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The Rising Sun Flag: A Symbol of Oppression

Although it remains popular in modern Japanese culture, the Rising Sun Flag also reminds people from other Asian countries of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Military against their ancestors.

The Rising Sun flag on display.
Photo: CNN

From 1868 to 1947, Japan was an imperialistic empire; during this time of rapid industrialization and militarization, the Empire of Japan emerged as a world power. While Japan experienced this period of growth, the countries and people they conquered suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese regime.

Although students here at Williamsville East High School learn about World War II and the opposing sides that fought during the war, not much is discussed regarding the war crimes committed by the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy. Because of this, it is easy to become unaware of and desensitized to the extent of the brutality exerted by the Japanese regime onto the people of neighboring countries, including Korea, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Japan’s extensive list of war crimes range from the attack on neutral powers (Pearl Harbor) to the use of human experimentation. It has been estimated that the Japanese Imperial Military is responsible for the death of 3,000,000 to 14,000,000 civilians and prisoners of war through mass killings. Professor R. J. Rummel from the University of Hawaii states, “This democide [i.e., death by government] was due to a morally bankrupt political and military strategy, military expediency and custom, and national culture.”

In addition to the mass killings, the Japanese Imperial Military also performed human experimentation and biological warfare. One of the most infamous places sheltering such experimentation was Unit 731, a unit established by Hirohito and run by Ishii Shiro. In an excerpt from Gregory Dean Byrd’s General Ishii Shiro, “To determine the treatment of frostbite, prisoners were taken outside in freezing weather and left with exposed arms, periodically drenched with water until frozen solid. The arm was later amputated; the doctor would repeat the process on the victim’s upper arm to the shoulder. After both arms were gone, the doctors moved on to the legs until only a head and torso remained. The victim was then used for plague and pathogens experiments.”

Among the other war crimes committed by the Japanese Imperial Army are the use of chemical weapons, the torture of P.O.W.s, cannibalism against Allied P.O.W.s, forced labor against both civilians and P.O.W.s, and the use of “comfort women,” a euphemism for wartime sex slavery.

During this time, the Japanese national flag was the Flag of the Rising Sun. This flag sports a red circle surrounded by alternating red and white stripes. Initially adopted by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1870 and later by the Navy in 1889, the Rising Sun Flag is viewed by the Japanese as a symbol of tradition and good fortune. The flag is still in widespread use throughout Japan, appearing on commercial products, clothing, posters, newspapers, manga, anime, and more. The flag is also the war flag and naval ensign of the Japan Maritime and Self-Defense Force.

However, given the historical context of the flag, many citizens of the neighboring countries that Japan once invaded criticize the continued use of the Rising Sun Flag, deeming it offensive and a glorification of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army.

In his recent Op-Ed in The Harvard Crimson, student Daniel Kim writes, “The Rising Sun flag is often likened to the Nazi Swastika, and rightfully so… The flag reminds especially Chinese and Korean people of the horrors of Japanese occupation.”

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) placed a ban on the Rising Sun Flag during international matches, in response to South Korean protests. Kim writes, “As such, the flag is internationally recognized as divisive, if not downright offensive.”

Reuters reports that in 2017, “the Asian Football Confederation sanctioned Japan after Japanese fans flew the flag at an AFC Champions League.”

The Rising Sun Flag is again at the center of international tension. AP reports that South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism sent a letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) “President Thomas Bach expressing “deep disappointment and concern” over Japanese plans to allow the flag in stadiums and other facilities during the 2020 Olympics.” However, “Tokyo organizers responded by saying it was widely used in Japan, was not considered a political statement” and “it is not viewed as a prohibited item.”” In September, the Chinese Civil Association for Claiming Compensation from Japan also sent a letter to the International Olympic Committee requesting a ban on the Rising Sun Flag.

The Rising Sun Flag continues to be a controversial and offensive symbol throughout the world. Although it remains popular in modern Japanese culture, the Rising Sun Flag also reminds people from other Asian countries of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Military against their ancestors.

A shirt depicting the Rising Sun flag currently for sale on Amazon.

As mentioned earlier, the Rising Sun Flag is now seen by some as a design to place on clothing. To my shock, I recently saw a peer wearing a shirt with a picture of the Rising Sun Flag on the front. It deeply saddens me to think that clothing designers and distributors would approve of a symbol that represents years of inhumane torture and decades of unfulfilled reparations. The history of the Rising Sun Flag remains widely unknown, and, as a result, it continues to be displayed. Romanticizing a symbol that reminds many in the Asian community of crimes against humanity is insulting and disrespectful. The effects of the Japanese War Crimes committed during World War II remain unresolved to many people, especially throughout Korea and China.

History must be learned. A more informed and aware public is needed to bring about change. What good is learning about history if such knowledge cannot be applied to our own lives? No matter how one attempts to justify its use, the Rising Sun Flag will always be a symbol and reminder to many of the millions of innocent lives cruelly taken by the Japanese Imperial Army. The continued use of the flag throughout Japan proves a lack of remorse and acknowledgement towards their shameful past.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

-George Santayana

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