Use of Rising Sun image, flag unfurls controversy

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Use of Rising Sun image, flag unfurls controversy


Japan’s football fans wave Rising Sun flags in the 2014 World Cup qualification match against Iraq in Saitama, north of Tokyo, in September.[REUTERS/NEWS1]

Megan Rha, a New York City resident and mother of two girls, was deeply disturbed when she saw Japan’s gymnasts during the London Olympics last year.

They were wearing an outfit with a pattern representing Japan’s Rising Sun flag - the flag with the red disk on a white background used by the militarist government that invaded half of Asia in the Second World War.

“Promoting the Rising Sun flag is just like promoting the Nazi swastika, which is actually under legal restrictions in a number of countries,” Rha told the Korea JoongAng Daily through a recent e-mail interview.

When the Museum of Modern Art in New York adopted the design elements of the controversial flag in its poster earlier this year for its art exhibition, “Tokyo 1955?1970: A New Avant-Garde,” she decided to take action. The poster used imagery from the work of Japanese artist Yokoo Tadanori.

As a co-president of the Korean American Parents Association of Greater New York (KAPA-GNY), Rha sent a letter to the museum, and received a reply two weeks later that said that Tadanori’s work is not praising Japan’s imperialistic past. The museum’s response infuriated the Korean community in the U.S.

She did the same in April when New York City used similar symbols for its Restaurant Week Campaign, and this time she got an apology. “It was absolutely never our intention to reference the Japanese ‘Rising Sun’ in the design for the advertisement in question,” Nazli Parvizi, Commissioner of the New York Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, wrote Rha on May 8. “We are sensitive to the response such a historical reminder must elicit amongst members of the Korean community and apologize for any pain. […] This specific design will not be used again.”


Right-wing Japanese with a Rising Sun flag walk through Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Aug. 15, 2004, which marked the 59th anniversary of the end of World War II. The frequent use of the flag associated with war crimes in international cultural content is causing outcry from Koreans and Chinese.[JoongAng Ilbo]

Rha, who has been living in the U.S. for 30 years and has been the co-president of KAPA-GNY since 2002, said “Under the flag, Japan invaded other countries, executed atrocities against mankind like murders, human trafficking and sexual slavery, to name a few. So it is our duty to let more people know about what this flag represents.” She added that this is what she learned from her parents and is teaching her two girls - one who is studying in the U.S. and the other studying in Korea.

Recently, the use of the Rising Sun flag in various cultural contents like online games, music videos, handset cases, restaurant signboards and even children’s books at home and abroad is making headlines. And this comes amid the rise of the right-wing government in Japan, extremist Japanese politicians making provocative remarks about the country’s imperialistic past, remaining anti-Japan sentiment in Korea and China, as well as the younger generation’s limited knowledge of modern history in Korea.

Against this backdrop, the Korea JoongAng Daily examined the issue through recent headlines concerning the flag as well as how political historians worldwide view the issue.


The English rock band Muse used the Rising Sun flag in a recent music video. [Screen capture]; New York city adopted imagery of the controversial flag in its Restaurant Week Campaign [JoongAng Ilbo]

Games, music videos, handset cases

Controversies surrounding the Rising Sun flag recently spilled over into the gaming industry.

World of Warships, an upcoming massively multiplayer online game by Wargaming, was found to have included the flag in it. The game is based on the naval battles of World War II, and is similar to World of Tanks, by the same company, that features fighting vehicles from the mid-20th century.

Korean gamers saw the flag in the trailer and became indignant. They pointed out how the World of Tanks, which also attempted to re-enact the mid 20th-centuy, did not include the Nazi swastika but instead used the German flag, and called on the Belarus-based online game developer and publisher to remove the Rising Sun flag in World of Warships.

In response, Wargaming removed the Rising Sun flag in the trailer and said they will remove the flag in the Korean version. But the game’s producers disagreed, saying in the game’s online forum that they “oppose the decision” and believe the flag should remain in the game because unlike the Nazi swastika, the Rising Sun flag has not been ruled unlawful by an international court.

This further enraged Korean gamers and caused them to intensify their campaign for the removal, gathering about 40,000 signatures from users for their petition. Eventually, Wargaming’s customer relations department confirmed that “we will be removing the Rising Sun flag in the future,” adding that producers’ opinions are not quite the company’s official position.


Korean college students made an online clip using the Rising Sun flag, fueling anger and lament in Korea, which suffered a great deal from Japan’s wartime crimes [Screen capture]; A group of Korean residents in the U.S. launched an awareness campaign to let people know that the Rising Sun flag is similar to the Nazi swastika. [JoongAng Ilbo]

A similar incident happened when the English rock band Muse released a new album called “Panic Station” in April. The music video contained an image of the flag, causing an outrage from fans in Asia. “The Rising Sun flag is considered a ‘symbol of life threat’ to most Asian countries except Japan,” one of the fans commented. “Hope you can learn Asia’s history. With this flag, millions of people [were] murdered.”

Unlike Wargaming, Muse reacted quickly. “Sorry for the mistake re the intro graphics for the ‘Panic Station’ video,” Muse said on its Twitter page after the video was pulled down. “We are fixing it now. We will upload a new version very soon.” An updated version of the clip was posted a few hours later, with the actual flag of Japan, instead.

Still, in an indication of many people’s ignorance, many people replied to the posting saying, “What was wrong with it?” “What was the mistake?” “I didn’t notice anything. I like the video as it is.”

But not all are respectful and accommodating as Muse or Wargaming. According to a Korean newspaper, in May a Korean Facebook user said on the social networking site that after discovering that the Italian fashion and design company Benjamins has been selling a smartphone case designed with the Rising Sun flag, the user e-mailed the company explaining what the flag means to some people.

The user said Benjamins wrote back, saying if that means that they cannot use the German flag because of the Nazis, and the American flag because of the Hiroshima bombing. The company reportedly said we live in the year 2013 and if you like the product, buy it and if you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

As of July 9, the product, which was named “SKILLFWD JAPANESE VINTAGE FLAG,” has been removed from the Web site of Benjamins - which also sells cases for Samsung Electronics Galaxy smartphones - for unclear reasons. However, the product is still being sold on some other online marketplaces such as Amazon.

Implications for Koreans

Lee Woon-woo, a research fellow at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, says that before we criticize the use of the Rising Sun flag, we must first know exactly what it is.

“Japan is a country that is heavily influenced by its history. Just look at the emperor and his impact on the people,” Lee told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “So before we criticize the use of the Rising Sun flag based on emotions, it is important to learn exactly what the flag is historically.”

The symbol in the Rising Sun flag used to be the symbol of Japan’s ancient navy and is still employed by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. However, the Rising Sun flag is not officially Japan’s national flag. In the 1960s, the flag, along with the old Kimigayo national anthem, both of which praise the imperial system, crawled back into use across the country. By the 1980s, the country’s education ministry was even campaigning to have all schools fly the Rising Sun flag and sing the old Kimigayo national anthem every day. Still, the flag does not have any official status.

Still, as the flag is increasingly making sporadic appearances in recent days, some critics see it as a sneaky attempt by right-wing Japanese to legitimize the symbols of Japan’s wartime aggression and imperialist past.

More than anyone, Korea was one of the countries that suffered a great deal from Japan’s wartime aggression. And that is why Koreans or Korean descendants - such as Megan Rha - associate the flag with war crimes like massacre, torture, slavery, rape and looting, many of which Japan denies.

In fact, there is a government commission dedicated to this unsolved matter: The Commission on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism in Korea. It is tasked with confirming the identities of Koreans forcibly mobilized during Japanese colonial rule (1910-45), including the sex slaves euphemistically known as “comfort women.” So it is similar to Israel’s Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration, or the German “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” Foundation that compensates survivors of slave and forced labor before and during World War II.

“Being ignorant of what the Rising Sun flag means to some people and using it is also a crime,” says Seo Min-kyo, an expert in modern Japanese history who has taught at Yonsei University as well as Sungshin Women’s University. “Just like Japanese politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine [that honor war criminals], such acts cause secondary and third damages to those that suffered from the Japanese colonization.” Seo is also the adviser to the Committee for Finding the Truth on Pro-Japanese, Anti-Nationalistic Activities.

But what is more shocking is that it’s not just some foreign company with a lack of sensitivity or knowledge that uses the Rising Sun flag in its products. Many Koreans have also been seen using the flag, Korean media have reported recently.

Design students at a local university made an online clip using the backdrop of the Rising Sun flag; a boy band performed to the visual effects that resembled the flag; a bar had the imagery of the Rising Sun flag in its signboard; and a similar symbol also appears in a popular children’s book.

“I think it’s pretty. It’s catchy and cool,” one university student said about the designs in an interview with local broadcaster SBS, which did an in-depth story on the issue. “It’s not so bad [even if it’s a flag associated with war aggression]. I think it’s far-fetched [that these designs copy after the flag],” another teenager told SBS.

Many critics say that the fact that even Koreans - mostly the younger generation - are using the imagery of Rising Sun flag without hesitation is the result of their limited knowledge of history. They say that current history education is to blame, as the curriculum is crammed into a short period of time, focuses only on memorizing facts, and doesn’t cover enough material, taking only one or two semesters of middle and high school education.

Views on invasion

While some liken the Rising Sun flag to the Nazi swastika, why is the Rising Sun flag not seen as much of a taboo as its Nazi counterpart?

Historians say that both the aggressor and the victim - Germany and the Jewish community - have been active in promoting the formula, swastika equals evil.

Displaying the swastika and other Nazi symbols is illegal in Germany. And in 2005, German politicians called for Nazi symbols to be banned throughout Europe after Prince Harry of England was pictured wearing a swastika to a fancy dress party.

The Jewish community has also been active. Steven Spielberg, a Jewish-American producer and director, released the masterpiece film “Schindler’s List”; a pair of earrings at a Brooklyn-based jewelry shop with imagery of the Nazi symbol experienced a sales ban; and Giorgos Katidis, a Greek soccer player who celebrated a goal by giving a Nazi salute, has been banned for life from representing his country in international tournaments.

Most observers say that while Japan and Korea are to blame, the key is that Japan - or some politicians in the country - are reluctant to see its acts during World War II as “invasion,” and thus the Rising Sun flag, in Japan’s mind, is not associated with wartime aggression.

“The issue of the Rising Sun flag has to do with how to view Japan’s invasion of other Asian countries during World War II,” Seo said. “Right-wing Japanese politicians have continuously attempted to justify what it did during WWII - highlighting aspects like how some colonies of the West got liberated, how it was a conflict between the U.S. and Japan, and how it eventually advanced to Korea. And through such efforts, they are also justifying the use of the Rising Sun flag.”

“However, the Treaty of San Francisco signed in 1951 effectively defined Japan’s acts as invasion. So such attempts go against the treaty Japan signed with part of the Allied Powers.”

In a recent letter to Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK), Professor Eric Ross of Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, also said: “Scholars and researchers are largely in agreement about the human rights violations and multiple forms of violence and terrorism perpetrated by Imperial Japan. While there are certainly ‘revisionist’ Japanese academics, who, operating under the umbrella of nationalism, try to minimize the level of official brutality, or try to rationalize it as a more-or-less accidental side-effect of total war, historians who have studied Japan’s imperial policies and practices have clearly concluded that war crimes and crimes against humanity were conducted on a grand scale.”

He was responding to a promotional booklet on Korean history VANK sent to him and other scholars worldwide. VANK was established as an attempt to raise foreigners’ awareness about Korean history.

“Japanese nationalist leaders, and the powerful economic interests that back them politically, have never sincerely faced up to the responsibility of the Japanese government and of the Japanese nation for the atrocities committed under the imperial flag.”

Professor Tanii Yoko of Tenri University in Japan, Department of History and Culture Studies, agrees: “As far as I know, most of the scholars and teachers in Japan acknowledge Japan’s invasion of its neighboring countries in the past. Based on the demonstrated historical facts, almost everyone must be forced to acknowledge the invasive character of Japan’s foreign policy in the first half of the 20th century. I suspect that some Japanese who will not acknowledge the errors of Japan in the past base their opinion on their emotion, not on careful examination.”


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