in Kobe, Japan - Seismic activity is rattling Japan. Experts are anxious about a major eruption of Mount Usu on southwestern Hokkaido, one that will carry molten rock (also known as "superhot" lava) and major potential for destruction. The volcano has been spewing ash, rocks, and steam for the past month, forcing the evacuation of nearly 15,000 people. On April 17 it began to rumble again, causing police to close roads and the authorities to halt all visits to the area. The island nation is also in the midst of a major political shake-up. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a stroke April 2. After he slipped into a coma, the head of state was replaced by Yoshiro Mori only days later. Although his Liberal Democratic Party retains control of the government, the swift and unexpected transition of power left financial markets as well as voters shaky. Meanwhile, cultural shifts, on the other hand, are moving just beneath the surface of Japanese society, almost like irreversible lava flows. To encourage a more patriotic spirit in Japan, the Ministry of Education has steadily pressured schools to honor the traditional Japanese flag and sing a national anthem, although neither has legal status in postwar Japan. The Sun Flag, or Hinomaru, is a historic symbol of the reign of the so-called divine emperor. The anthem, called the Kimigayo, is a hymn of praise to the emperor. Its name means, "May the emperor reign forever!" Its lyrics include: "O Ruler, may your reign endure/Unto a thousand generations, yea eight thousand./'Til pebbles become a boulder,/Until moss lines its sides." Both traditions recall the Japanese hegemony that led to World War II. For pacifists, who are well represented in the teaching profession, the link between these imperial symbols and wartime nationalism is unacceptable. For Christians, the idolatrous connection of the flag and the anthem with emperor worship violates the conscience. As a result, many schoolteachers are resisting the government directive. Resistance is not new. Between 1985 and 1995, over 900 public schoolteachers were punished for exercising their constitutional right to follow their conscience on this issue. The situation has worsened since. Last year, Toshihiro Ishikawa, the principal of Seirei High School near Hiroshima, found himself trapped between teacher resistance and the government directive. He received daily phone calls from the school board, pressuring him to implement the government's policy by ordering teachers in his school to honor the flag and sing the anthem at a March 1, 1999, graduation. The teachers were nearly unanimous in their decision to ignore the policy. On the day before graduation, hourly phone calls from the school board overtook Mr. Ishikawa. He committed suicide by hanging himself. His death galvanized national attention to the issue. The next day 50 teachers disobeyed the government directive; school boards later disciplined 21 of them. Rather than alerting the government to the terrible burden that its policy was placing on its citizens, the protest only toughened official resolve. Legislators rushed a bill through the Diet (Japan's parliament) granting legal status to the Hinomaru and the Kimigayo. It requires government employees, which includes teachers, to honor the flag and sing the anthem. That action drew international protest. "Mandating students to bow or show deference to the Hinomaru as the national flag and to recite the Kimigayo as the national anthem violates the constitutional and religious liberties of all Japanese citizens," the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute complained in a letter to Prime Minister Obuchi. But the government continued to use its legal whip. Earlier this year, the nation's largest school board, governing the Tokyo area, assembled all 270 of its principals and ordered them to compel their teachers to implement the government's flag and anthem policies in each school. Ceremonial occasions, including school graduations across Japan this month, are now important test cases for the stringent new policy. According to traditional Shinto religion, which is foundational to Japanese culture and nationhood, the first emperor was the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu, who sent him to earth to rule it. Christians, of course, denied the claim of emperors to divinity and the right to be worshipped by the people. This resulted in their persecution, which became increasingly ruthless during the fanatical days of the Japanese Empire. After Japan lost World War II, the American occupying forces required the emperor to renounce his claim to divinity. Also at American insistence, a modern constitution was adopted that grounded political power in the people, allowed the emperor only a symbolic role, and guaranteed religious liberty and freedom of conscience to all citizens. But the conservative forces in Japan have never accepted this, and have looked for ways to revive the old nationalism, centering on the emperor. Remembering the catastrophe of World War II, many other Japanese do not want to see any revival of nationalism or state Shintoism. National holidays illustrate those divisions. Kenkoku Kinen, or Foundation Day, on Feb. 11 celebrates the founding of the nation, according to Shinto mythology. The nationalistic-Shintoistic elements within Japanese society hold pep rallies on that day. Christians call the day Shinkyou no Jiyuu, or Freedom of Faith Day. They gather to learn about the state of religious freedom and to discuss how to cope with the gradual erosion of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. At a two-hour conference of Christian believers from western Japan on Freedom of Faith Day, Japanese pastors addressed a group of church leaders representing evangelical and Reformed denominations. Mino Mission pastor Isaac Ishiguro said the political reality makes an appeal to the courts on this issue futile. He pointed out that Japan's judiciary is not independent of the ruling party (which controls the executive and legislative branches), as it is in the United States. His argument was historic as well as strategic: Mino Mission was one of the few Christian organizations in wartime Japan to refuse to submit to state Shintoism. For missionaries, the current battle is a forceful reminder of past persecution. In the 1930s the government used subtle measures, whittling away the resolve of Christians and acclimating them step by step to eventual participation in blatant Shintoism and emperor worship. Then the Japanese government imprisoned foreign church workers, notably Orthodox Presbyterian missionary Bruce Hunt, for refusing to submit to Shintoism and emperor worship. Then, as now, much of the nationalism emphasis began with the Ministry of Education. Missionaries say they have cause to fear that the education ministry is once again being used to orchestrate the implementation of idolatrous homage to the emperor. Already Christian families face everyday conflicts with the dominant culture, with many public-school activities planned on Sunday. More challenges will come: Cabinet minister Hinomu Nonaka has announced that the cabinet is considering legislation to nationalize the Yasukuni Shrine, a prominent Shinto shrine near the imperial palace in Tokyo, where the spirits of many war dead, including convicted war criminals, are said to be "enshrined." Talks are also underway to revise the constitution to better accommodate Shinto nationalism. Both Christians and Shinto worshippers agree on one thing: The postwar removal of Shinto rites and imperialism from government institutions has left a spiritual lethargy in public education. But Christians argue that the application of Shinto elements by force is worse than secularism.
Mr. Lauer is a missionary living in Japan.