updated 10/29/2004 12:17:19 PM ET 2004-10-29T16:17:19

Japanese officials rushed on Friday to dismiss suggestions that the emperor overstepped his authority and meddled in government affairs by voicing his opposition to Tokyo schools’ policy of compulsory patriotism.

Wading into the controversy over patriotism in schools, Emperor Akihito on Thursday said he hoped nobody was being forced to face the flag and sing the national anthem — both potent symbols of Japan’s brutal 20th century invasion of Asia.

The comments caused a stir in Japan because the post-World War II constitution strictly limits the emperor to acting as a figurehead and bars him from policy-making.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Friday he thought Akihito wasn’t trying to influence the government.

“It should be natural for him to say that. That’s how I view it,” Koizumi told reporters. “The comment shouldn’t be viewed as political.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda stressed that the emperor’s remarks were consistent with national government policy.

“We think the emperor made his remark with full understanding of his position as a symbol and this does not violate our constitution which stipulates the emperor has not any power over affairs of the state,” Hosoda said. “We think this explanation poses no particular problem.”

Patriotism debate
Since Japan’s defeat in World War II, tacit taboos have prevented outward displays of patriotism. But a debate has been growing over whether children should be taught to be proud of their history and culture in schools.

Last year the Tokyo metropolitan government ordered teachers and students to sing the anthem at graduation. In March, the school board punished nearly 200 teachers for disobeying, and teachers sued. The case is pending.

At the royal family’s annual autumn garden party Thursday, Tokyo school board member Kunio Yonegawa told the emperor he was trying to make all Japanese students stand for the flag raising and sing the anthem.

In unusually blunt language, Akihito replied: “It is desirable that it not be compulsory.” Yonegawa quickly agreed, thanked the emperor and bowed.

It’s unclear whether the emperor’s views will influence officials or sway public opinion. Palace officials said Akihito was merely stating the obvious.

Remarks could defuse anger
Even so, the remarks could help defuse anger in China, South Korea and other Asian countries where many still harbor bitter memories of Japanese invasions.

Although Japan’s postwar constitution grants the royal family no official powers, the emperor has a central role in the debate over patriotism.

Akihito’s father, Hirohito, was revered as a deity until Japan’s surrender led him to relinquish his status as a god. He reigned when Japan invaded Asia in his name, and scholars continue to disagree over whether he was responsible for the Japanese army’s wartime atrocities.

Even now, Akihito’s status as a cultural icon gives his words considerable weight.

Some conservative lawmakers say Japanese children lack national pride and that schools should teach them to love their country. Lawmakers and politicians have called for changes to an education system that boasts nearly 100 percent literacy but is widely criticized as placing too much importance on competition, conformity and rote learning. Some schools have begun grading students’ patriotism.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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