In a rare public comment last week, Japan's emperor caused a stir by offering his opinion on a political controversy. The dispute draws new attention to a dispute over symbols of Japan's militaristic past.

Japan's national anthem, the Kimigayo, and its rising sun flag, the Hinomaru, remain unchanged from the era in which Japan invaded and occupied much of Asia. But since Japan's World War II defeat in 1945, it is rare to see overt displays of patriotism.

Many Japanese, critical of the country's colonial legacy, which caused tremendous loss of life throughout Asia, oppose making students stand for the two national emblems at school ceremonies.

At a recent imperial garden party, reporters' microphones overheard Emperor Akihito step into the debate.

The emperor bluntly said he is against forcing teachers and students to show their patriotism.

Emperor Akihito's comment was provoked by one of his guests.

Kunio Yonegawa, a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education, enthusiastically boasted to the emperor that he is campaigning nationally to make schools hoist the flag and sing the national anthem.

The emperor's comment to Mr. Yonegawa set off a stir in government circles.

Under the emperor's father, the late Emperor Hirohito, the military-dominated Japan, and led a march across Asia. The Kimigayo and Hinomaru were potent symbols of the military during Japan's harsh colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and northern China in the first half of the 20th century, and when it invaded Southeast Asia.

After World War II, Japan adopted a pacifist Constitution and the country worked to ignore its militaristic past. Only small fringe groups espoused strident nationalism.

Under the Constitution, the emperor was essentially demoted from a living god to a symbol of the state, who does not govern. The emperor also is not supposed to make comments on politically sensitive issues. Until his remark on the flag and anthem, Emperor Akihito had closely adhered to that policy since taking the throne in 1989.

But the emperor got support for his remark from Japan's prime minister. Junichiro Koizumi says he shares the view that standing for the national anthem should not be mandatory. But he cautions that the matter, including whether it was appropriate for the emperor to speak out, should not become a political issue.

The emperor's comments put Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara in a bind. He is an outspoken nationalist and is seen as a future contender for prime minister. He defends the metropolitan government's order last year to make teachers and students stand for the singing of the Kimigayo.

But that position puts him at odds with the emperor, who many nationalists see as the center of national pride.

Governor Ishihara says it was decided that public servants should comply with the obligation. He adds - in somewhat contradictory language - that he does not believe anyone is being forced to do something.

However, the Tokyo Board of Education has punished more than 200 teachers in the past year for refusing to sing the national anthem.

Some of the teachers, whose contracts were not renewed, are suing.

Several Cabinet members - including the education and justice ministers - have jumped into the fray. They say they believe the emperor was just trying to voice his wish that the anthem be sung "voluntarily with joy."

But Education Minister Nariaki Nakayama adds that school administrators and teachers, as public servants, should comply with the laws and government orders.

Japan, for decades, has witnessed a tug-of-war between the conservative Education Ministry and the country's teachers, whose unions are decidedly left wing.

Many teachers say they are uncomfortable with paying respect to symbols of Japanese imperialism or making their students do so. But conservatives, including some governing party lawmakers, contend Japanese children lack pride in their country and should learn to be patriotic.