Nazis in Kyoto? I mean, my son and I joke about how most things bad or evil in the world today are, or can be traced back to roots in the Nazi party (at least in pop-culture and through mass-media), but seriously, what are these symbols doing everywhere in Japan’s cultural capital?
The swastika (卐) is a symbol instantly recognizable worldwide. In the West, this is predominantly due to Hitler, Germany, and their Nazi party of the 19th century. However, in the Far East, as most things are, such preoccupations are quite a bit different….
The earliest archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates to 3300-1300 BCE in the Indus Valley Civilization of modern day India & Pakistan, but can also be found with the ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Indians of North America, and throughout Paleolithic Europe. Swastikas have been widely used in various ancient civilizations around the world, including Turkic, India, Iran, Nepal, China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea, and remains widely used in both Hinduism and Buddhism. The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika – “su” (meaning “good” or “auspicious”) combined with “asti” (meaning “it is”), and originally translated as “it is good.” It is not a German word, nor is it a German symbol; in German it is called the hakenkreuz, or “hooked cross,” in an odd attempt to tie it to perhaps to the more Christian traditions of the West. As used in the Far East (primarily China and Japan) as a homonym for the number 10,000 (much like banzai, see my blog on that idea here), it more appropriately means “all,” “whole” or “eternity.”
In more modern times, however, following a brief surge of popularity as a good luck symbol in Western culture in the very early 20th century, the swastika was adopted as a symbol of the Nazi Party of Germany. After Adolf Hitler came to power in the 1920s, a right-facing 45° rotated swastika was incorporated into the flag of the Nazi Party, which was then made the state flag of Germany during the Nazi era. Hence, the swastika in the West has become almost impossibly associated with Nazism and related concepts such as anti-Semitism, hatred, violence, death, and murder, and is now largely and permanently stigmatized. Not surprisingly, it has been outlawed in Germany and other countries (primarily EU) as a symbol of violence and hate.
How did a peaceful religious symbol used around the world become so perverted? Easy: Political Spin.
Heinrich Schliemann, a late 19th century German archeologist, discovered swastikas during digs at age-old Troy and associated it with ancient migrations of early Germanic peoples. Making a rather egocentric and culturally-selfish leap, he connected the symbols in Greece with similar shapes found on ancient pots in Germany, and theorized that the swastika was a “significant religious symbol of our [Germanic] remote ancestors….” Why everything to archeologists has to have a religious or ceremonial use or meaning is beyond me. Don’t you think that maybe someone thought the symmetry of the swastika was, perhaps, just…pretty??
This proposed connection of ancient migrations across Europe with Germany helped to establish a long Germanic/Aryan history then demanded by growing nationalistic pride in an only recently unified Germany of the 1860s. The swastika quickly became the symbol of the “Aryan race”, a Nordic (Northern Europe) master race, an idea perverted from its original meaning of “noble.”
In 1920, a red flag with a while circle and black swastika became the official emblem of the Nazi Party. In Mein Kampf, Hitler describe the new flag: “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man…as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic” (pp. 496-497). What is it about sooooo many people hating the Jews (and I’m 1/4 Jewish, passed from my Grandfather’s side, so it COUNTS!)?
It’s interesting to note that an abbey school that Hitler attended as a child had a swastika of medieval origin chiseled into the monastery portal (main entry) and also on the stone wall above a spring grotto in the abbey’s courtyard. Makes one think how much of an impact, conscious or other, this rather random intersection of man and symbol may have had on what has become one of the most infamous brands ever devised by humankind.
The Buddhist swastika however lacks such strong association with things bad. In Asia, it became standardized as a Chinese character “卍萬” (wàn), and from there entered other East Asian languages, including Japanese, “卍字” (manji). And while the swastika remains a core symbol of Neo-Nazi groups in the West, it is used today in the East as a symbol for Buddhism and marks the site of Buddhist temples, both in stone and on modern tourist maps! To help differentiate East and West, please note that in Asian a flat or squared counter-clockwise (left-facing) swastika is most often used, allowing for some relief and distinction from the oppressive clockwise-rotated, right-facing symbol of the Nazis. In a rather absurd and humorous thought, I wonder during the Japanese alliance with Germany and the other Axis powers during World War II if any Japanese official ever intimated about the Germans have it backwards…and crooked!
It’s time for us in the West to understand and disassociate pop-cultures of fear and pervasive paranoia with fact, tradition, and history. Much like the re-establishment of the Rising Sun flag in Japan in 1954 after that symbol was similarly conjoined with the brutally violent Japanese conquest and occupation of much of the Pacific and East Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s time to reclaim and take back this proud ancient symbol of more reasonable meaning. Be slower to react, judge and label, especially without all the facts. If you do these things, you and the world will be better for it.
And please, don’t confuse the monks in Japan with Nazis!!