Japan has been busy preparing itself for an influx of overseas visitors as its 2020 Olympic games draw closer. As part of the process, Japanese tourist authorities have been re-examining the standard icons it uses on maps, and proposing replacements to make the symbols more understandable for tourists. One of the icons lined up for reform is the manji, a symbol used to denote Buddhist temples, and more commonly known in the West as the swastika.
One can understand why the manji is under scrutiny in this project. The fact is, the majority of Westerners associate this symbol with Nazism and related far-right groups. For first-time tourists to Japan, it can be a bit of a shock to see this symbol all over maps and signs, and most visitors from countries outside Asia are unlikely to realise that it is a standard symbol for Buddhism. It seems natural therefore, as part of a wider project to overhaul all Japanese map icons whose meanings are not immediately obvious to tourists, to consider replacing the manji with a stylised pagoda, whose meaning is perhaps a little clearer to non-Asians. When you consider some of the other changes proposed, such as changing the symbol for a post office from 〒 (a stylised form of the character テ, “te”, standing for teishin or “communications”) to one of an envelope, changing the manji to a pagoda seems reasonable.
Yet the proposal to scrap the manji is not without controversy. Makoto Watanabe of Hokkaido Bunkyo University states in a recent Telegraph interview,
“We have been using this symbol for thousands of years before it was incorporated into the Nazi flag, so I believe it would be better for us to keep it on our maps and ask others to understand its true meaning…I think it would serve a good purpose if people from abroad see the symbol, ask what it means and where it originated. That might help to get rid of some of the negative impressions associated with the ‘manji.'”
He’s not the only one protesting the proposal. Members of the UFO religion Raëlism have also voiced their opposition. It should be noted that the Raëlians also changed their symbol, which was originally a Star of David interlocked with a swastika, to one without a swastika in 1991 due to public protest (Raëlians reverted to using the old swastika symbol again in 2007). Their reasoning is that the swastika has been used for thousands of years in Asia, as well as in Europe, as a sacred symbol of fortune and peace, and that employing the swastika in the context of its original meaning helps to erase the Nazi stigma.
All of these opponents of the proposal to replace the manji icon have a very good point. Hitler and other extremist politicians have appropriated ancient, sacred folk symbols because they knew that these images evoke strong feelings, particularly those associated with cultural identity. By using these symbols, fascists could portray themselves as defenders of the people’s cultural and spiritual heritage. Essentially, they stole folk symbols and twisted them into emblems of hate and suffering for their own purposes. The swastika is a classic example. It can be found in ancient Greco-Roman, Celtic, Germanic and Slavic art and architecture, where it is believed to symbolise the Sun. In Germanic art, it may also symbolise Thor’s hammer. Other wheel-shaped Pagan symbols, including the triskelion and Brigid’s Cross, probably derive from the swastika. Being so ancient and widespread, the swastika would have originally evoked a sense of nostalgia and tribal identity – and the Nazis capitalised on this. They succeeded, too: Westerners now find it very difficult to use the swastika openly as a religious symbol, because it is too closely associated with the evils of fascism, white supremacy and genocide. I find it bitterly ironic that far-right groups, who usually claim to be defending “indigenous” traditions and culture by ridding their country from the influence of foreigners and minorities, actually do far more damage to their culture than these “outsiders” ever will by perverting their culture’s age-old symbols.