updated 9/21/2006 12:07:35 PM ET 2006-09-21T16:07:35

A court ruled Thursday that an order forcing Tokyo teachers to stand before Japan’s flag and sing an anthem to the emperor violated the constitution, a rare victory for the country’s waning pacifist movement, plaintiffs’ lawyers said.

The decision bolstered opponents of Japan’s growing emphasis on patriotism.

The “Hinomaru” flag — a red disc on a white field — and the “Kimigayo” hymn to the emperor were made Japan’s official symbols in 1999.

Supporters of the symbols say Japanese children should be taught national pride, but opponents argue the flag and anthem are remnants of Japan’s militarist period in the early 20th century and should be replaced with newer symbols.

The decision came the day after Shinzo Abe was elected leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, positioning him to be chosen as Japan’s next prime minister by parliament next week. Abe favors changing the nation’s pacifist constitution and pushing through reforms to place a greater emphasis on patriotism in public school curricula.

The 401 plaintiffs sued the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, led by nationalist Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, and the Tokyo education board over a 2003 directive that threatened teachers with punishment for not honoring the anthem and flag.

Ishihara’s government ordered teachers to honor the symbols, which is normally done on special occasions, such as at graduations and ceremonies on the first day of school, but not on a daily basis.

There have been 345 cases of teachers penalized for not observing the directive, according to Tokyo school board official, Takaya Suzuki.

Order violated freedom of thought
Judge Koichi Namba ruled that the order violated the constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought, according to Yosuke Minaguchi, a member of the group’s legal team. The judge added that the flag and anthem provided spiritual support for militarism until 1945, according to a court summary of the decision provided by the plaintiffs.

The court also ordered the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to pay the plaintiffs $255 each in damages. The lawsuit was filed in 2004. It was not clear if Tokyo would appeal.

“This is one of the best rulings in the history of education court cases,” said Hiroshi Oyama, the chief lawyer for the plaintiffs. “The significance of this ruling is that it gives us a great chance to stop Ishihara’s government, which is going out of control.”

The Tokyo Board of Education called the ruling “extremely regrettable.” The board said it planned to examine the decision closely and consider its response. Board official Hideshio Yasuma said Ishihara had no immediate comment.

When the flag and anthem were officially recognized in 1999, officials assured critics that they would not be imposed on citizens.

On a national level, Education Ministry guidelines say teachers should instruct students about the symbols and urge public schools nationwide to display the flag and play the anthem.

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