Japan’s “Olympic Flag Dispute” matters to all of us

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A flag is more than just a symbol. Wikimedia

The history and suffrage behind the “Rising Sun”

Writer’s note: The original publication of this article included a graphic of the rising sun flag with a line through it. The inclusion of this graphic was not my decision, but a result in a misstep in my communication to the editors. Even with the line through the flag, I believe that it is important not to print imagery which is insensitive to others such as those whose families are affected by Japanese imperialism, and I apologize to Carillon readers for the way this image overall distracted from the argument of the article. The online edition has been edited to remove the image, with thanks to the cooperation and understanding of the Carillon staff.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics may very well be coming with an unwelcome helping of Japanese far-right nationalism, and we all need to know where we stand.

As the 2020 Olympics draw near, relations between Japan and South Korea are worsening – and they were strained before, to put it lightly. For those readers not familiar with the history of the two countries, in WWII Japan pursued imperialism and the Japanese military colonized a then-unified Korea, among other territories. Korea was part of Japan’s empire from 1910 to 1945, when the war ended. During that time, the military engaged in horrific war crimes against the Korean people, including forced labour, sexual slavery, and human experimentation.

Now, there are still debates going on concerning the nature of the Japanese government’s apologies and reparations for these crimes. These debates have been the source of much public outrage in both countries – including South Koreans boycotting Japanese products, according to Simon Denyer of the Washington Post – as well as contributing to the severing of trade partnerships.

Now, in the first few weeks of September, any sign of mutual trust the relationship might have had was lost again. In anticipation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, as reported by several news outlets, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in South Korea made a formal request to the Olympic organizing committee that the “Rising Sun” flag – flown during the war as a symbol of Imperial Japan – be banned from display during the Olympic games. The Olympic organizers refused.

Linda Sieg reports for Reuters that the organizing committee said, “the [flag] is widely used in Japan and we think the display of [it] is not a political statement.” An Min-suk, the head of the Sports Ministry, doesn’t think so – he thinks that flying such a flag would violate the spirit of the Olympic games and be “the most shameful event since the 1936 Nazi Olympic[s]” (reports Julian Ryall in The Telegraph.)

Koreans – and, for that matter, Japanese and the rest of the world – are right to be frustrated with the organizers’ statement. It is true that the rising sun flag has often been used at sporting events in the past, and even shows up on commercial products in Japan, but iconography being common does not make it apolitical even if it is used with seemingly apolitical intentions. Japanese officials do not have the final say on whether a symbol undeniably connected to their imperialism is unoffensive. Mr. An’s reference to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin is also very important, because Korea was actually colonized by Japan when those Olympics occurred. Indeed, the rising sun flag flew beside symbols of the Nazis.

Not only that, but Japan won a gold medal at that Olympics because of a Korean athlete. An article in The Guardian by Andy Bull tells the story of Sohn Kee-chung, who received his medal as a marathon runner under the name “Son Kitei,” which he was ordered to use by officials in Tokyo. This name erased his Korean identity, and the article describes his humiliation at having the rising sun flag on his chest when he won – a symbol of the empire that looked down on his people. There are, then, some very good reasons for South Koreans to want to enjoy these Olympic games without seeing that flag again.

The flag’s damage also does not exist only in the imperial past. Ultra-right groups in Japan, extreme nationalists who in large part hold very racist views towards Koreans, feature the rising sun flag extensively in their demonstrations. There was very recently such a demonstration in Tokyo which I was privy to through twitter (posted by @martfack, an author living in Tokyo), where such nationalists were walking through the streets with about a 50-50 display of Japanese national and rising sun flags.

It is also worth noting that in Japan, public demonstrations require permission, so this was a protest that was actually protected by a police force. One protest that did not receive permission was the protest against those nationalist marchers, consisting of Japanese anti-racist and anti-war activists who held signs with slogans that said “racists, go home” and “say no to hate speech.” The flag is then, politically, a symbol of a hateful ideology both inside and outside Japan. Koreans living in Japan are, of course, always implicated by this rhetoric.

Dr. Philip Charrier, a professor of History at the U of R who teaches a course this semester on Japanese Imperialism, agrees that the flag is harmful. He summarizes, “the rising sun flag is offensive to many victims of [Japan’s imperial] history – both outside and inside Japan. Out of respect for the victims and their families, and also because of its association with the Japanese ultra-right, the flag’s deployment in Japan should be strongly discouraged.”

He also believes, however, that the South Korean government making an official request for the flag being banned is a “regrettable” development. “At a time of escalating tensions between Seoul and Tokyo over . . . Japan’s colonial past, such a request inevitably raises the political temperature. It could have the damaging consequence of encouraging some people to display the flag as a gesture of defiance.”

Indeed, the recent Tokyo demonstration captured by @martfack seems to give evidence to this anxiety. This is no surprise, really, when we consider how alt-right movements develop here as well. Strongly condemning hate speech does inevitably lead you to discover who’s willing to be more public about their views. And when you escalate those conversations to a legal level, with a request to ban a flag, it becomes a lot more contentious. Making this all play out on the world stage, with everyone watching in anticipation of the Olympics, that raises the stakes even higher. (I have a pretty big problem with the Olympics in the first place – as do many activists in Japan, actually – but that’s another article.)

However, I believe our role in this situation – especially since the Olympics involves all of us – is to support those who are harmed by the rising sun flag and be appropriately wary of what might play out if it is openly displayed. As someone who has studied, lived and played in Japan and reflects on that time with great love, I continue to be severely disappointed by statements like those of the organizers. I send solidarity to all those harmed by this “apolitical” claim, and to the Japanese activists refusing to accept a legacy of imperialism.

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