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SEOUL, South Korea – Japan considers the “rising sun” flag to be part of its history. But some in Korea, China and other Asian countries say the flag is a reminder of the atrocities committed by Japan during wartime and is comparable to the Nazi swastika.

This is why the flag has sparked anger against the Olympics, with some neighbors of the host country calling for its ban during the Tokyo Games, which begin on Friday.

Seoul-Tokyo ties are unlikely to improve anytime soon. But the flag dispute could subside. Some experts say the COVID-19 restrictions that have banned spectators from most stadiums at Olympic venues could prevent the disagreement from escalating.

Here’s a look at the “Rising Sun” flag and the long-standing unrest it has caused in Northeast Asia.

Origin

There are two flags of the rising sun associated with Japan, whose very name in Japanese means “the origin of the sun”.

One is the country’s national flag, called “nisshoki” or “hinomaru”, which has a red disc on a white background. Few have a problem with this.

The other one also has a red disc, but it is surrounded by 16 spokes that extend outward. Called “kyokujitsuki”, it has sparked strong protests from some of Japan’s neighbors.

Both flags have been used for centuries. But disputes over the flag of the “rising sun” date back to the beginning of the 20th century. It was at this time that the Imperial Japanese Navy used it as the official flag as the nation colonized the Korean Peninsula and invaded or occupied China and other Asian countries until its defeat in World War II. in 1945.

It is still the flag of the Japanese Navy, used by the Maritime Self-Defense Force and, in a slightly modified version, by the Land Self-Defense Force since 1954.

These days, Japanese ultra-right-handed people often use the flag at rallies or on social media.

Contradictory views

The Japanese government points out that the two Rising Sun flags use the sun as a motif and were used throughout the country even before the war period. Even today, the pattern of the rising sun flag with rays is used in everyday life in Japan, for example to celebrate a big fisherman catch, childbirth and other festivities, according to the government.

“An argument that this is a political statement or a symbol of militarism is completely irrelevant. I think there is a big misunderstanding,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in 2013, when he was chief secretary of the cabinet.

Japan’s neighbors see it differently.

In 2019, South Korea officially asked the International Olympic Committee to ban the flag from the Tokyo Olympics. Seoul said the flag recalled the “scars and pain” of Asians who suffered military aggression from Japan during wartime, in the same way that the swastika “reminds Europeans of the nightmare of World War II.” .

North Korean state media, little known for their understatement, accused Japan of trying to turn “the flag of war criminals” into a symbol of peace at the Olympics, saying it is “an intolerable insult. for our people and other Asian peoples “.

China is also very sensitive to perceived slights from the Japanese government, individuals and businesses. However, official outrage against history has waned somewhat, as China’s political, economic and cultural rivalry with the United States and European democracies has grown in recent years. As for the flag, it is clearly less sensitive in China than in South Korea.

Use at Games

When South Korea withdrew banners from the Olympic Athletes’ Village in Tokyo on Saturday that the IOC deemed provocative, Seoul said it had received a pledge from the IOC that the display of the “rising sun” flag would also be banned in stadiums and other Olympic venues. places.

But South Korean media later reported that some activists carried the “rising sun” flag near the athletes’ village. The media also said that the Japanese organizing committee decided that the flag was not banned inside Olympic stadiums.

“It would be inappropriate to ban the flag from naval exchanges because one version is used by the Japanese maritime self-defense forces,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “However, you wouldn’t expect Tokyo Olympics hosts or Japanese athletes to use the rising sun emblem, because it is not the national flag.”

Ties between Seoul and Tokyo, both allies of the United States, have suffered for years in part due to disputes over history and trade.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office announced on Monday that Moon decided not to travel to Japan for the Olympics because the two countries failed to find sufficient common ground to support a summit of leaders.

Will it get worse

Some experts say the flag dispute is not as serious as other points of contention, such as Japan’s wartime mobilization of Koreans for sexual slavery or forced labor, and is unlikely to make it worse. not the links.

However, the flag dispute may still erupt if anger among anti-Japanese civic groups in the South provokes a backlash from the Japanese public, said Lee Myon-woo, deputy director of the private Sejong Institute near Seoul. Lee says South Korea should refrain from an “overly excessive political interpretation” of the flag because there is no sign that Japan is reviving past militarism.

But Bong Youngshik, a researcher at the Yonsei University Institute of North Korean Studies, said the flag would not have become a major problem if Japan had accepted requests from its neighbors to present a “more sincere apology” for its abuse in wartime.

The dispute may not have much spark to fuel it, however, for one key reason: The lack of spectators at nearly every Olympic venue means no one is waving that flag – meaning the dispute may turn off for the time being.

Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo.

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