“When the sun rises, it rises for everyone.” ~ Unknown
Who would ever wear a swastika T-shirt? No one would who has a basic knowledge of recent history and a common sense of decency. Although perverted by the Nazi party, the swastika has become permanently representative of a political regime that committed acts so horrible that their flag became the very symbol of crimes against humanity. Put another way, the Nazi flag is not just offensive to a few, but has become to be one of the most recognizable insults to the very ideal of human rights that we in Western democracies (mostly, at least) hold centrally sacred.
But the peoples in those same Western democracies, for whatever reason, do not apply the same logical justice or even emotional reaction when it comes to the symbols of Germany’s fellow Axis power – and partner in crimes against humanity, Imperial Japan. It’s hard to explain why it is so easy to find contemporarily popular images of the Rising Sun in Japanese pop culture, given the memory of Nazi German that persists elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, the Japanese people underwent a complete paradigm shift in their beliefs and culture at the end of World War II, and they are perhaps the most peaceful, non-violent society to which I have been exposed.
But think about it another way: we in the West are taught clearly about the atrocities of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. Reflect on just how many books, documentaries, movies and memorials are dedicated to the holocaust, and how much it remains in the forefront of our collective consciousness. It’s an impossible reality to escape…unless you happen to be the President of Iran. But how many of us were ever really educated about what happened to many Asian countries during the war in the Pacific, all of which occurred during the exact same timeframes that the Nazis were brutalizing Europe, Northern Africa, and Russia. I ask you this: how much do you really know and understand about Japan’s sexual slavery of hundreds of thousands of Asian “comfort women,” the Japanese government and military-sanctioned human experimentation program call maruta, and the “Rape of Nanking” where upwards of 300,000 Chinese civilians were tortured, murdered, and mutilated? Perhaps if we all were better informed…. But more to the point, I think, things would be different if Japan, from the inside-out, was more ashamed of their decade of horrific war crimes, and if they outwardly acknowledge events of the 1930s and 1940s instead of constantly attempting to skirt the central issues, more and more poeple would all equate their barbarisms with those of Nazi Germany. But what country wishes that upon themselves?
The national flag of Japan, officially called Nisshōki (日章旗, “sun-mark flag”), consists of a white rectangular flag with a centered large red disc representing the sun. It is, however, more commonly known as Hinomaru (日の丸, “circle of the sun”). The flag has had a troubled past since the end of World War II, but in 1999, “The Law Regarding the National Flag and National Anthem” was passed which designated the flag Hinomaru and national anthem Kimigayo as Japan’s official national symbols. Although no earlier legislation had specified a national flag, the sun-disc flag had already become the de facto national flag of Japan for many decades. But this is really not the flag in question.
Perhaps the most well-known variant of the Japanese flag is the sun disc with 16 red rays in a star formation, historically used by Japan’s military, but especially associated with the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy of the first half of the 20th century. The ensign, known in Japanese as the Jyūrokujō-Kyokujitsu-ki (十六条旭日旗), was first adopted as the Japanese War flag in 1870, and remained in use until the end of World War in the Pacific. This is the genesis of Japanese being referred to as the “Land of the Rising Sun.”
Use of the Hinomaru was severely restricted during the early years of the American occupation of Japan after World War II, but these were quickly relaxed. The Jyūrokujō-Kyokujitsu-ki, however, took much longer to be re-accepted. After falling out of use and favor (for a whole slew of really good reasons), modified versions were none-the-less re-adopted in 1954 with the re-establishment of military defense forces in Japan. It is now used as the war flag and naval ensign of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), respectively.
The naval ensign (modified) is also incorporated into many commercial products and advertisements throughout Japan. However, as the flag was used by the Japanese in the conquest and occupation of much of East Asia during the war, it is considered offensive in South Korea and China where it remains forever connected with Japanese militarism, imperialism, and brutalities.
This situation, in my opinion, is very similar to our (America’s) struggle with the Confederate battle flag, popularly referred to as the “Stars and Bars.” Much like the situation in Japan, while the flag remains associated with aggression, repression, racism, slavery and militarism, it was not the national flag of the break-away Confederate States of America (CSA), referred to by North and South alike collectively as “the rebels.”
Although the Rebel Flag is often displayed in the Deep South as a “proud” emblem of Southern heritage, it is almost impossible to escape its deep association with and as a shameful reminder of slavery and segregation. For many years some Southern states flew the Confederate battle flag along with the U.S. and state flags over their statehouses, while others incorporated the provocative emblem into the design of their state flags. As is to be expected by all sides, the display of the Confederate battle flag remains a highly controversial and emotional topic, owing to charged disagreements over the nature of its intended – and resulting symbolism (the road to hell is paved with good intentions). And we in American have largely banned official government-sanctioned use of the flag.
Germans also has faced their own flag-inspired demons. In particular, Germany maintains a keenly watchful eye over the public use of Swastikas and other nationalistic emblems to help forge against any reemergence of a militaristic or overly nationalistic regime. In general, at least in so far as appearances go, Germans seem to be much more regretful and weary of their past war crimes, and have been proactive in attempting to make right of their many wrongs. The same can’t be said or seen about Japan.
Why is it then, that here in the West, symbols or banners that relate back to Nazi Germany or the Confederate States of America are subjects of public debate and legal sanctions, while Japan’s use of their imperial, militaristic symbols go, not unchallenged, but without change. As recently as the Beijing Olympics, Japan was warned not to stir fervor over (horrific) war crimes in China committed by Japan by using sun-rayed flags, but the practice was common and the Japanese government unapologetic. In fact, the Japanese Prime Minister recently officially stated in 2013 the government’s position on use and display of the flag as “no problem”. No one would ever allow the hoisting and waving of a Swastika at an international sporting event in Europe!
If humanity is to truly abide with the lofty notion of human rights being universally inalienable, we – all of us – must be true to these utopia ideals. While personally I can see past the historic and ill-conceived use of such symbols and can appreciate them as part of history and even heritage, it is unfair to the collective human race that we selectively remember war crimes and atrocities in an unbalanced West versus East fashion.
But then again, the flag that was the symbol of slavery on the high seas for a very long time before the American Civil War was not the Confederate battle or national flag. It was, sadly, often the Stars and Stripes of the United States.