Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Nazi Swastika and the Japanese Rising Sun Flag

Over the past few months an issue has kept on raising its head from time to time and that is the Korean outrage over the use of the Japanese Rising Sun/Imperial flag.  Now that my consciousness has been raised to this symbol, I am starting to notice it everywhere.

To be fair, one only has to whisper the word 'Japan' in Korea and many people become slightly upset, but a lot of Koreans compare the symbolism of the Japanese Rising Sun flag to the Nazi Swastika and say that to them the meaning is just as insulting and offensive.  I have also heard voices of discontent from the Chinese on this as well.

Is it really comparable or is it just an excuse for the Koreans and the Chinese to find yet another thing to dwell on about the Japanese and be outraged about?  I have noticed that Koreans do tend to use outrage and guilt as a way of justifying arguments against the Japanese.  They also have a way of promoting these ideas to everyone in the country, including young people and this creates a kind of patriotic moral fury, clouding logic and facts.  An example can be found in my school where they give out what, to my eyes, is a propagnada booklet on the historical ownership of Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks from the North East Asian Historical Society (roughly translated into 'The Korean Society for Justifying Korean Ownership of Dokdo').  The North East Asian Historical Society is actually a Korean group working out of Harvard University.

While I do have a fair amount of scepticism about many of the current subjects that people in Korea and China get upset about regarding the Japanese and how they go about making sure outrage and nationalism continues to fester in their young people, I really cannot help but also think they have some right to be unhappy.  Along with this, I do believe the Japanese also enjoy being subtley (and sometimes not so subtley) offensive and insensitive about their past wrongdoings.

As someone whose ancestors were colionalists themselves, I have to say I get a bit weary of the same old tired argument rearing its head when I have anything negative to say about another culture; this follows the same predictable path of, "You're a white Westerner, you can't say that.  You are the great grandson of slave owners, how dare you snobbily hold an opinion about others when your own country's history oppressed so many."  How long will this tired line be accepted by reasonable people?  It is nonsense; logic and reason is the best means of argument, not appeals to feelings of guilt.  I am not a slave owner, I do not oppress people, I am not an Empire builder, that's all you need to know.  Let's get to the point, is what I'm saying right or wrong?  Let's discuss, without pointing fingers to deeds that should be left in the past.

In this way, I can sympathise with the Japanese, they must be a bit fed up of defending themselves from actions that most of them had no hand in committing.  That said, there are ways in which you can bring these kind of lines of discussion upon yourself and I think the Japanese play a hand in continuing this kind of rhetoric.  The Japanese Imperial flag is just one way they achieve this, but there are many others, like I mentioned in a previous post on Korean and Japanese Rivalry.  To summarise it all, in a nutshell they really don't appear to be genuinely apologetic about a great deal of their crimes during their colonial period and during the Second World War.  Japanese politicians especially, seem to be incredibly heavy-footed in their dealings with sensitive historical matters.

Things are so incredibly different in Europe; I am sure that there are still issues of resentment regarding Nazi Germany and the lands it occupied (I had one Czech reader who commented that there is still bitterness in this area) but there is a marked difference in how Germany is perceived by its neighbours in Europe and how Japan is seen in Far East Asia.  It is a topic one could write extensively over, so I will simply concentrate on the purpose of this post and that is to concentrate on the two flags - the Swastika and the Imperial flag - and make some comparisons.

It is my opinion that they are not the same and also that the countries that adopted them, as well as the countries affected by them, also have completely different attitudes.

Firstly, the Nazi Swastika was not the country's flag, it was an ideological and political flag.  A symbol of German national socialism and was not related to the country before the rise of the Nazis to power.  The Japanese Imperial flag was not a symbol of an ideology, although was a symbol of the military and subsequently became a symbol of being conquered and oppressed by the Japanese.  I think this is a subtle but important difference. It is still insensitive and unnecessary, but considering almost every country has a military, one can see that it is possible to make a logical and historical argument to continue its use in this way.  The British Union Jack, for example, is not perceived in this way by the countries the British occupied.  Perhaps it does make the situation worse because the Japanese have an option of using a different flag, however.  One cannot make such an argument for the Nazi Swastika; it has a meaning that goes beyond the military and even beyond imperialism.

The next observation is the difference in how each of the flags is perceived by both the previous owners and those oppressed in their shadow.  To illustrate this, a while ago I made the error of displaying the picture below in a class I was taking based around the theme of computer games.  One of the games I remember from when I was younger was Streetfighter 2, so I unwittingly showed a scene from the Sumo character fighting in Japan, not noticing that the Japanese Imperial flag was part of the background.  In the first class I showed it to, I was immediately rebuked and I apologised saying that I had honestly not recognised it.  They went on to explain the significance and its relation to the offence caused by the Nazi Swastika in the West.

Afterwards, I performed a few thought experiments in my head: a) Would British students back home have noticed or been so outraged if there was a subtle Swastika in the background?  I thought this was highly unlikely; b) Would Jewish students realise or care about a similar situation but with the Swastika?  In this I could only speculate, I strongly suspect yes, but would not be that sure without an actual experiment (don't worry, I am not going to try it!); c) Would Japanese students notice or be upset by the Imperial flag in the background?  Well, perhaps not considering that the game in the first place was Japanese made, although I have heard some Japanese take offence to this flag; d) Would German students care about a Nazi Swastika being displayed in the background of a video game, then displayed in class?  I thought that this was the easiest one to answer, which is definitely, yes.

From these four situations it is a little difficult to tell whether my Korean students were over-reacting or being made to care about the flag issue.  I suspect there is some genuine moral outrage but also some propagandising of the situation in Korea, much like they propagandise the issue of Dokdo and the East Sea/Sea of Japan disputes.  What can be easily recognised, however, is that Germans have a much greater feeling of shame over their previous adoption of the Nazi flag compared to the Japanese and their adoption of its imperial flag.  I think the reasons for this are two-fold: 1) the German people and successive governments have done a much better job of public relations with regard to other countries since the end of the Second World War.  They have been genuinely apologetic and have admitted to and denounced Nazism and its symbol as a country and because of this their reputation has really thrived and is one of the most respected and envied countries in the world; and 2) like I said before, the meaning that the Imperial flag carries is not so devisive, and especially not to the Japanese, meaning to them little more than a sign of their military, maybe their colonial power in the past, but not an evil ideology.

In conclusion then, I don't believe the two flags are equivolent; they do carry slightly different meanings but I think the Japanese are playing subtle little mind games with their neighbours and are generally a little insensitive by still using the flag.  What also doesn't help is that the Imperial flag is quite nice looking and I think it looks attractive to Japanese and other countries when they represent Japan.  Here is a few recent events that have caused some outrage in Korea regarding the use of the Japanese Imperial flag and some other little things I have noticed also:

London 2012 Olympics - Japanese team wear the design on some of their team tracksuits, but a Korean soccer player is punished for holding a 'Dokdo is our land' protest sign after winning their bronze medal match with Japan.

George Saint Pierre - enters the ring sporting its design on his Gi and is rebuked by fellow UFC fighter known as the Korean zombie.

Battleship (2012 Movie) - couldn't help but notice the Japanese Imperial flag plastered all over the scene where they are playing a soccer match.  However, if there is a time to use this particular flag it would be in a naval situation as the design with the middle spot moved slightly to the left was the flag of the Japanese navy.

British Sushi Company - had the Imperial flag as its logo and a Korean exchange student in Northern Ireland requested for it to be removed.

A Korean University student's artwork - caused quite a stir earlier this year when it was leaked onto social media.  The nationalists of Japan held a anti-Korea protest because of this.

A Korean Politician - does her election chances no favours back in 2012.

Japanese sports fans - often wave the Rising Sun flag while supporting their teams.  The picture below is taken from the London Olympics, but it has also been present at many other sporting occasions, including baseball games and soccer matches.



  1. This has always been an interesting argument, because they do have a point, but I wonder if they would be so adverse to it without the propoganda. The rising sun flag has be perceived offensive. I guess we have a similar thing in the states with the Confederate flag. Some people fly it hatefully, others see it as their own culture...some states even still have it in their own state flags. I guess it is perception to some. I am from Kentucky and our state was neutral until we were forced into the war on the Northern side. Still, some people will fly a confederate flag (and while brother against brother did happen in this state, I doubt that is why most fly it). Depending on how it is flown I don't find it offensive...but I also don't take responsibility for any part in the Civil War (as far as I can tell my family was late 19th century Irish immigrants and were poor before and after). If I were black though, I would most likely take offense to that flag and at least partially assume the worst about the ones who flew it. The Dokdo poster after the game politicized with a direct statement in a place where that isn't supposed to happen. I had this debte with Korean friends...I didn't sway anyone's opinion I don't think.

    1. I wrote a piece on another site about that Dokdo protest by the soccer player, you can find a link to it on one of the side bars. I think we are of the same opininion about it.

      There seems to be an awful lot of propaganda in this part of the world to make sure young people know about, care about, and become outraged about things that happened in the past and I think it really doesn't help relations very much.

      Interesting information about the confederate flag. As a non-American I had never thought about it.

    2. You know, there are two words in the English language that I just cannot write without making a mistake every time: 'Opinion' and 'whether'. I even just had to correct 'whether' twice just now and I was thinking carefully about it.

    3. To this I do not understand why government propaganda should at all play a role in determining whether a state sponsored symbol should be condemned on a par with another similar type of symbol. Whether or not the Swastika was stigmatized openly by the media and the world in general that probably resulted in the indoctrination of public opinion of its negative stereotype does not in anyway have any bearing on whether or not its use should be condemned.

    4. What is wrong is wrong. Wouldn't you agree?

    5. I agree that using the flag is wrong and the Japanese should stop using it if it causes offence to others (which it does). I never endorsed its use in the article.

      I do not think it holds the same meaning as the Nazi flag, however, for the reasons I described in the post. As I said, the rising sun flag should be condemned, but I was merely making the point that propaganda does not help relations between countries.

  2. I have read the article before and yes, I think we see eye to eye on that for sure.

    As misspeilling and writing, sometimes when I reread my own writing I find it amazing that I have been speaking English most of my life. There is a reason that editor's have a job after all.

    1. I'm sorry to hear that you believe that the rising sun flag is not equal to the swastika. What worries me further is that you even seem to have no issues in the continued use of the rising sun flag by stating ambiguous distinctions between it and the swastika and claiming that the people of Korea and elsewhere are somehow naively falling prey to government propaganda.

      I do not quite understand how simply the fact that the swastika never being officially recognized as the country's national flag has anything to do with why its perceived symbolic significance in the hearts and minds of the people who fell victim to the nazis should be different from those who perceived the rising sun flag under the same context by imperial Japan. Remember, when people equate the swastika with the rising sun flag they do not attempt to simply equate government protocol of its use as a significant factor in determining their similarities but the degree to which those who flew it committed unthinkable and heinous acts against humanity. In this case I'd like you to consider long and hard whether the two states during WW2 can be said to be on a par in terms of their state sponsored war crimes, which is really the only issue that needs to be addressed in a debate regarding the similarities between the symbols carried by either states as perceived by the victims of those states.

    2. I agree with the most part that "Anonymous" said, especially "claiming that the people of Korea and elsewhere are somehow naively falling prey to government propaganda."
      Japanese occupation is probably the most important part of learning the Korean history if you grew up in Korea.

      First of all, I wouldn't call those government propaganda, but if you have to, I am 100% with what Anonymous said.

      You don't need propaganda to learn about these issue. You grow up with it.
      If you're an African-Ameircan born and raised in the States, you don't need anyone to tell you what their sad history is. In fact, no matter how much government or any propaganda try to cover it up or justify it, there's too much truth that they just can't hide.

      Anonymous had a very good point below.
      Before criticizing Korean government and/or propaganda, which as you'd like to call, I'd suggest you to take a moment to ponder upon the differences in their manner between Germany and Japan. Have you experience any aggression in the European countries that is just as serious as you experience with Korean/Eastern Asian towards Japan?

    3. I think I should make it 100% clear here that I do not support the use of the Rising Sun flag in Japan, I said in the post that it is insensitive and wrong. However, I do stand by what I say about comparing it to the Nazi Swastika. The Swastika has more direct and negative connotations because it is a sign of the philosophy of Nazi national socialism. The Japanese Rising Sun flag does not signify a philosophy for abusing or killing people. It may be used by their military as a symbol, but does not have a malevolent philosophy behind it.

      The propaganda thing is an issue in Korea, I'm sorry to disagree with you. Teach the history of mistreatment by the Japanese, that is fine, but there are things that go too far and stir-up hatred of the Japanese in people (especially children) before they really know why they have got it. The issue of Dokdo is a perfect example.

      I see pamphlets being handed round in schools explaining the Korean side of the argument to Dokdo, foreign teachers at my orientation received a section at the back of our books stating that it is Korea's land, and I even saw a children's swimming tube in Homeplus the other day with "Dokdo is our land" in Korean on it with a picture of the island. Really, on a kids swimming tube! Sure, Korean students need to be taught history, but stirring-up such hatred over a territorial issue at young ages is not healthy (and when I have taught kids in Korea of all ages this hatred is very much present, especially relating to Dokdo). I would be exquisitely uncomfortable if I saw the same thing happening in the UK regarding telling young people about the Falkland Islands.

      If you think I am against Korea's claim to Dokdo, you'd be wrong and missing the point. I think this is an example of priming children's brains at a very young age to think nationalistically and to also dislike Japan, which may effect their thought processes on other disputes with countries whether it is Japan or not.

    4. as you may know, Nazi's official philosophy was not abusing and killing people either. in fact, Hitler was officially being elected as the party leader. so i cannot agree on your stance saying "The Japanese Rising Sun flag does not signify a philosophy for abusing or killing people." Nazi wasn't either. It had its flag already before the massacre as well. You won't say" the Swastika did not signify a philosophy for abusing or killing people because the Nazi already had its flag before those tragedies happened"

      I am with you in a way that Koreans became super nationalistic especially regarding to Dokdo issue. I, as a korean, also think we should cool down a bit. But at the same time, I do think this happens in china and japan as well. i am not saying that we have an excuse to be nationalistic, but saying that it is quite an interesting phenomenon in east asia these days.

  3. In addition to this I cannot help but think why you would commit to an endorsement of its use after acknowledging that significant differences exist in the manner they are used in public in Japan and Germany.

    1. Its really a significant reason why the people of Korea and East Asia are eager to equate the rising sun flag and the Swastika and have its significance acknowledged worldwide.

    2. I never endorsed its use in the post, in fact, I clearly specifically condemned it on more than one occasion.

  4. It is not just Korea and East Asia, the Japanese committed terrible atrocities against Australians during their invasion, and as an Australian it baffles me as to why i should see this symbol of the Japanese war crimes in local shops; all i can say is there have been a few places of business which i have left items at the counter and walked out of.

  5. I am a Japanese, and I want to explain my thought about Japanese rising sun flag.
    I think this flag is just like a iron cross of german military, which is now still used by german military.
    In some context (like games or movie), the symbol will show that they are enemies.
    And if someone put it on their body, he should be seen as a militarist, as well as a nationalist or a something of right-wing.

    But what makes this case more complicated is, the Japanese rising sun design is used so many in Japan without a militaristic meanings.
    For example, flags which fisherman use for their ships, or the paint on wall of bathhouse as same as a picture you shown.
    And It is prefered to use the Japanese rising sun image to design some classical things, like a image of mount Fuji with sunrise.

    In China and Korea, there are so many anti-Japan things such as movies, TV dramas, comics. And Japanese imperial army often appears in such things with rising sun flag, so the people became to hate Japanese (i sometimes feel this is a kind of racism...) and rising sun flag.
    So, I can understand their feelings, but still think their reaction is too heavy and don't want them to bring these anti-japan feelings out of their country.
    I feel anxious that the design of rising-sun might be banned in and out of Japan although it is a part of our culture.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. It does not matter what original meaning of rising sun flag was. Guess what - the original meaning of Nazi Swastika wasn’t bad as well. German does not use this symbol since they know their victim against that symbol. Same goes to the rising sun flag. Most people in China and Korea see the rising sun flag is the symbol of the Japanese militarism. Many Japanese knows about it since it is published in Japanese paper already. Since we all know that China and Korean people will see this flag as equivalent to Nazi symbol, anybody using this flag obviously has some intention to insult China or Korea. It is interesting for you to say that you felt Japanese is discriminated by Chinese or Korean. No… it is not true. Japan is trying to keep separated from China and Korea very insensitive way.

    3. What about the Turkish flag? The Ottoman Empire flag was EXACTLY the same and they were very naughty back then (sticking people alive on poles, church massacres, pretty stuff...) but no one is yapping about it...

    4. "I don't blame the guy who raped me, buy why are you suing the guy who raped you? I don't understand why you are so angry"
      basically, this is what you are saying.
      If there are people who are offended by Turkish using the Ottoman flag, I think Turkey also has to respond to it. But if there isn't any, good for everybody. your example cannot justify anything.

    5. Your point of view sounds interesting. Actually, it's not 'anti-Japan'. It's just a history, and even it feels hateful, it's true what happened before. The reason why people get angry at Japanese 'goverments' is, they keep idolize the war criminals like they've done for good.

  6. how is issue of Dokdo a perfect example lol those arguments are supported by numerous facts.

    1. do you really think all the people are really into "origin" of the flags and stuff? I find this article stupid lol

    2. As you mentioned, if Japan showed any kind of sincere or genuine apologies, maybe the 'hatred' wouldn't have become this bad. The fact is that there are still 'many' Japanese who use this flag purposely to annoy people who find it offensive and are proud of it (with the idea of imperialism/superiority)

  7. perfect examples would be Yasukuni Shrine and changing/deleting history in textbooks

  8. first of all, i am korean, so i may be biased, but will try to be as neutral as possible. (also, sorry for my broken english in advance)

    i personally think the way you described the discrepancy between swastika and rising flag is a bit off. yes, it is true the swastika is used for a political party and the propaganda of it, while the rising flag is used for military. but no matter what kind of agency/institution/army/or whatever used those flags, i believe the judgement has to be based on what they have done under the name of those flags. i do not think i have to go through all the harsh history that the imperial japan had made in the east asia in the past, because i think you also agree that both nazi and imperial japan were wrong. and thus, no matter whether it always has been a flag for the military or not, japan made crimes under the rising sun flag for sure, and it had been used to propagate their imperialism. and i actually cannot agree on what you try to distinguish military from imperialism. in my point, they are bound together, synonym in that period. maybe not now, but yes back then.

    also, i agree that there are even many koreans, not to mention japanese, who (mis)use the rising sun flag. using the image of the flag does not necessarily mean that it is okay to use. perhaps our history education got messed up. perhaps people are not as much aware of this issue as they are supposed to. but no matter what, witnessing some koreans using the rising flag image does not give us reason to say "it may not be so offensive." To be honest, jewish people did quite a good job to put their harsh stories out there through movies, shows and exhibitions, and now most of people, including myself and you, know how cruel the nazis were. but not that many people in this world, including koreans and japanese of course, know what actually happened. please do not think we had a war between two countries. war is different from massacre.

    maybe it is boring and sick to talk about last century's history. but if we do not clearly enlight people out there about what had happened, i think the dark side of the history will repeat again soon. it seems you are very knowledgeable and reasonable person, so i hope that people like you try to understand the history better before judging anything.


  10. You almost had me convinced but you are wrong. The meatball with rays are military flags. The meatball without rays is the national flag.

  11. The Nazis and Japanese were close allies. Their government was fundamentally the same. They copied each other's government and institutions.
    They had the same superior/inferior racial ideology. And they butchered tens of millions of innocent people because of that ideology.
    Today's Japanese flag is a Nazi flag.
    People should hate the japanese flag and shame the japanese flag just like they shame the Nazi flag.
    Burn that antique toilet paper.

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