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