a pleasing affinity for the surreal, I think it would go down well...

  4. Make sure to wear your Buddy Christ t-shirt.

  5. Keeping with the spirit of anthems (in light of the links in your post), I've gone ahead and done something similar, but with a minimalist approach.