A few days ago, I was greatly offended by one of the event advertisements on Facebook. It was from a well-known Edmontonian establishment, using a poster with the image of the Japanese “Rising Sun.” I immediately sent a Facebook message to the owner, and followed up on it with a phone call. I told him that the use of this imagery was tantamount to the use of a Swastika for promotion of a German-themed event. He apologized, and promised not to use it afterwards. Was I being a crazy chauvinist? I thought about it for a second before writing this piece, and decided that I wasn’t.
Would you ever wear a T-Shirt with a Swastika on it? Assuming that you are a right-minded person with a good sense of decency, you would not. Swastika represents a political regime that committed horrible acts upon many — to the extent that it became the symbol of crime against humanity and ultimately –and rather ironically– contributed to furthering of human rights as an essential political discourse in the post-World War II world. A Swastika is not only offensive to the Jewish people, but to everyone, for it is an insult to the very ideals that we hold sacred — that every human life is deserving of respect.
But this society that abhors Nazis does not hold the same standard for the images of the Japanese Rising Sun, which, is in a way, even more offensive than Swastikas. The Rising Sun flag was the symbol of the Empire of Japan during late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is extremely easy to find images of the Rising Sun — on t-shirts, restaurants, films, TV, et cetera. In a way, we cannot blame the people who use this image. Everyone knows that Adolf Hitler and his administration committed atrocities against humanity. But comfort women, maruta, and the Rape of Nanking aren’t concepts that are taught in Edmonton Public Schools — at least with the same degree of importance as that of Holocaust.
It is definitely easier to emphasize the heinous acts of the Nazi Germany in this society as these came to occupy an important place in public memory, in part with political motivations of the Allies to paint themselves as the heroes of the narrative that is the World War II. Plus, more Canadians were directly affected by Nazis, rather than the Japanese. But if we were to live with the idea that human rights are sacred, that we must uphold them, and that we must be true to these higher ideals, then it is absolutely necessary to remember the atrocities that the Japanese committed during the World War II as much as we remember these of the Nazi Germany.
The Empire of Japan operated with the similar ideologies that prompted the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Final Solution. Japan had industrialized much earlier than the rest of Asia, and developed a formidable military force with the goal of forming a grand empire. Behind this goal, there was the belief that the Japanese were racially superior to other Asian ethnic groups, as their society had moved “beyond Asia” much earlier than others. Thus, the Japanese administration was not hesitant to treating people from other Asian countries, such as Korea, China, and Philippines, as the Nazi Germany treated the Jewish.
For instance, the Japanese colonial administration lured young women in Korea and China with promises of education and good jobs — and turned them into “comfort women,” which is a euphemism for sex slaves for the Japanese army officers. Unit 731, based in China, was a counterpart to Josef Mengel’s team, which performed various experiments on, such as vivisection with anesthesia and reattachment of limbs and organs, with the purpose of developing biochemical weapons for the Japanese army. These people who served as “experiment samples” were called marutas, which literally translated to “logs.” In the Rape of Nanking, as many as 200,000 defenseless civilians, whom many of them were women and children, were systematically raped and massacred. These are atrocious human rights abuses that makes one cringe.
The nature of these atrocities and the Japanese attitude towards them point to the fact that the Japanese basically did everything that the Nazi Germany is denounced for, except paling in scale. But the German government recognized their crimes and has been compensating to the victims of their ancestors. Every German kid learns about the atrocities that their ancestors committed under the Nazi administration in school.
On the other hand, the Japanese government has been refusing to take responsibilities for these actions. If you were to ask your Japanese friends in their 20s, they will tell you that it is something that they do not know — and that won’t be a lie, for the Japanese ministry of education has been omitting, if not distorting, these historical facts in nationally used textbooks. Japanese government has told the surviving comfort women that they have lied — that they were simply prostitutes who volunteered for the Empire’s cause. Right-leaning Japanese politicians still argue that their country must return to the “Meiji mindset,” militant and poised to form an empire in the 21st century. Every year, many high profile government officials, including the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, visit the Yasukuni Shrine to pay “respect” for the architects of these atrocities against the complaints from its neighboring Asian countries. Needless to say, it’s like Angela Merkel going to Hitler’s grave every year. For many years, these right-wingpoliticians, who are part of the current ruling party in Japan, have been using these chauvinistic/imperial stunts to rally support.
Thus, in a world where these atrocities against humanity have not been admitted by the perpetrators, the use of an image that symbolizes the racist and imperialist attitude is concerning and enraging. Although slowly, the world has started to embrace human rights as the ideal to pursue — as something that brings people from different places together, based on one idea that a human life is sacred. As admitted earlier, I was concerned about the possibility that this anger and concern might have been brought on by my own bias, as someone who is more aware about this history. But I came to the conclusion that it is a cause that everyone can, and should, be enraged at. This is an issue that matters to everyone who believes in the sacredness of fundamental human rights, built upon the sacrifices of those fallen in and out of the battlefields during the World War II.
So, whoever is reading this piece — this is the reason why one should never use the image of the Japanese Rising Sun.
CC Photograph Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Dongwoo Kim (@dongwookim_) is studying Political Science and History at the University of Alberta.