Although Kimi ga Yo had long been Japan's de facto national anthem, it was only legally recognized as such in 1999 with the passing of a bill on national flag and anthem. After its adoption, there was controversy over the performance of the anthem at public school ceremonies. Along with the Hinomaru flag, Kimi ga Yo is claimed by some to be a symbol of Japanese imperialism and militarism.
For example, the protagonist of the Tale of Genji is also called .
And, in modern Japanese, Kimi is mainly used as a noun
In 1999, during the deliberations of National Flag and Anthem Bill, the official definition of Kimi or Kimi-ga-yo was asked repeatedly.
The then Prime Minister Keizō Obuchi replied on June 29, 1999 as follows:
"Kimi" indicates the Emperor, who is the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, and whose position is derived from the consensus-based will of Japanese citizens, with whom sovereign power resides. And, the phrase "Kimi ga Yo" indicates our State, Japan, which has the Emperor enthroned as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people by the consensus-based will of Japanese citizens. And it is reasonable to take the lyric of Kimi ga Yo to mean the wish for the lasting prosperity and peace of such country of ours.
The lyrics first appeared in a poem anthology, Kokin Wakashū, as an anonymous poem. While anonymous poems were not uncommon at that time, and the author may have been in fact known, the anonymity might be because the author belonged to one of the lower classes. The poem was also included in a lot of anthologies, and in a later period used as a celebration song by people of all walks of life. Unlike the current anthem, the poem began with "Wa ga Kimi wa" ('you, my lord') instead of "Kimi ga Yo wa" ('your reign'). The change of the lyrics occurred during the Kamakura period.
In 1869, around the start of the Meiji Era, John William Fenton, a visiting Irish military band leader, realized that there was no national anthem in Japan, and recommended Iwao Ōyama, an officer of the Satsuma Clan, to make the national anthem of Japan. Ōyama agreed and selected the lyrics. The lyrics are said to have been chosen for their similarity to the British national anthem, due to Fenton stressing the song and also the importance of having a national anthem. Ōyama then asked Fenton to make the melody for it. The melody was composed and was performed before the Emperor in 1870. Due to the pressure of the Japanese, Fenton had only three weeks to compose the music and a few days to rehearse before performing the anthem to the Emperor. This was the first version of Kimi ga Yo, which was discarded because the melody lacked solemnity. However, this version is performed annually at the Myōkōji Shrine in Yokohama, as this is where Fenton was based as a military band leader. Myōkōji serves as a memorial to him.
In 1880, the Imperial Household Agency adopted a new melody composed by Yoshiisa Oku and Akimori Hayashi. The composer is often listed as Hiromori Hayashi, who was their supervisor and Akimori's father. Akimori was also one of Fenton's pupils. The German musician Franz Eckert applied the melody with Western style harmony. This is the second and current version of Kimi ga Yo. By 1893, Kimi ga Yo was included in public school ceremonies due to efforts by the then Ministry of Education. According to The Japan Times, Kimi ga Yo is played in C major.
Since the end of World War II, there has been criticism of the anthem for its association with militarism and the virtual worship of the emperor as a deity, which some see as incompatible with a democratic society. Similar objections have been raised to Japan's current national flag, and demonstrations are sometimes held against both. In 1999, the Japanese government passed the bill on national flag and anthem, which designated Kimi ga Yo as the national anthem and Hinomaru as the national flag.
Since Oct 23, 2003, 410 teachers and school workers have been punished for refusing to stand and sing the anthem as ordered by school principals. This has made recent headlines.
Schools have seen conflict over both the anthem and the flag, as the Tokyo Board of Education requires that the anthem be sung and that the flag be flown at events at Tokyo metropolitan government schools, and that school teachers respect both (by, for example, standing for the singing of the anthem) or risk losing their jobs. Some have protested that such rules violate the Constitution of Japan, while the Board, for its part, has argued that since schools are government agencies, their employees have an obligation to teach their students how to be good Japanese citizens.
Opponents respond that as Japan is a democratic country, a national anthem praising a monarch is not appropriate and that forced participation in a ceremony involving the singing of an anthem is against the freedom of thought clause in the Constitution (Article 19). The government stated at the time of the Act of 1999 that the lyrics are meant to wish for Japan to be at peace with the emperor as a symbol of unity.
In 2006 Katsuhisa Fujita, a retired teacher in Tokyo, was threatened with imprisonment, and fined 200,000 yen (roughly 2,000 US dollars), after he was accused of disturbing a graduation ceremony at Itabashi High School by urging the attendees to remain seated during the playing of the anthem. At the time of Fujita's sentence, 345 teachers had been punished for refusing to take part in anthem related events, though Fujita is the only man to have been convicted in relation to it.
As a way to avoid that type of punishment, teachers who are opposed to the compulsory singing of the anthem have tried to expand various English-language parody lyrics across Japan and through the Internet. The parodies take the Japanese syllables and replace them with English phonetic equivalents (for example, in one of the more popular versions, "Kimi ga yo wa" becomes "Kiss me girl, your old one"), allowing those who sing the new version to remain undetected in a crowd. Japanese conservatives deride what they describe as 'sabotage'. There is also a political significance to some of the alternative English lyrics as they can allude to comfort women.
On September 21, 2006, the Tokyo District Court ordered the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to pay compensation to all the teachers who had been subjected to fines and/or punishment under the directive of the Tokyo Board of Education. The then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi commented, "It is a natural idea to treat the national anthem importantly". This was seen as a landmark ruling in Japan upholding the Fundamental Law of Education in Japan. The ruling has been appealed by the Metropolitan Government.