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Japan may make flag, anthem official

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TOKYO (Reuters) -- Japan said on Tuesday it will consider legislating to make the Rising Sun flag and a song that are both widely seen as symbols of the country's militarism its official flag and anthem.

"The time has come to fundamentally consider the status of the national flag and the national anthem as one of the conclusive points of the end of the 20th century," top government spokesman Hiromu Nonaka said.The "Hinomaru" (Rising Sun) flag and anthem have no legal or constitutional status as national symbols. The government has avoided legislating on the subject for fear of an all-out ideological confrontation.

The Hinomaru, meaning "sun circle or emblem," with a red disc in the centre of a white field, has been used to identify Japan's merchant and official ships since the eighth century.

But during the period of Japan's World War Two military expansion into Asia, the flag was widely seen as a symbol of the country's militarism.

Even more controversial, perhaps, is the slow anthem called "Kimigayo," meaning "His Majesty's Reign," in which the words in ancient Japanese praise the emperor and hope his rule may last forever.

The government's controversial overture came two days after a high school principal in Hiroshima hanged himself over what police believe was a disagreement over the singing of "Kimigayo" at a graduation ceremony.

Toshihiro Ishikawa, 58, had been trying to persuade teachers to have students sing "Kimigayo" at the ceremony, in line with orders from the Education Ministry in Tokyo.

A ministry directive on the issue has been criticized by a teachers' union as illegal.

The ministry said the Rising Sun flag is hoisted and the national anthem sung during graduation ceremonies at most Japanese schools.

The Japanese communists, who have been staunchly opposed to any move to recognize the Rising Sun flag and the anthem, have recently changed their stance drastically on the issue.

"The problem is that the flag and anthem have been forced on Japanese citizens through customary use," Communist Party chairman Tetsuzo Fuwa told reporters on Tuesday.

But he said a national flag and anthem should not be forced on schools even if they were legally designated as such.