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Educate the people and keep the ‘manji’ (卍) on Japan’s maps

Dear residents of Japan,

A few weeks ago, maps took center stage. It wasn’t that territory was being acquired or ceded — boundaries were not being redrawn — but the changes proposed by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan to its tourist maps caused a minor uproar nonetheless. The goal is clarity: Some of the current symbols are a bit confusing for those who have just arrived. For example, “H” stands for “hotel,” not “hospital,” while an “X” means kōban (police box) — not, well, “treasure.”

The thought process behind the considered changes is understandable. After all, how many foreigners wanting to send off a postcard would see this — 〒 — and think, “Oh, hey! Post office!” Standardized symbols are great. But then, maps have legends for a reason.

Those suggested changes, however, aren’t the ones getting an awful lot of people — Japanese and foreign alike — awfully hot under the collar.

The big-deal change is, of course, replacing the manji (卍), which represents temples, with a three-tiered pagoda. Anyone up on their Eurocentric World War II history will understand the problem: The manji looks pretty similar to the Nazi swastika.

The symbol, as most of you likely already know, has been around for thousands of years, and out of those thousands of years, for only roughly 70 or 80 has it been associated with anything negative. It’s also oriented a bit differently. The Nazi version usually sits in a diamond shape, while the manji version is a square. Some will also say they face opposite directions, but that’s not altogether true: Japanese Buddhism has both a right-facing and left-facing manji.

Many of you will also know that it comes from Sanskrit, and is used in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism — and, before Hitler’s rise in Germany, was a popular symbol even in the Western world. It has to do with well-being, good luck and good health. It has a very long history in Japanese Buddhism, and even if it’s off tourist maps, it’s still found all over the country.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling torn when articles on the changes started showing up online. In my case, I had already been mulling over the Western perception of the manji. Just the week before, I had gone to post a photo of my new go-shūinchō (book for collecting stamps at temples and shrines) to my social media accounts when I stopped mid-post. I hadn’t noticed until then, but my beautiful bright-orange book was covered in manji.

I knew they were manji. Many other people would know that they were manji. But what about the people who didn’t, the ones who thought the manji were Nazi swastikas?

I thought long and hard: Do I write an educational blurb to post with the photo? Would I hurt or offend friends and/or people I have never met, even with the blurb? Would people take one look at the photo, be shocked to the point of outrage and not even read the post, and label me a neo-Nazi anti-Semite? It wasn’t just me over-thinking things — a friend had run into trouble with a manji-decorated item on a trip home to Australia, so I knew the danger was real.

I remember seeing the manji for the first time after arriving in Japan. I knew a bit about its Sanskrit heritage, but I was still taken aback. A history degree with an interest in the European Theater of WWII and a habit of reading war- and Holocaust-related novels from about age 9 was a lot of background to work through. It was a long time before I stopped cringing when seeing it, and, to be honest, I still wince when I come across it out of context.

When it came to my go-shūinchō, in the end I chose not to post the photo. But I continued to wrestle with my decision. Education (and travel) is about challenging perceptions and learning new things, after all, which can’t happen if you swaddle yourself in bubble-wrap — or three-tiered pagodas, for that matter. I was angry with myself, but Nazi symbolism is a terrible beast to try to slay in one Facebook photo and accompanying blurb.

And then my news feed lit up with articles on the proposed changes. I saw a Change.org petition to prevent the map alterations, which I retweeted with my still-torn feelings only to be slightly called out by the original poster, who pointed out, as I already knew deep down, that education is the key.

So before Japan spends time and money updating its tourist maps, before the next planeload of visitors touches down and tourists have their first “Why is there a swastika on the temple?!” mini-crisis, let’s get the education train moving. Post articles on the topic (a quick search will turn up plenty), share the petition (included below) and use these and other resources to start a conversation.

Residents of Japan, we know that the manji symbolizes auspiciousness, and making that general knowledge in the West will make a difference not just to Japan’s pocketbook — if it can avoid redesigning tourist maps — but to how much tourists get out of their stay. For the well-being of Japan’s cultural heritage and its visitors, spread the word.

HELEN A. LANGFORD-MATSUI

Kamakura, Kanagawa

Change.org‘s petition is at bit.ly/savethemanji. Send your comments or submissions (addressed to local or national politicians, officials or other authorities) here: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Selena

    Well said, Ms. Langford-Matsui.

  • CrimsonTears

    It would be a shame for such an important symbol to be erased because of some atrocity that occurred 70 years prior. I should hope that the Japanese take steps to educate foreigners to the symbols true meaning rather than change it for convenience. A sidebar on the map could go a long way!

  • phritzg

    I signed the petition in favor of its continued use. One does not need to be a genius to learn that its presence on a Japanese map indicates a temple’s location.

  • mikesensei

    Maybe it would help if they had someone at Narita screaming every time a non-Japanese person gets off the plane: “THIS IS A DIFFERENT CULTURE!!! THINGS MEAN DIFFERENT THINGS HERE!!!” :)

  • Stephen Chadfield

    They should leave all the symbols alone. A country shouldn’t have to change its long established culture because some outsiders are too lazy to educate themselves a little before visiting.

  • surya

    Iam a Hndu and Iam a naturalized American citizen. This happened in a university around Washington DC area. Some 2 years ago one Hindu college kid placed a swastika sign on his dorm room door. The administration had told him to remove it. He refused to do so. He was expelled. Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist organizations have told the uni that it was a thousands of years old symbol that has been used first by hindus and then later adopted by the Buddhists, the varsity didn’t budge. He went to court, and the court had admonished the university to let the student express his religious symbol on his door. The university revoked the suspension, he had returned and put the sign back on.

    I narrated the story to assure the Japanese people that they must not throw away their religious and cultural heritage to impress a few westerners. The foreigners must be educated, their ignorance can not be your misery. My grand fathers house had this sign painted on his front door very prominently in remote india that I used to visit during my summer breaks until 1970s. It was built in 1910, long before Nazis formed their party. Swastika is a sanskrit word indicating auspiciousness. Nazis came and gone, they used it for reasons only they know. Many hindu and Buddhist temples built millennia ago (that are standing) still display swastika in their sculptures even today.

  • Kessek

    The west destroys everything it touches.

  • Kessek

    The west destroys everything it touches.

    • Kevin

      Nobody is ‘destroying’ the manji symbol – it can go on to be used and taught about and respected – all they are doing is replacing the symbol for temple with something more universally recognized. It’s just a map symbol and maps are there to give directions, not act as vessels for cultural symbolism.

    • Kevin

      Nobody is ‘destroying’ the manji symbol – it can go on to be used and taught about and respected – all they are doing is replacing the symbol for temple with something more universally recognized. It’s just a map symbol and maps are there to give directions, not act as vessels for cultural symbolism.

    • Jonathan Fields

      No, we’re saving you from yourselves. Isn’t that the excuse you right-wingers use to justify Japanese imperialism?

    • Jonathan Fields

      No, we’re saving you from yourselves. Isn’t that the excuse you right-wingers use to justify Japanese imperialism?

    • Jonathan Fields

      No, we’re saving you from yourselves. Isn’t that the excuse you right-wingers use to justify Japanese imperialism?

    • Jonathan Fields

      No, we’re saving you from yourselves. Isn’t that the excuse you right-wingers use to justify Japanese imperialism?

  • Labrys

    As the author says “maps have legends for a reason”. When you want to travel on your own using a map, you can’t be so close-minded and not understand the use of symbols. Japan has a habit of making things easier to a very low and sometimes embarrassing level, so that in the end people become used to avoid thinking. Is that the right way, or would it be better to keep our brains trained?

  • Daniel Pose

    The German symbol was not a “swastika” and is a different symbol, because Germans called their symbol a “hakenkreuz.”

    Although the “swastika” was an ancient symbol, the German symbol (the hooked cross) was altered under German socialism and used to represent crossed “S” for “socialism” (the name of their group and what they called themselves), and that is one of the amazing discoveries of the historian Dr. Rex Curry, as described by the author Ian Tinny in the book “Pledge of Allegiance and Swastika Secrets.”

    That is why Hitler’s symbol was turned 45 degrees from the horizontal and always pointed in the “S” letter direction. It was similar to other symbols of German socialism (i.e. the SS symbol is two “S” letters for “Schutzstaffel”; the VW is a “V” and a “W” for “Volkswagen”; the SA symbol is an “S” and an “A” for “Sturmabteilung”; and the NSV symbol is an “N,” an “S,” and a “V,” for “NationalsozialistischeVolkswohlfahrt”).

    In the book “Swastika the earliest known symbol and its migrations” by

    Thomas Wilson (published in 1894 at page 771) Professor Max Muller cautioned against the use of the term “swastika” and said “I do not like the use of the word svastika outside of India. It is a word of Indian origin and has its history and definite meaning in India. * * * The occurrence of such crosses in different parts of the world may or may not point to a common origin, but if they are once called Svastika the vulgus profanum will at once jump to the conclusion that they all come from India, and it will take some time to weed out such prejudice.” Muller’s prediction was amazingly accurate, and it is amusing that he labeled so many people in the world today as “vulgus profanum.”

    It is a shame that the misnomer “swastika” was applied to the German
    socialist symbol (the “Hakenkreuz” or hooked cross) to (bury, mask, conceal whitewash) rehabilitate socialism and also to distance the Christian Cross, all by slandering a foreign symbol (the swastika) instead.

    People who actually want to rehabilitate the “swastika” will explain the
    above in order to distinguish the “swastika” from the “Hakenkreuz.” Most
    people who read this will continue to slander the foreign symbol and word (swastika), as if they too desire to rehabilitate “socialism,” to promote/protect the Christian cross.

  • Daniel Pose

    The German symbol was not a “swastika” and is a different symbol, because Germans called their symbol a “hakenkreuz.”

    Although the “swastika” was an ancient symbol, the German symbol (the hooked cross) was altered under German socialism and used to represent crossed “S” for “socialism” (the name of their group and what they called themselves), and that is one of the amazing discoveries of the historian Dr. Rex Curry, as described by the author Ian Tinny in the book “Pledge of Allegiance and Swastika Secrets.”

    That is why Hitler’s symbol was turned 45 degrees from the horizontal and always pointed in the “S” letter direction. It was similar to other symbols of German socialism (i.e. the SS symbol is two “S” letters for “Schutzstaffel”; the VW is a “V” and a “W” for “Volkswagen”; the SA symbol is an “S” and an “A” for “Sturmabteilung”; and the NSV symbol is an “N,” an “S,” and a “V,” for “NationalsozialistischeVolkswohlfahrt”).

    In the book “Swastika the earliest known symbol and its migrations” by

    Thomas Wilson (published in 1894 at page 771) Professor Max Muller cautioned against the use of the term “swastika” and said “I do not like the use of the word svastika outside of India. It is a word of Indian origin and has its history and definite meaning in India. * * * The occurrence of such crosses in different parts of the world may or may not point to a common origin, but if they are once called Svastika the vulgus profanum will at once jump to the conclusion that they all come from India, and it will take some time to weed out such prejudice.” Muller’s prediction was amazingly accurate, and it is amusing that he labeled so many people in the world today as “vulgus profanum.”

    It is a shame that the misnomer “swastika” was applied to the German
    socialist symbol (the “Hakenkreuz” or hooked cross) to (bury, mask, conceal whitewash) rehabilitate socialism and also to distance the Christian Cross, all by slandering a foreign symbol (the swastika) instead.

    People who actually want to rehabilitate the “swastika” will explain the
    above in order to distinguish the “swastika” from the “Hakenkreuz.” Most
    people who read this will continue to slander the foreign symbol and word (swastika), as if they too desire to rehabilitate “socialism,” to promote/protect the Christian cross.

  • monarda

    The Japanese people are renowned for their traditions of exquisite courtesy and hospitality, why can they not extend this to guidebooks intended for foreigners and take steps to avoid giving offense? I think the Japanese could also do well to follow the example of the Germans and educate themselves about the atrocities of World War 2. By all means, education all around.

  • Khru

    Have a birthday everyone. The symbol has been around for thousands of years. People love to get offended and have hissy fits. The Japanese should not be pushed around by the whiny PCers.

  • Khru

    Have a birthday everyone. The symbol has been around for thousands of years. People love to get offended and have hissy fits. The Japanese should not be pushed around by the whiny PCers.

  • Akio Morita

    My goodness. Please Japan DO NOT CHANGE the Manji so uneducated foreigners (white people) failed to educate themselves where the swastika came from. This is another example why foreigners is slowly killing this wonderful and beautiful country. 19.7 million people came to Japan last year, over 65% are Asians so who gave a crap about ignorant westerners.

  • Kevin

    I don’t think anybody is being forced by the West to change anything – the decision comes from Japanese administration in a bid to make tourism less confusing and more attractive. It’s not like the Manji symbol is going to be banned or anything, just not put on the maps. Nothing to get emotional about.

  • Akio Morita

    This is without a doubt one of the worse piece of writing I read in awhile on JT. The problem isn’t the resident of Japan. The problem are western tourists whom are uneducated about the manji. Who’s fault is that? Based on this article it’s Japan’s fault that manji symbols in temples are Nazi swastikas looking, even though it’s been there for about 1,000 years or so.

    “But what about the people who didn’t, the ones who thought the manji were Nazi swastikas?”

    The only one that doesn’t know are western people. I can positively say that almost everyone growing up in Asia know about the manji symbol one way or the other. The fact the people in the western world STILL DON’T know where the Nazi swastikas originated from today in 2016 are a frighten thought.

    It’s not Japan job to educate westerners in their country about the rise of Nazism.