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Why Japan’s ‘rising sun’ flag is provoking anger among some at the Olympics

Japan's 'rising sun' flag
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force escort ship Kurama, left, navigates behind destroyer Yudachi, which is flying a “rising sun” flag.
(Itsuo Inouye / Associated Press)

Japan considers the “rising sun” flag part of its history. But some in the Koreas, China and other Asian countries say the flag is a reminder of Japan’s wartime atrocities, and is comparable to the Nazi swastika.

That’s why the flag has created anger at the Tokyo Olympics, with some of the host nation’s neighbors calling for it to be banned during the Games, which officially open Friday.

There’s little prospect that ties between Seoul and Tokyo will improve any time soon. But the flag dispute may ease. Some experts say the coronavirus restrictions that have forbidden spectators at most Olympic venues may prevent the disagreement from growing.

Here’s a look at the “rising sun” flag and the long-running unease it has caused in Northeast Asia.

Origin

There are two “rising sun” flags associated with Japan, whose very name in Japanese means “the sun’s origin.”

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One is the country’s national flag, called “nisshoki” or “hinomaru,” which has a red disc on a white background. Few have a problem with this.

For 30 years, he stood as a symbol of postwar Japan — wrestling with the memory of military aggression and defeat, persevering through natural disasters and guiding the nation through evolving questions of identity.

The other one also has a red disc, but it is surrounded by 16 rays that extend outward. Called “kyokujitsuki,” this one has led to vehement protests from some of Japan’s neighbors.

Both flags have been used for centuries. But disputes about the flag with radiating rays date back to the early part of the 20th century. That’s when Japan’s imperial navy used it as its official flag as the nation colonized the Korean Peninsula and invaded or occupied China and other Asian countries until its defeat in World War II in 1945.

It’s still Japan’s naval flag, used by the Maritime Self-Defense Force and, in a slightly modified version, by the Ground Self-Defense Force since 1954.

These days, ultra-nationalists in Japan often use the flag during rallies or on social media.

Conflicting views

Japan’s government emphasizes that both “rising sun” flags use the sun as a motif and were used across the country even before the wartime period. Even today, the sun with rays is used in everyday life in Japan, such as to celebrate a big catch by fishermen, childbirth and other festivities, the government says.

“An argument that it is a political statement or a symbol of militarism is completely irrelevant. I believe there is a big misunderstanding,” current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in 2013, when he was chief Cabinet secretary.

Japan’s neighbors view it differently.

In 2019, South Korea formally requested that the International Olympic Committee ban the flag at the Tokyo Olympics. Seoul said that the flag recalls the “scars and pain” of Asian people who experienced Japan’s wartime military aggression, similar to how the swastika “reminds Europeans of the nightmare of World War II.”

The Tokyo Olympics are officially set to begin Friday with the opening ceremony. Here’s how to watch and stream NBC’s coverage of the event.

North Korea’s state media, not known for understatement, have accused Japan of trying to turn “the flag of war criminals” into a symbol of peace at the Olympics, saying that it was “an intolerable insult to our people and other Asian people.”

China is also highly sensitive to perceived slights from the Japanese government, individuals and companies. However, official outrage over history has diminished somewhat, while China’s political, economic and cultural rivalry with the United States and European democracies has increased in recent years. When it comes to the flag, it’s clearly less sensitive in China than in South Korea.

Use at the Games

On Saturday, when South Korea removed banners at the Olympic athletes’ village in Tokyo that the International Olympic Committee ruled to be provocative, Seoul said it received an IOC promise that the displaying of the “rising sun” flag would also be banned at stadiums and other Olympic venues.

But South Korean media later reported that some activists carried the “rising sun” flag near the athletes’ village. Media reports also said Japan’s organizing committee ruled that the flag wasn’t banned inside Olympic stadiums.

“It would be inappropriate to ban the flag from naval exchanges because a version is used by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said. “However, you would not expect the Tokyo Olympics hosts or Japanese athletes to use the ‘rising sun’ emblem because it is not the national flag.”

Ties between Seoul and Tokyo, both U.S. allies, have suffered for years in part because of disputes over history and trade.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office announced Monday that Moon had decided not to visit Japan for the Olympics because the two countries failed to find enough common ground to support a leaders’ summit.

Will this get worse?

Some experts say the flag dispute isn’t as serious as other points of contention, like Japan’s wartime subjection of Koreans to sexual slavery or forced labor, and won’t likely worsen ties.

The flag dispute can still flare, however, if anger among anti-Japan civic groups in South Korea draws a backlash among the Japanese public, said Lee Myon-woo, deputy head of the private Sejong Institute near Seoul. Lee said South Korea should refrain from a “too-excessive political interpretation” of the flag because there is no sign that Japan is reviving past militarism.

But Bong Youngshik, a research fellow at Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies, said the flag wouldn’t have become a major issue if Japan had accepted its neighbors’ demands for making a more “sincere apology” over its wartime abuse.

The dispute may not have much kindling to fuel it for one key reason: The lack of spectators at nearly all Olympics venues means that no one will be waving that flag — so the dispute may die down for the time being.


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