English teacher Hiroko Arai knew she was putting her career on the line in 2004 when she refused to sing the Japanese national anthem and salute the flag during a school ceremony.
Her silent protest, which cost her a reprimand and a 5 percent cut in bonus pay, is now headed to Japan's Supreme Court.
"I've always taught my students they should stand up for what they believe, even if they're in the minority," Arai said. "If I obeyed the order, I felt I would be turning my back on those students."
Now retired, Arai, 65, is leading the fight to overturn a rule she says invokes Japan's militaristic past. She is one of roughly 400 teachers who have joined a class-action lawsuit, now headed to the Supreme Court, to fight the enforced patriotism.
The Japanese anthem "Kimigayo," or "His Majesty's Reign," is a short, five-line tribute to its emperor. The first verse reads, "May your reign continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations."
The song was used as a rallying point for Japanese imperialism, and the Japanese military fought under the hinomaru or rising-sun flag during World War II. And while the country has made efforts to distance itself from its militaristic past, the anthem's lyrics and flag were never changed, unlike Italy and Germany. The flag and anthem were made legal national symbols in 1999.
"People are expected to stand for the anthem even outside of school," said Hiroshi Nishihara, a law professor at Waseda University. "But the words harken back to emperor-worship. Many people may stand for it, but they can't get themselves to sing the words."
Nishihara says public schools in southern Japan's Kyushu region were among the first to enforce salute of the national anthem and flag. Other cities like Osaka and Hiroshima have followed, but none have been as aggressive about the enforcements as Tokyo.
The board there instructs schools to take down names of people who refuse to follow the rules. Teachers are given a warning after the first protest. Pay cuts, suspension and job termination may follow. More than 400 people have been reprimanded since the rules went into affect seven years ago, according to the Tokyo Board of Education. A spokesperson with the compliance department said the enforcement became necessary because some teachers refused to stand and others publicly protested after initial warnings.
History teacher Wakako Imada has been reprimanded twice for sitting during the anthem at graduation. Her school has removed her from all freshmen and senior classes so she doesn't have to take part in graduation or school entrance ceremonies. Teachers have asked her to sit outside the school gym in other events that involve the playing of the national anthem and showing the flag.
"I struggled with my decision at first," she said. "But if I give in to pressure, I know I'll regret it for the rest of my life."
The Tokyo Board's move has prompted more than a dozen lawsuits with teachers fighting for everything from compensatory damages to the constitutionality of the order. The cases have gone from the district court to the Supreme Court, and most of the court rulings have sided with the school board.
Nishihara says the hurdle for Arai's class-action lawsuit will be high, because the teachers are not suing the school for unjust punishment. They're questioning the constitutionality of the order itself.
Bunya Kato, a lawyer representing the teachers, strikes a more optimistic tone. He points to U.S. Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette as reason for hope. In that case, the highest court ruled in favor of a Jehovah's Witness student who argued that his religion prevented him from swearing allegiance to the flag.
Arai knows the odds are stacked against her and fellow teachers, but she's not ready to give up yet.
"Once you begin the fight, you must continue fighting until the end," she said.