by Christopher Sayas
There is nothing that can spark quite so much controversy than the Nazi flag. Its black swastika and red backdrop can produce a strong flurry of extreme emotions to many around the world. The flag itself was made famous as it became the official state flag for Nazi Germany and became a potent symbol of Axis aggression during the Second World War.
(continued) With the Third Reich’s racially motivated goals of cleansing the world of the Untermenschen, or what they viewed as the undesirables most famously through the concentration camps, the Nazi Flag, or Hakenkreuz, has transformed into a symbol of hatred and far right extremism at its peak. Despite the fact that the Third Reich did not last for quite the intended one thousand year reign, its symbols and imagery have left lasting impressions on the modern world.
Although it has been 72 years since it has been used as an official state flag, extreme-right wing organizations around the world have appropriated it when they can. They have used the swastika as a whole to proudly display their so called racial superiority and as a symbol for others to join their hate for immigrants and minorities. It has also been used as a favorite for more extreme far right political groups who utilize its strong imagery to rally more people to hate as well as a symbol to defend so called ‘white culture.’ Knowing the power of this toxic symbolism both France and Germany passed legislation outlawing the use of Nazi insignias, symbols, and the flag directly following soon after the end of the Second World War. Western society, media, and mainstream culture demonize the symbol of the Nazi regime yet there is more of lukewarm feeling when it comes to Germany’s old Axis ally.
The flag of the Rising Sun was first originally used throughout feudal Japan and during the Meiji Reformation officially became a battle flag for the new imperial military. During the Second World War and well before, the Empire of Japan used the Rising Sun flag for not just state use or functions but also naval jacks and army banners, cementing its image as a symbol for an aggressive and imperialist Japan. To many Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese, and countless Asian ethnicities, the Rising Sun Flag occupied the same moral space as the swastika and the Nazi flag. Yet although Japan was also an Axis power responsible for heinous war crimes, Japan did not seem to go through the same deep cultural cleansing of its official and state symbols the way that Germany was following the end of the war. The flag did not receive an official ban from the government nor from the allied occupation forces.
The Rising Sun, although a symbol of the Japanese Empire would see its official return again in 1954 when the Japan Self Defense Forces were officially founded following Soviet military and nuclear threats. Less than a decade earlier it had been used for militaristic and imperialist motivations by an aggressive government seeking to build an empire and enrich itself by any means necessary. To many throughout the Asian continent, the Rising Sun symbolizes hostility and serving unwillingly to an empire. To many it also brings images of comfort women, the Rape of Nanking, and the brutality of a warmongering military.
Yet, the image of Imperial Japan’s flag however seems at least to the perspective of much of western society to be a much more benign emblem than the swastika. It can be found throughout Japanese culture and products around the world; from toys, to poster, and clothing the image of the Rising Sun is a pervasive symbol that permeates on a global scale and in turn seems to become a more innocuous design without any negative connotations. In this regard, the Rising Sun flag occupies a seemingly grey area here in the west in which it is not only a symbol of oppression to some but also a symbol of globalized Japan. It has been transformed into what kind be described as an innocent symbol devoid from its historical roots of aggressive nationalism.
The danger here lies in the lack of education regarding the history and nature of the Rising Sun flag. Symbols do have immense power in that they serve to represent ideals, ideas, and whole nations. The Rising Sun often serves to represent to some the past crimes of a world war and a refusal to face the history can be a painful reminder of justice denied. Although the Rising Sun had been used well before the advent of the Second World War, its continued use signals to some that the past sins of a previous imperial government were not totally wrong. To toss symbols around without knowing the events surrounding even something even seemingly harmless such as a flag design would only be irresponsible to not just the victims of the atrocities but also to the past as well.