Symbols matter

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Symbols matter

Last month, South Korean and Japanese soccer fans experienced a tense rivalry off the field when Koreans unfurled an oversized banner criticizing Japan’s lack of atonement for its militarist past during the East Asian Cup game in Seoul. Japanese fans responded by waving a large Japanese flag depicting the rising sun.

Koreans condemned the Japanese for waving a flag that symbolizes Japan’s Imperial Army at a sports game hosted by a country that still bears bitter memories of Japan’s colonial rule. Tokyo snapped back that the flag merely represents the country’s image as the Land of the Rising Sun, suggesting that it may seek to replace the postwar national flag with its red circle with the Imperial flag that has red rays projecting from a sun in the center. A government official even disingenuously commented that the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper regarded as being progressive on the issue of Korea-Japan relations, employs a corporate design based on the rising sun design.

Does Tokyo really believe its claim that the Rising Sun flag is neutral and inoffensive? If so, it is blind to the essence of the problem.

In semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior, symbols are vehicles for conception of objects, and people build an affinity toward an object because of its underlying concept and meaning. We are overwhelmed with the symbols around us, including those with universal positive meaning such as doves signifying peace and hearts representing love. Some visual images can provoke unpleasant feelings. The Jolly Roger, consisting of a human skull above crossbones, is used to represent piracy and is the harbinger of outlawed attackers in movies and cartoons.

The Hakenkreuz, the German name for the Indian swastika, became an entirely different anti-Semitic and racist symbol after the Nazis adopted it and put it in its party flag. It came to symbolize the genocide of six million Jews during World War II. Public use and adaptations of the swastika as well as the SS bolts, the runic insignia representing the Nazi army, and the Celtic Cross, with connotation of white pride among racist nationalists, are still banned in Germany and Austria. Use of the swastika can be punishable in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and Brazil.

Hate symbols can change according to the times. One example is the hammer and sickle, an emblem that was conceived during the Russian Revolution and incorporated into the red flag of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party. The symbol does not trigger immediate resentment or abhorrence to those who have not experienced oppression from the Soviets or communists. But it’s a symbol of fear and terror to Eastern Europeans who were trampled by Soviet tanks and soldiers. The hammer and sickle is a symbol of totalitarian and criminal ideology and its public display can be a criminal offence in the Baltic nations, Hungary and Poland.

What symbols or signs mean should be judged by the receiving end. To Japanese who deny their past conduct, the Rising Sun flag may be an emblem of their glorious and powerful days. But to Koreans and Chinese whose ancestors were conscripted to serve in sex and labor camps and massacred by the Japanese military, it’s a gruesome reminder of the past.

The history of the Rising Sun flag is also a problem. Japan in the 19th century was greatly influenced by militant Germans. Many generals studied in Berlin to learn German military strategies. Prussia, under “the man of blood and iron” Otto von Bismarck, was united through wars and force. The Japanese were awed and impressed by the way the new German Empire was transformed into a powerful and modern nation through military power. Upon returning home, the Japanese generals persuaded pacifists and campaigned hard for military expansion and authoritarian rule.

The military aggression model and ideology was tested out in Japan’s first war with China’s Qing Dynasty and the invasion of Manchuria. In 1894, the Japanese military - already suffused with expansionary ambition - offered to send a large contingent of troops to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) to help quell a peasant rebellion. Prime Minister of Japan Ito Hirobumi thought that a small infantry squad defending the Japanese embassy would be enough. The Japanese military reported that it would send one brigade to Joseon. But it sent a large-scale brigade of 8,000 soldiers by employing the military rule that an infantry brigade of the usual 2,000 could be increased up to 8,000 during wartime.

The large presence of Japanese military in Joseon prompted the Chinese to go to war with Japan to protect their traditional influence and control in Korea. The Japanese military was more blatant and scheming in invading Manchuria. In 1931, the Kwantung Army of the Japanese Empire, which ruled South Manchuria after the Russo-Japanese War, blew up a railway in its jurisdiction and blamed the Chinese to legitimize its invasion and occupation of Manchuria.

Right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a series of sensitive nationalistic gestures that are offensive to neighboring countries, including posing inside a fighter jet with the number of 731 on its fuselage, conjuring memories of the notorious Unit 731 that conducted lethal human experiments on Asian prisoners during the war. Abe naively shrugged off the controversy claiming he was not aware of the meaning of the number. It’s almost a bigger problem if he was truly oblivious to the offensiveness of his behavior. It would suggest that today’s leader of Japan has no historical perspective at all. Contemporary Koreans must be instructed why public displays of the Rising Sun flag is unacceptable if they want to argue logically and persuasively with the Japanese.

*The author is a senior writer for the JoongAng Sunday.

by Nam Jeong-ho
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