The Debate

Japan-Korea: What’s in a Flag?

Japan’s flag has emerged as a key element of bilateral tensions.

By Kan Kimura for
Japan-Korea: What’s in a Flag?
Credit: (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Relations between Japan and South Korea have plummeted to their lowest point in years. Stemming from differences in perception over historical issues such as that of former conscripted workers (forced labor), worsened by the Japanese government’s imposition of export controls, and subsequently extending to problems regarding cooperation on national and regional security issues, disputes now encompass all aspects of bilateral relations.

Amidst the tensions, one problem that stands out in particular is that of the so-called “Rising Sun Flag.” On September 12, the South Korean Government lodged an official request with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban people from carrying the Rising Sun Flag into the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. On September 30, the South Korean National Assembly also adopted a resolution on the same issue.

The background to this issue is that the South Korean understanding of the Rising Sun Flag is essentially as follows. It is that before and during World War II, the Rising Sun Flag was used by the Imperial Japanese military, as a symbol of Japanese imperialism, and that like the Nazi flag—the hakenkreuz, or swastika—is should be eradicated from the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which are a festival of peace. Based on this kind of understanding, in modern-day South Korea, the Rising Sun Flag (in the same way as the hakenkreuz) has now come to be referred to using the expression “war criminal flag.”

However, if this understanding were correct, then why has the Rising Sun Flag not already been eradicated from the Olympic Games and other such events? And why has the South Korean government and society raised the issue of the Rising Sun Flag as a problem for all this time, over 70 years since the end of World War II, regardless of South Korea having participated in the Olympic and Paralympic Games itself?

The reason is simple: It was only in the 2010s that the Rising Sun Flag came to be emphasized as a symbol of military imperialism and began to draw significant attention in South Korea. In fact, upon examining the journalistic approach of the South Korean media in the past, the issue of the Rising Sun Flag had never even been debated in South Korean society prior to the 2000s.

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To begin with, Japan and South Korea are allies of the United States, and have engaged in numerous military exchanges and interactions, including RIMPAC (the Rim of the Pacific Exercise). Today, it is commonplace for Japanese naval vessels flying the Rising Sun Flag, as the ensign of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), to be seen operating in cooperation with Korean naval vessels, and South Korea had never before raised the issue as a serious problem.

Why, then, moving into the 2010s, did the Rising Sun Flag suddenly became the target of such criticism in South Korea? There are two major factors. The first is that there was a change in what South Korea considered to be the symbol of Japanese military imperialism. Until the 1990s, South Korea, China and other Asian countries surrounding Japan had regarded the symbol of Japanese military imperialism as being not the Rising Sun Flag, but rather the Nisshoki, or “Sun Rise Flag.” The background to this lay in the fact that there was a domestic debate in Japan itself as to whether or not the Nisshoki and Kimi ga yo were the official national flag and national anthem, and the debate in neighboring countries emerged in step with this.

However, in the 1990s the domestic debate in Japan subsided, and with the passing of the Act on National Flag and Anthem in 1999, the issue was officially resolved. One interesting point is that, as the issue in Japan receded, the debate in South Korea and other neighboring countries calmed down in parallel. In South Korea in particular, there is a law prohibiting defamation of not only its own national flag but also the national flags of other countries. With Japan’s official adoption of the Nisshoki as its national flag, South Koreans began to hesitate to defame the Nisshoki, even when engaging in demonstrations over issues of historical perception, or denouncing the Japanese government.

In other words, the idea of denouncing the Rising Sun Flag as a symbol of Japanese military imperialism in South Korea today emerged as a counter-proposal for the original target, the Nisshoki. One thing that played an important role in this development was the Internet debate. Entering the 2010s, the trigger for the debate was offense being taken over the use of the flag at sporting events. Initially, the issue was not seriously discussed by major media outlets, and the debate was mostly taking place online. Out of this, the new concept of the “war criminal flag” – initially coined in 2013 by South Koreans living in the United States – emerged and began to spread rapidly within South Korea. All of a sudden, South Koreans had come to accept as fact that the Rising Sun Flag was a war criminal flag, ranking alongside the hakenkreuz.

As a result, as with so many Internet spats, the debate over the Rising Sun Flag became increasingly sensationalized, resulting in a combination of excessive attacks (specifically on Japan) a multiple unanswered questions. One classic sign of this is that nobody as yet has offered an accurate definition as to what the Rising Sun Flag actually is, not even the South Korean government which made the request to the IOC. It is well known that similar designs to the Rising Sun Flag are used in various forms, not only as the JMSDF naval ensign, but also as company flags or logos by Japanese newspaper companies, and as tairyoki (traditional fisherman’s flags originally flown by boats to signify a large catch) on Japanese fishing boats. Without an accurate definition, restricting people from bringing flags into Olympic event venues is impractical.

So why, in spite of this fact, are South Koreans continuing the debate, without anyone bothering to make a formal definition. The reason is simple: The object is not to denounce the Rising Sun Flag, but to denounce Japan itself.

In a sense, the issue of the Rising Sun Flag is perhaps the best representation of the current state of Japan-South Korea relations. The situation has evolved into one in which people are seeking not to resolve a specific problem as soon as possible, but rather to find ways to denigrate the other country. Surely we are approaching a time when both the Japanese and South Korean governments and societies need to take a deep breath and consider just how little their endless bickering is contributing to the international community.

Kan Kimura is a professor at Kobe University.