by Kelly Suen
The rising sun flag refers to the flag of Imperial Japan’s military, particularly the Imperial Japanese Navy, during and before World War II. It has a red circle on a white background with sixteen red rays extending from the circle. It was adopted as the naval ensign in 1870.
(continued) Rising sun is also sometimes used to refer to Japan’s national flag, the Hinomaru (“sun disk”). The exact origin of the two flags is not clear, but they have been used together for centuries. The meaning of the rising sun flag has been developed through time, with countries of East Asia having their own opinions of the flag.
The rising sun flag, with its red circle and sixteen red rays, can be interpreted as a sun with sixteen sun rays. It is similar in design to the Hinomaru, which is originated from the Japanese name of Japan, Nippon, meaning the sun’s origin, or the land of the rising sun. The name comes from imperial correspondence with the Emperor of China. In 607 A.D., the Emperor of Japan sent a diplomatic envoy to Sui Dynasty China. He sent along with them a letter addressed to the sovereign of the “land where the sun sets (sun-set country)”, from the sovereign of the “land where the sun rises (sun rise country)”. This event is supposed to be the origin of the name Nippon. Land of the rising sun also refers to the Japan’s geographic location relative to China’s, and the fact that the sun never sets in the east.
The rising sun flag and the Hinomaru motifs were everywhere before and during the war, symbolizing the emerging Japanese empire. The flags were used predominantly in propaganda posters, textbooks, pamphlets, films, and more as a source of pride and patriotism. The culture of war was widespread in Japanese society at the time. Japanese citizens celebrated their military victories with both flags. Children were also subject to the propaganda. Students consumed Hinomaru bento (rising sun lunch box) to show solidarity during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The bento boxes consisted of a single pickled plum in the center of a bed of white rice in a rectangular box. First graders learned to read from textbooks that had illustrations of simple phrases and pictures. One of the illustrations was a large picture of the japanese flag with the caption “hinomaru no hata, banzai, banzai” (rising sun flag, banzai, banzai). At school events, the Hinomaru was displayed alongside the rising sun flag. The symbol once thought by the Japanese to light the darkness of the world, became a symbol of darkness to the rest of Asia.
In former Japanese occupied countries, the rising sun flag symbolizes Japanese imperial aggression and war crimes. The flags were carried by soldiers and were raised when enemy territories fell to Japanese forces. When Nanjing fell to the Japanese forces, both the rising sun flag and Hinomaru were raised above the city walls, buildings, and on street corners as Japanese soldiers committed rapes and murders. In Korea, the flag is a reminder of Japanese colonialism, a time during which Japan ruled harshly and crushed korean dissent ruthlessly. During wartime mobilization, Koreans were sent as soldiers to the front and tens of thousands of young women were drafted as Comfort Women. To this day, the flag brings to mind the painful memories of the long and harsh rule.
In modern day Japan, the rising sun flag is commonly used by right-wing ultranationalists. Their ideologies originate from pre-war ultranationalist groups that promoted fervent loyalty to the imperial state, glorified in Japanese continental expansion, and fiercely opposed socialism and communism. These groups are in favor of constitutional revision, remilitarization, state support for Yasukuni Shrine, respect for the emperor, promotion of patriotic sentiment among japan’s youth, and are still generally anti-communism and anti-socialism. Anti-Korean and anti-Chinese racist organizations, such as Zaitokukai use rising sun flags and Hinomaru flags at their rallies and marches. They have sound trucks that drive through the streets of Tokyo and other metropolitan areas with rising sun flags painted on, blasting nationalistic music. The rising sun flag’s association with nationalism stems from right-wing extremists who romanticize Japan’s aggressive and imperial past. They are attached to the symbols of a heroic past that give them a sense of positive identity and belonging.
The rising sun flag, along with the hinomaru have centuries of shared history. They are still in use despite protests from neighboring countries. As atrocities were being committed under the flag in Asia, it was used as a tool of imperialism and was seen as symbols of resistance against western colonialism in Japan. The flag is a reminder of the atrocities committed during Japanese occupation, but in Japan, the rising sun flag and the Hinomaru are being used by racist nationalists who strive to return to Japan’s glorious militaristic days.