Written by Takashi Yoshida.

On Friday July 10, after a week of emotional debate between legislators, the Confederate flag came down on the South Carolina State House grounds.

I may not be an expert on the Confederate flag or the Civil War, but I have studied what Japanese flags have meant and still mean to people in Japan and other Asian countries.

In the eyes of many, both the so-called Rising Sun Flag (a red circle with sixteen sun rays) and Japan’s present national flag (a red circle in the center, called “Hinomaru”) are nothing but offensive, reminding them of Japan’s colonialism and wartime atrocities.

Recent news reports on the Confederate flag debate have reminded me of similar controversies in Japan.

The Rising Sun Flag and Hinomaru go forth in battle

Both the Rising San Flag and Hinomaru were adopted in 1870 by the new Meiji government, which overthrew the feudal government in 1868 and ushered Japan into modernity.

The former became the official flag of the Japanese Army (and later Navy, as well), and the latter the national flag.

Imperial Japan experienced a series of military conflicts in the years that followed, including the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), World War I (1914-18), the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), and the Asia-Pacific War (1941-45).

The military’s Rising Sun Flag accompanied the troops as they waged destruction. Hinomaru, too, was also carried by soldiers and was raised when enemy territories fell to the Japanese forces.

For example, when the Chinese city of Nanjing fell to the Japanese forces in December 1937, both of these flags were raised above the walls of the city, on buildings, and on street corners as Japanese soldiers committed murder and rape on a scale that has become a symbol of Japan’s wartime atrocity and a subject of controversy ever since.

Back at home Japanese citizens celebrated their military victories with both their Hinomaru and the Rising Sun flags. While Japanese atrocities in Nanjing were not widely reported, military campaigns suggesting a wide scale killings were often discussed in news reports. On December 16, 1937, for example, the Tokyo Asahi Newspaper wrote that “the Imperial Army [was] now conducting mopping up operations [ie, military operations to annihilate the remaining enemy troops] against stragglers…[of] approximately 60,000.”

The culture of war prevailed in Japanese society at the time: not many Japanese seemed concerned with the fate of citizens in enemy countries. On the contrary, the Rising Sun Flag and Hinomaru were seen as a symbol of resistance against Western colonialism and Chinese/Korean insurgencies.

Change in 1945 – sort of

The images of these two flags changed after Japan’s defeat in 1945.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-48) revealed Japan’s war crimes, including the Nanjing Massacre. As the postwar Japanese mass media printed numerous stories of Japanese atrocities that had occurred across the Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s, the reputation of the military plummeted.

The Allied (mostly American) Occupation dismantled the Imperial Army and Navy, and the Rising Sun Flag disappeared as well.

Two years after the Korean War (1950-53), however, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces were established, and both the Naval and Army SDF re-adopted the Rising Sun flag.

As for Hinomaru, unlike its counterparts in defeated Axis countries Germany or Italy, it survived and continues to be Japan’s national flag.

The use of the flags today

Despite its official military use, until recently, the Rising Sun Flag was largely associated in the public mind with right-wing extremists who blatantly claim that the Greater East Asian War, the official name of World War II prior to Japan’s defeat, was a “sacred war.”

In fact, anti-war and anti-military sentiment in Japan has been so strong that few ordinary people were interested in waving the Rising Sun flag. And this is probably why Japan probably has more “peace museums” than any other country.

Hinomaru’s fate was a bit different as Japan became a democratic and more peaceful society, but many school teachers, especially those who were affiliated with Japan Teachers’ Union – a leftist organization – often refused to bow to Hinomaru or even to sing the national anthem at entrance and graduation ceremonies. To them, both Japanese wartime flags were – and are – the unforgiven legacies of Imperial Japan.

But things are beginning to change.

In recent sports matches including the World Cup Soccer tournaments in 2008, for example, a few Japanese supporters raised the Rising Sun flags, alongside Hinomaru, to cheer the Japanese team. I assume that they did this due to their ignorance of modern Japanese history with no particular political agenda or intention to offend others. These supporters may not be so different from foreign tourists who purchase headbands with the rising sun or hinomaru at the Narita Airport as their souvenirs.

In contrast, anti-Korean and anti-Chinese racist organizations in Japan, such as Zaitokukai (the equivalent of white supremacists in the US) roam on the streets with the Rising Sun Flag and Hinomaru shouting unbearable speeches such as “Kill Koreans.” The organization claims that it has 14,000 members, but the figure, to my mind, seems inflated.

These groups romanticize Japan’s aggressive and colonial past – not unlike the attitudes of right-wing extremists in the US toward the American past.

Racist rallies – that are now amplified by being videotaped and uploaded to the internet – demonstrate Japan’s new grassroots nationalism that denies the authority and validity of the country’s postwar constitution and education.

In 2014, the Japanese Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that hate speech by Zaitokukai directed at a Korean school was a violation of law and ordered the group to pay 12 million yen (app. $100,000) in compensation to the school.

Nonetheless, it continues to organize racist rallies, and counter protesters continue to organize theirs. Arrests during these rallies have also been made, as participants often get excited and use spit, fists, head, feet, middle finger, and other body parts — but no guns due to Japan’s strict gun control — in order to settle their differences.

As for Hinomaru, the ruling party passed a law in 1999 declaring it the national flag and mandating teachers at public K-12 schools to honor the flag. Some teachers have been fighting against what they say is coercion and sued the Tokyo schoolboard. In June 2015, the government urged public universities to raise the national flag and honor it.

Meanwhile, no Japanese business retailer has decided to remove the Rising Sun flag from T-shirts, key-chains and other merchandise. Some flag companies are aware that conservative Japanese would prefer to purchase 100% Japanese flags and they stress that their products are made in Japan in an attempt to give concerned customers peace of mind.

Would banning these items end racism and bigotry in Japan? I personally do not think so.

What matters is education. Every society has ethnocentrists who refuse to accept fundamental human rights regardless of ethnicity, gender, nationality, or religion. In the South Carolina’s case, replacing the flag was probably a necessary step toward historical reconciliation, but replacing the flag should not be the end of discussion: it alone will not promote racial equality or human rights.

Takashi Yoshida is a Professor of History at Western Michigan University. Image credit: CC by Martin Abegglen/Flickr. This article first appeared on The Conversation and is available here.