Relations between two East Asian giants have once again frozen with the arrival of winter. The main subject of this controversy: Japan’s inclusion of the ‘Rising Sun Flag’ in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Tensions arose after the South Korean Government requested to the International Olympic Committee that the flag be banned from Olympic venues.
The flag is entrenched deep within Japanese culture: originating in the Edo period around 400 years ago and utilised in everyday life celebrating childbirth and seasonal festivals. Delving deeper into its history, however, one discovers its connection with the Imperial Japanese army in the Second World War. The Korean peninsula was occupied by Japan, and it was in these territories that many atrocities were committed by the Japanese army. Some South Koreans suggest that the flag embodies Japan’s true nature as a ruthless nation incapable of letting go of its past military prowess, something the Japanese strongly deny.
In a letter from the Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry, officials pointed out that the flag is used daily in Japan. They state that many of the objections surrounding the flag attempt to use the Olympics for political manoeuvring. Furthermore, they emphasise that even though the present maritime forces are ensigned with the flag, they have never faced objection entering ports across Asia; even in nations such as Singapore, China or the Philippines, states previously invaded by Imperial Japan. So why has there been such an emphatic response from South Korea on this occasion?
In recent years, Japanese-Korean relations have been souring, with both sides imposing tariffs on each other and Japan recently removing a clause from its diplomatic book stating the Republic of Korea is Japan’s “most important neighbour that shares strategic interests with Japan.” Residents of each nation also share this distaste: a 2013 BBC poll indicated a 68% disapproval from South Koreans of Japan’s influence with a paralleled resentment from Japanese citizens over South Korea’s behaviour.
Another critic of the flag, Alexis Dudden, recently wrote in The Guardian that by embracing the flag, followers imply the Japanese should take pride in their military history, atrocities included. He draws parallels to Americans who “cling” to Confederate flags, and claims that “it causes intentional harm to those who suffered as well as to their descendants.”
In stark comparison, recent comments from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe indicate that Japan is regretful of its past. In 2015, he stated that Japan repeatedly expresses feelings of deep remorse for its actions during the war and that Japan has “engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia […] [in] the Republic of Korea and China, among others” and devoted themselves to peace.
With the ball now in Japan’s court, Abe has two options: rescind the use of the flag in the Olympics, a small price to pay for what could be the first steps in complete diplomatic reintegration. Or, uphold Japan’s right to use the flag during the Olympics, exhibiting traditional culture like any former host of the Olympics has had the freedom to do and prevent what Japanese officials call the “meddling and interfering” of the South Koreans.
Whatever happens, it will be a monumental chapter resulting in either a warming of relations, or a permanent freeze.
Image: via wikipedia.com