Around the world, symbols hold disparate meanings based on cultural relevance. For Westerners, the swastika induces feelings of disgust and remorse; the tacit acknowledgement that we must not let evil consume us again. It may be impossible for those aware of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust to ever be able to overcome the symbol’s horrific significance.
In Japan, however, as well as other countries with large Jain, Hindu, or Buddhist populations, the symbol still appears on maps and buildings, in its original unflipped form, as a way of designating a variety of positive meanings including good luck, prosperity, and eternity. But in 2016, the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan posed a fairly radical idea: replacing the swastika — or manji, as it’s called in Japanese — with a three-story pagoda, to indicate Buddhist temple locations on non-Japanese and foreign-language maps.
This caused quite a bit of controversy: According to The Japan Times, a Change.org petition was implemented to prevent the modification. Others took to Twitter to air their dismay about the symbol’s removal. The proposed shift would coincide with the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, so as not to offend the onslaught of Western visitors and tourists unaware of its non-Eurocentric and pre-WWII meaning. However, the swastika would continue to appear on Japanese-language maps as well as Buddhist structures, so tourists would still spot the symbol in public spaces.
With good reason, many Westerners see no possibility for the symbol to move beyond its negative connotations. “[The swastika] is unredeemable because not only is it linked so indelibly to the Nazi crimes, it is still worshiped by the neo-Nazi ‘haters,’” Steven Heller, a co-chair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts and the author of The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?, told me. “It is not a national symbol but it is a weaponized symbol of racism and anti-Semitism.”
It is unclear what progress has been made to remove the swastika from non-Japanese language maps. But the issue still raises questions about the difficulty of cultural translation. T.K. Nakagaki, a Buddhist priest and interfaith leader in New York, would rather the Japanese government take the time to educate foreigners than dispel the symbol entirely. When we met last week, he smiled when I told him about my inclination to hide my copy of his most recent book, The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross: Rescuing a Symbol of Peace from the Forces of Hate, which bears two swastikas (the original and the Nazi version) on its cover. He told me he had experienced a similar weariness about the symbol when the research conducted for his book forced him to read Mein Kampf. He has become self-aware about reading books emblazoned with the swastika in public.
But he thinks the symbol retains its original meaning. “Gold is always gold,” Nakagaki told me. “It may be that this symbol looks very dark and no good from the outside. But if you just clean up the dust, it is still gold. You can't change it.”
In 1907, an American postcard was printed with five symbols on it, one in each corner and a large one in the center. The symbols appeared to be four L’s connected at the top and moving in a circular pattern. They were surrounded by a mountain range, two hearts with a bow shot through them, and the words “love,” “light,” “life”, and “good luck.” The top of the card read “SWASTIKA” in large bold letters; a good luck horseshoe was placed between the second S and the T.
This well-wishing postcard is one early example of the swastika in late 19th-and early-20th century American culture. It was not the symbol’s first appearance here, having been used by Native Americans on their pottery, blankets, and basketry; some of their jewelry was crafted in a swastika shape. But it eventually came into popular use on coins, watch fobs, even a Boy Scout patch, as shown in Nakagaki’s book. There was a swastika-shaped Coca-Cola pendant made in 1925. One can even find the symbol in numerous pre-WWII buildings across America — the entrance floor of my old apartment building, built in 1928 in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, was adorned with small red swastikas.
In 1919, a dentist named Friedrich Krohn introduced the swastika symbol to the German Workers’ Party, a group — through which Adolf Hitler initially established his political voice. Krohn was well-read and, according to The Occult Roots of Nazism by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, thought to be a volkisch (a community based on a common national and/or racial identity) expert because of his collection of 2,500 books about the German people’s history and ancestry. Inspired by the Buddhist association with health and good fortune, Krohn preferred the original left-facing swastika. Buddhism has a direct link to Hinduism, the tradition where the symbol is thought to have originated. The sanskrit word for it is “svastika,” which translates as “well-being.” As Buddhism developed, the swastika moved with it from India to China, then to Korea and finally to Japan in the 7th century C.E, where it represents auspiciousness, peace, and the sun.
Not long after Krohn introduced the symbol to the German Workers’ Party, Hitler brought what came to be called the hakenkreuz (hooked cross) with him when he founded the Nazi Party. For him, the symbol represented the sun, and was a connection to Aryan culture. He believed communities of Aryans — or “cults of Light,” as he called them in a 1920 speech — inscribed the symbol in different locations around the world throughout history. Hitler flipped and tilted the symbol and placed it on the Nazi Party’s red, white, and black flag; it soon became inextricably linked with unfathomable evil.
“Logically speaking it’s not right for the West to appropriate the symbol, defile it, and then claim that the East can’t use it.”
In 2009, Nakagaki, serving as the vice chair of the Interfaith Center in New York, gathered with more than 100 religious leaders for a conference on hate crimes. During the meeting, a hate-crime expert told Nakagaki and the other leaders that the swastika is a universal symbol for evil. Nakagaki later asked him what he meant by the term “universal,” and told him that Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains use the swastika as a symbol for goodness. The expert was dumbfounded — he said that he was only familiar with the negative post-WWII Western conception of the symbol.
“Logically speaking it’s not right for the West to appropriate the symbol, defile it, and then claim that the East can’t use it,” Nakagaki told me. Recently, manji — in the original left-facing swastika shape — has also become a popular slang term for young people in Japan. Nakagaki said that Japanese youth say “manji manji” instead of “cheese” before being photographed and have started to use it on social media hewing to its original meaning. In 2016, according to Kotaku, the manji was the No. 1 buzzword used by Japanese schoolgirls.
As the phrase and symbol has grown in popularity with Japanese youth (albeit with the positive meaning), awareness of the atrocities it represents for so many is dwindling. As The Washington Post reported last year, two-thirds of American millennials are unfamiliar with Auschwitz and 22 percent are unaware or not sure of what the Holocaust was. Soon, there will be few WWII and Holocaust survivors left to tell them.
Heller, the author of The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?, said that he thinks it’s “sensible” for the Japanese government to remove the symbol from English-language maps. But what about the fact that foreigners will still come into contact with the symbol on Japanese-language maps and on the Buddhist structures themselves? Nakagaki ends his book with suggested statements to be placed at Buddhist temples to educate foreigners about both the negative and positive history of the symbol. This way, neither meaning can be forgotten.