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Shortly after receiving our finished Japan Earthquake RELIEF shirts from the printers, I discovered from a Japanese friend that the emblem on the chest was very similar to the controversial Japanese military flag (complete with painful WWII connotations). Horrified that we were selling benefit shirts with offensive symbolism, I researched the issue. It turns out that the "rising sun flag," or Kyokujitsu-ki, is indeed commonly interpreted as offensive by past victims of Japanese imperialism.

To my surprise, I found that even the more familiar version of the Japanese flag, the Nisshoki or Hinomaru, was also a touchy subject in Japan for these precise connotations:

Public perception of the national flag varies. To some Japanese, the flag represents Japan, and no other flag could take its place. However, the flag is not frequently displayed due to its association with extreme nationalism. The use of the flag and the national anthem Kimigayo have been a contentious issue for Japan's public schools since the end of World War II. Disputes about their use have led to protests, lawsuits, and at least one suicide in Hiroshima Prefecture. To Okinawans, the flag represents the events of World War II and the subsequent U.S. military presence there. For some nations occupied by Japan, the flag is a symbol of aggression and imperialism. The Hinomaru was used as a tool against occupied nations for purposes of intimidation or subjugation. Despite the negative connotations, Western and Japanese sources claim the flag is a powerful and enduring symbol to the Japanese.

In particular, the use of the Hinomaru and the Kimi Ga Yo (Japanese National Anthem) in the Japanese school system sparked a great deal of controversy:

Japan's love-hate relationship with its own national flag is as nuanced as it is unique.

Unlike Germany, which in the 1930s was taken over and ruled by a particular party with its own symbols that were discarded as soon as the War was over, Japan's symbols prior to, during, and after the war were one and the same.

To my relief, I discovered I was not the only one ignorant to the breadth and polarity of the symbol's impact. In fact, there are a great deal of very similar benefit apparel and poster projects making use of the same motif (in latex, not-so-subtly nuclear, and even intentionally WWII nostalgic. To my chagrin, I even found one that was pretty much exactly the same (they're different enough, though, right?! RIGHT?!?). History aside, the sunrays certainly have a wonderfully graphic quality to them and some really great design applications. Of course, even taking history into account is tricky. The roots of the flag stretch much farther back into the Japanese culture than anyone knows-- even the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs can't say for sure: "It is not certain just when the sun-circle symbol was first used on flags and banners." Looking at some medieval depictions of Amaterasu, the Shinto Sun Goddess, it's not hard to see that the symbolism of the sun, particularly those sunbeams, predates the unfortunate events of the second world war by several centuries at least.

A guy named Tadamasa Fukiura seems to be the official flag guy for Japan. [A] color specialist, [he] chose to set the sun disc at two thirds of the flag's length. Fukiura also chose the flag colors for the 1964 as well as the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano." As the President of Eurasia 21 Research Institute and the author of more than 30 books on flags, [Fukiura] suggests that those who resent the design of the Hinomaru as a symbol of imperialism are merely antiestablishment people who have no regard for the origin of the design. "When the war ended there weren't any suggestions to change the flag of Japan. There is no other symbol that better represents the country because it has been the established design of the country," he said. It is reasonable for some to interpret the two as symbols of Japan's past militarism, Fukiura admitted, but it would be wrong to link wartime issues to historic symbols that go far beyond World War II.

In short: we mean not to offend or provoke, only to help. Also, symbolism is both both relevant and interesting!

PS. A sweet Japanese beer flag. And more reading (from a student at Universitetet i Oslo).
Although the attention of the world has since moved on, over 6 months later Japan still mourns for over 15,000 deceased and faces a reconstruction cost of $300 billion. Join us as we continue to raise resources for those in need of relief.

100% of proceeds will go straight to relief programming via our good friends at MercyCorps.