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Kimigayo: A guide to Japan’s controversial national anthem

22 Comments
By Jack Richardson

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?

君が代は

千代に八千代に

細石の

巌となりて

苔の生す迄

[きみがよは

ちよにやちよに

さざれいしの

いわおとなりて

こけのむすまで

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.

Click here to read more.

© GaijinPot

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

22 Comments
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The music is very nice

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Singing the national anthem should not be compulsory, flying/displaying the national flag should not be compulsory. Japan is a democracy, citizens should have a choice in the matter.

1 ( +6 / -5 )

At my secondary school in Australia we had to sing the National Anthem every morning, hands on hearts. Never had to do that in the UK. Once we had to sing the National Anthem twice, because the Principal had noticed me not singing it. He was kind enough to identify me to the assembly as the culprit.

The anthem at that time was God Save The Queen, inherited of course from the United Kingdom. Australia has since ditched GSTQ in favour of Advance Australia Fair, a meritless piece of anthem writing-by-the-numbers. The only controversy AAF has ever generated was over the meaning of the word "girt".

Compared to God Save The Queen, which is a piece of Victorian British triumphalism, the lyrics of Kimigayo don't seem too outrageous. The British people don't seem to ask themselves the same questions about it as the Japanese do of their anthem - "send her victorious"? Over whom?

Over any of those pesky foreigners who might give us a bit of lip, presumably.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

No one of any age should be made to sing their national anthem or stand up for it if they don't want to.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Its kind of interesting, but you should write that originally the “Japanese anthem” was written by Mr William Fenton, (a military music band leader) and finally as olways the Japanese people try to hide that, they do not have originality, they cover, and one of Mr Fentom, (actually from Ireland) of his subaltern, a Japanese man, was credited with its creation, and the problem was that Mr Fentom wrote the anthem in 2 o 3 weeks, and the music was very close to the English anthem, of corse for the influence of England, so for the Conservative party was kind of “loud” of that time. So thanks to a foreigner again, the proud Japanese society has and anthem. Another reason, that in the old day many people did not want to accept this “glorious” anthem, so there were in recent years many Japanese teachers punish, for not standing were was sung.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

No one of any age should be made to sing their national anthem or stand up for it if they don't want to

I almost completely agree with this, but I gotta say it pisses me off to no end when rich NFL players can't be bothered to stand for the anthem, which is not Republican or Democrat, it's a symbol of the country that allows them to prosper as they do, and they should show some respect.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

I almost completely agree with this, but I gotta say it pisses me off to no end when rich NFL players can't be bothered to stand for the anthem, which is not Republican or Democrat, it's a symbol of the country that allows them to prosper as they do, and they should show some respect.

NFL players have the same right as anyone else not to stand for the anthem.

Are you saying the successful should have less freedom of choice?

5 ( +6 / -1 )

The act of singing the national anthem at a school is one of the educations we take to bring pride and dignity to say that you are a citizen of that country. The act of singing the national anthem at school is both a lesson and a duty. Sorry if you do not understand it, but you are a child. It is your freedom to decide to sing or not sing the anthem outside of school (such as at a baseball stadium).

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

I gotta say it pisses me off to no end when rich NFL players can't be bothered to stand for the anthem, which is not Republican or Democrat, it's a symbol of the country that allows them to prosper as they do

Why do you get to decide that what the anthem represents to you means more than what it represents to them?

Why is does the meaning to them not count? Are they lesser people whose opinions should also be treated as such?

Or do you think that it's impossible someone could see the country different from you do, and potentially live in very different circumstances to you?

3 ( +4 / -1 )

BigYen, both words and music predate Queen Victoria by several centuries, indeed the tune traces its ancestry to a medieval chant.

As it seems the words are open to interpretation, perhaps an agreed democratic reading should be formulated and taught alongside any singing of the anthem so children grow up with a clear understanding of its import. Agree it should not be mandated in schools or teachers punished if not sung.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I almost completely agree with this, but I gotta say it pisses me off to no end when rich NFL players can't be bothered to stand for the anthem, which is not Republican or Democrat, it's a symbol of the country that allows them to prosper as they do, and they should show some respect.

They do. For freedom.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Who's more patriotic, one who stands as that is the very thing that is expected or one who remains seated despite the pressures from all sides to conform? They love their country so much to risk judgement just to convey to the land they love that it has gone down the wrong road?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Who's more patriotic, one who stands as that is the very thing that is expected or one who remains seated despite the pressures from all sides to conform?

Both are being patriotic one stands, the other sits. The one who stands, why, because they actually believe in the national anthem or they stand out of fear of being criticised.

Under freedom of democracy they are both patriotic.

Like in India since last year, it's now illegal not to stand for the anthem.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I almost completely agree with this, but I gotta say it pisses me off to no end when rich NFL players can't be bothered to stand for the anthem, which is not Republican or Democrat, it's a symbol of the country that allows them to prosper as they do, and they should show some respect.

They do. For freedom.

For the freedom to disrespect our country. It is what it is, wipeout.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

For the freedom to disrespect our country. It is what it is, wipeout.

But what if they feel that the country doesn't respect them?

3 ( +4 / -1 )

englisc aspyrgend:

You'te right, I stand corrected.

So God Save The Queen is a much older piece of British triumphalism than I thought....

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The British people don't seem to ask themselves the same questions about it as the Japanese do of their anthem - "send her victorious"? Over whom?

Over any of those pesky foreigners who might give us a bit of lip, presumably.

The original version contains a verse that gives a hint of who they were. :-)

Lord grant that Marshal Wade

May by thy mighty aid

Victory bring.

May he sedition hush,

And like a torrent rush,

Rebellious Scots to crush.

God save the Queen!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

For the freedom to disrespect our country. It is what it is, wipeout.

But what if they feel that the country doesn't respect them?

Tough titties!

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

The act of singing the national anthem at a school is one of the educations we take to bring pride and dignity to say that you are a citizen of that country. The act of singing the national anthem at school is both a lesson and a duty.

While reading from the Bible and reciting the Lord's Prayer was part of daily practice in schools until it was banned due to the growing diversity of the nation, during my lifetime growing up in Canada such singing was not part of my education.

Nor was it formally done elsewhere. At some events such as July 1 (Canada Day) parades, military band performances or professional sports especially but not necessarily concerts or other public occasions, O Canada was played and sung before the start of the event. As we are part of the Commonwealth, sometimes, but rarely God Save the Queen was played or sung at the end.

Though I missed the indoctrination of "lesson and duty," I have a great deal of pride in being a Canadian citizen. Without flag-waving or any overt jingoism, when I travel abroad I am always mindful that my actions ought to convey the dignity appropriate to showing the best of what it means to be Canadian.

My point is that there is no need for tedious indoctrination in order to foster the love of one's country. However, fully understanding its history (both the glory and the shame), its foundation and role in the modern world has done that quite holistically and naturally. Frankly, I prefer that approach over "lessons and duties" I might have come to resent--or worse--find meaningless with being drilled into me.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Tough titties!

Someone only likes the First Amendment when they want to badmouth liberals.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@serrano

For the freedom to disrespect our country. 

That's a freedom too, but in any case they're likely to have a different opinion from you - and probably a more learned one - on what amounts to disrespect for the country.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The Japanese national anthem is nowhere close to being the most controversial. The US national anthem is far more controversial. Just because it has been shortened to exclude certain parts, it doesn't change what was originally written.

Some of the words from the US national anthem.

Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave

So NFL players are to stand for this?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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