About ten years ago, I started working for a company in the Washington, DC, area as lower management. As part of my training, I was required to take the standard management trainee classes, which included everything from conflict resolution to guidelines for appropriate inter-personal actions. (I’m sure the latter will surprise many of my friends, as I am not particularly known for conforming to any standard definitions of appropriateness). In one such training session, the topic of religious tolerance was brought up. It was stressed that we must allow employees to display tokens of their faith in their place of work.
Utterly bored by this point, I needed to turn the affair into something more akin to a philosophical discussion. So I asked, “What if I were to wear a swastika to the office?”
The instructor was predictably horrified. “Never!” she said. “That would never be tolerated!” And she moved on to the next questioner, even though I still had my hand up.
You see, I was about to segue into the tension between an individual’s right of free religious expression versus the rights of others to be offended by that expression. As a brown man of Hindu extraction, I was going to argue, it was within my rights (as defined by the corporation’s policies) to display the tokens of Hinduism. And one such token of Hinduism is the swastika.
For those of you who don’t know, the swastika‘s origins are millennia old. In Sanskrit, the word essentially means “good luck”. As a symbol, it has been used by many religions in many societies for centuries. It was not until the 1920s that Germany’s Nazi party co-opted the symbol as one representative of their decidedly anti-social ideals. Today, of course, the swastika is a symbol to many of horror, torture, atrocity, and oppression.
My reasons for asking the intentionally inciting question were to stimulate discussion in an otherwise deathly boring class. Though I personally associate the swastika with good things having to do with the ancient origins of my ancestral culture, I am not so foolish that I assume others will appreciate this subtlety.
In short, the meanings of symbols evolve. A thing means what people think it means, and not necessarily what it was originally intended to mean.
Enter the “rising sun” flag of Japan.
The flag comes in various forms. In its most common modern form, it is the official flag of the Japanese military. This is not to be confused with the modern flag of the Japanese people, which is a red disc on a white field. The rising sun flag is a red disc with red beams coming out of it. I do not include an image of it here, just as I do not include an image of the swastika. But you can click on one of the links to see what it looks like.
The problem is that for many peoples in East Asia, the rising sun flag is a symbol of horror, oppression, and atrocity, much like the role the swastika has for Westerners. This is because the rising sun was the symbol worn by Japanese soldiers during WWII, when they were committing their war crimes in Korea, China, and elsewhere. The symbol was banned from flags at the Beijing Olympics, where it was feared that Japanese fans would wave them in support of their teams. China has much living memory of the atrocities committed under that symbol.
I bring this up now because the rising sun emblem is currently a popular design on a lot of martial arts gear. UFC welterweight champion Georges St Pierre famously wears it on his gi.
This lead another UFC fighter, Chan Sung Jung, aka “the Korean Zombie”, to write an open letter to GSP asking him to stop:
“Hi, My name is Chan Sung Jung from South Korea. As one of many Koreans who like you as an incredible athlete, I feel like I should tell you that many Korean fans, including myself, were shocked to see you in your gi designed after the Japanese ‘Rising Sun Flag’. For Asians, this flag is a symbol of war crimes, much like the German Hakenkreuzflagge. Did you know that? I hope not.
Just like Nazis, the Japanese also committed atrocities under the name of ‘Militarism’. You can easily learn what they’ve done by googling (please do), although it’s only the tiny tip of an enormous iceberg.
Furthermore, the Japanese Government never gave a sincere apology, and still to this day, so many victims are dying in pain, heartbroken, without being compensated. But many westerners like to wear clothes designed after the symbol under which so many war crimes and so much tragedy happened, which is ridiculous.
I know most of them are not militarists. I know most of them do not approve unjustified invasion, torture, massacre, etc. They’re just ignorant. It’s such a shame that many westerners are not aware of this tragic fact. Wearing Rising Sun outfits is as bad as wearing clothes with the Nazi mark on it, if not worse.”
More recently, UFC women’s bantam weight champion Ronda Rousey wore the symbol on her clothing during an episode of the UFC’s reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter.” Chan Sung Jung called her out, as well:
“We have decided to take the time to speak up for what we know is right, because we do believe this is something that UFC management should absolutely be aware of. Let’s get straight to the point. It’s about ‘Rising Sun Flag’ outfits. And our point is that this design is the symbol of war crimes, and that every single item designed after this symbol of war crimes should be kicked out of the UFC, firstly for justice, and then for the company.”
As of the writing of this blog post, the UFC was still selling the shirt that Rousey is wearing in the photo. In case they (hopefully) pull it, here’s an image:
As expected, the idiotic comments after any web column on this issue tend to support an individual’s right to wear whatever he or she wishes to wear. Add to the debate this position from Japanese fighter Ryo Chonan:
“All the people complaining about the Rising Sun flag is an idiot. Learn history! Even though that might be too much for you idiots. I don’t care about the comfort women (girls and women essentially held captive in a life of enforced prostitution in the Imperial Japanese Army), go make more statues in Korea. Japan is too busy. There is a lot of exaggerations and anti-Japanese education in regards to Japanese involvement in World War II. Japan actually helped Korea and made it a developed country. Also when Japan was there Korea was not divided between North and South.”
Wow. That’s a lot of ignorance crammed into one quote, assuming it was translated correctly. “I don’t care about the comfort women“????! Wow. I would take Chonan’s objections more seriously if he didn’t show such profound ignorance and lack of compassion for the victims of his country’s war crimes.
Comparing the rising sun to the swastika is perfect. Both are considered good luck symbols to their originators. But both were co-opted by, frankly, monstrous movements of the worst criminal kind. Even in Japan, the rising sun emblem is used mostly by members of extreme right wing groups, sort of like the way the the Confederate flag is used in the USA: the official verbiage is that it’s all about nationalism, but the history of its usage is tainted with extreme racism.
Individuals choosing to wear these emblems in places where they are known to cause offence are, frankly, assholes. And corporations that emblazon these symbols on clothing really need to consider whether this is a proper expression of corporate citizenship. A Japanese person wearing it, but expressing concern and sensitivity for its connotation and history might be forgiven, as would a Hindu wearing the swastika. Ryo Chonan has shown that he is neither compassionate nor introspective, and projects himself more as a bully, chauvinist, and racist.
Chan Sung Jung has politely educated his fellow fighters about the offence that their clothing causes to millions of people. For Ronda Rousey and GSP, the rising sun is not an ancient part of their religions or identity, but merely a fashion choice. If they continue to wear it, then that speaks loudly about the kind of people that they are.