The widespread use of the imperial flag suggests that New Zealanders’ knowledge of the second world war is incomplete, writes Rebekah Jaung.
For many people from Asian countries it is a symbol of hate akin to a swastika, yet every couple of months I see a local person or company brandishing it. It’s been used by the social media account of a national sports team. It is still incorporated into the branding of a local beer. Multiple small businesses use it as a logo. And it seems to be quite a popular T-shirt and bumper sticker design. This week I saw the symbol being prominently displayed to promote a University of Auckland event.
The widespread use of the rising sun flag suggests that our collective knowledge of the second world war is incomplete. But the shadow cast over many countries in east and south-east Asia by the Japanese imperial period is not only a matter of historical trauma, but has present day ramifications on diplomatic and economic relationships in the region.
When my grandmother used to tell me stories, the fairy tales about tigers eating children and the rabbit making rice cakes on the moon were interspersed with her memories of Japanese soldiers coming into the village and taking girls away. This generational trauma about the imperial Japanese government’s sex trafficking operation exists for many people from across Asia including Korea, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Vietnam. In the present day, far-right groups use the rising sun symbol in rallies where they call Korean people cockroaches and the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery voluntary sex workers (but not in those words).
And the shadow is not limited to the realm of rhetoric and memory. A snippet from a recent South Korean evening news broadcast features President Moon Jae-In making a statement to the country, “We will never again lose to Japan.” From the same news segment, an old man with tears in his eyes says, “It breaks my heart and brings me to tears. I worry that everyone in the country will be disadvantaged because of me. That all of this is happening because of me.” Grandfather Lee Chun-Sik is a 95-year-old survivor of imperial Japan’s forced labour camps. He was in high school when he was “chosen” to be on a “national service squad” and ended up enduring three years of forced labour at a steel mill in Japan.
Recently, the South Korean Supreme Court found in favour of the survivors, ruling that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries had to compensate colonial-era forced labourers including Grandfather Lee. In response, the Japanese government placed new trade restrictions on South Korea, which were accompanied by strong criticism of the ruling by the Japanese prime minister. This led to a massive and united reaction from Korean civil society and most of the political establishment. Activists working with the survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery across Asia pointed out that the Japanese government’s aggressive reaction to this attempt at historical redress was also intended to silence their work for an official apology and legal reparations. The historical revisionism of the current Japanese government runs in parallel with ongoing to amend their post-second-world-war peace constitution and rebuild their military capabilities.
The relationship between Korea and Japan was irrevocably shaped by the 36-year period of Japanese colonisation. In addition to war crimes such as labour camps, sex trafficking and medical experimentation on prisoners, the colonial oppression was also structural, including the banning of Korean language education in schools, requiring students to legally change their names into Japanese ones in order to study at university, and the establishment of institutions with the specific purpose of rewriting of history to perpetuate the myth of Japanese superiority and Korean inferiority. These attitudes still manifest as anti-Korean rhetoric which drives Japanese far-right nationalist movements, the exclusion of Joseon schools from governmental funding and coordinated efforts to disrupt memorials to the victims of the imperial government.
When it comes to the use in Aotearoa of the symbol which represents this history, requests to rethink are sometimes heard and sometimes they are not. When I encounter people who use the rising sun here, my first instinct is that it comes from a place of cultural ignorance, rather than as an endorsement of Japanese imperialism. Many New Zealanders are proud to have fought the fascists in the second world war and to have had a significant role in the Pacific theatre. If we as a country are able to collectively forget the regime that largely killed and tortured people of colour while clearly remembering the aspects of that history that appeals to us, that’s a bias that we need to reflect on.
It is a matter of ethical remembering. Is it ethical to commemorate the soldiers who fought in the Pacific theatre while forgetting the flag of the fascist regime that they were fighting? Or to be tangata Tiriti here in Aotearoa, and remembering our own historical or direct trauma of colonisation, while forgetting that we are a part of a colonial project on this land? We are currently involved in our own conversations about resolving historical injustice and the need to address the harm of hateful rhetoric in our own society, and ultimately this task requires us to see and acknowledge that these are not disparate issues, but that they share a common thread.
The act of ethical remembering is exemplified by the Japanese delegation I met at the Asian Solidarity Conference for the Resolution of the Issue of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery in 2018 – elders who had spent decades working to convince their own communities of the need right historical wrongs. Their actions remind us that we do have the agency to accept or challenge the narratives we inherit, and that acknowledging historical transgressions moves us towards rather than away from our own humanity.