TOKYO Hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling party kicked off their first full working day of 2013 by singing the national anthem, seen by critics as a symbol of past imperialism and militarism.
The return of the 58-year-old Abe to the premiership following his conservative Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) landslide win in an election last month has raised concerns at home and abroad about a shift to the right in Japanese politics.
"We have returned the government to a party that can stoutly sing 'Kimigayo' at the start of business and truly been able to take a first step to 'take back Japan'," the Sankei newspaper quoted Abe as saying after he and other LDP members sang the anthem at an LDP meeting.
"Take back Japan" was one of the LDP's slogans in the campaign for the December 16 election that returned the long-dominant party to power just three years after a huge defeat at the hands of the novice Democratic Party of Japan.
"Kimigayo", a brief, melancholy melody whose lyrics praising the emperor date back to the misty past, was the de facto national anthem prior to Japan's defeat in World War Two.
Public opposition to the anthem and the "Hinomaru" national flag, which were only given legal status in 1999, has waned in recent years and the anthem is routinely sung at school and sporting events.
But the two can still spark controversy, especially when politicians get involved. Public school teachers have unsuccessfully sued authorities for being forced to stand and sing the anthem at official events.
Abe has put top priority on reviving the stalled economy since taking office on December 26.
But he also wants to loosen the limits of Japan's 1947 pacifist constitution on the military and recast wartime history with a less apologetic tone - although in a sign he may be wary of angering Asian neighbours, his government has said a landmark 1995 apology for Japan's wartime aggression will stand.
During his 2006-2007 stint as premier, Abe revised a key education law to put patriotism back in the school curriculum, and has made education reform a priority this time as well.
(Reporting by Linda Sieg and Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Nick Macfie)