Nisshōki & Kimigayo

Nisshōki & Kimigayo

I was born April 23rd, 1999, the same year a few months from when the beautiful white rectangle and red circle were officially adopted by Japan. For me, this flag represents an inspiring culture, a great design, and an amazing country I long to visit. However, the same Japanese flag I love is filled with debate. The same Japanese flag that was made official the year I was born, was the same flag that led to a suicide the year I was born. To truly understand the Japanese flag, one must look back at the history of Japan and the events surrounding the design of the flag itself.

The Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854, marked the end of Japan’s 220 year seclusion. The Convention of Kanagawa was a treaty between the United States of America and what was Tokugawa Shogunate, now the Japanese government, that opened Japanese ports to American ships. This treaty, which the thirteenth U.S. president, Millard Fillmore, pushed for by using gunboat diplomacy, was driven by increased American trade with China, American whalers near Japanese waters, and British and French monopolization of coal in Asia. Japan’s entrance into more open trade policies led to the need to define itself globally and the creation of the country's flags.  

One of Japan’s early flags, which defined the Tokugawa Shogunate rule, was a white rectangle with a centered, horizontal, black stripe. Next came the imperial flag of the Meiji period. This imperial flag had a red rectangle with a centered 16-petal golden chrysanthemum. This design was used nationally until 1870 and is currently used for the imperial flag. The first national flag of Japan was the white background and red circle you are used to seeing today, but the flag was 7 x 10 in ratio, and the circle was shifted 1% left of center. This flag, although adopted socially by the Japanese people in 1870, was never officially declared the national flag.

Seventy-five years later, after Japan’s defeat in World War II, there were rumblings of establishing this flag officially. In 1974, legal attempts were made, but failed after opposition from the Japan Teacher Union. The Japan Teacher Union believed that the unofficial flag as well as the national anthem had relations to Japanese militarism and therefore should not be used. These arguments escalated, and in 1996 the education ministry forced public schools to raise the flag and sing the Kimigayo anthem. Reaching the argument’s climax at the end of the 1999 school year, Toshihiro Ishikawa committed suicide in protest of the flag and anthem; he was a high school principal in Hiroshima.

Following this suicide, the Act on National Flag and Anthem was passed. This officially defined the national flag and anthem. The act made official a modified version of the flag that perfectly centered the red circle and used a more vibrant red. The flag was stated to be a white rectangle proportioned 2 by 3, with a centered red circle three-fifths the hoist in diameter. The act also made official the national anthem, "Kimigayo."

The Japanese flag represents purity and power while also emphasizing the simplistic Japanese aesthetic. Interpreting the Japanese flag, the white background represents honesty and purity. The red circle represents the sun goddess Amaterasu. Amaterasu is an important figure in Japanese mythology, as she is said to be a direct relative of Japanese emperors.  

Translating "Kimigayo," the national anthem, reveals sentiments of an emperor’s power, which shines light on prior Japanese militarism. "Kimigayo" translates directly to

“May your reign
Continue for a thousand,
Eight thousand generations,
Until the pebbles
Grow into boulders
Lush with moss.”

"Kimigayo" also poetically translates to:

“Thousands of years of happy reign be thine;
Rule on, my lord, until what are pebbles now
By ages united to mighty rocks shall grow
Whose venerable sides the moss doth line.”

Comparing the two, they both perpetuate the previous empire and militaristic history of Japan, but differ in the light they use to portray the empire. Both translations promote the idea that the emperor should reign for thousands of years. This idea refers back to the old empires, 1868 to 1947, which existed under the slogan "Fukoku Kyōhei," or “Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Armed Forces.” Comparing the two, the plain translation is neutral in tone, but the poetic version offers praise to the empire by describing the reign as “happy.” Together, the translations give the idea that the national anthem perpetuates Japanese militarism.  

Although many see the white rectangle and centered red circle as a superb example of flag design that represents Japan, I see it and its historical controversy. I see flags as major statements about each country as well as pieces of art. Flags are designed to embody a country visually. The fifty stars on the American flag, the maple leaf of Canada, the Swiss cross—these flags and their details all portray and embed a snippet of each country’s culture and history. Flag design is so much more than just design;  it is history, sociology, anthropology. These areas of study give the flags their weight and the designs give them their power. Some flags are beautiful pieces of design genius. Japan, Canada, Switzerland, and Albania all have beautifully simplistic designs that capitalize on some historical detail or cultural element of the country. This beauty allows and encourages citizens to rally behind their nation or gain a glimpse into another country. These small glimpses of history and culture that flags provide, as well as the social rallying power they have, makes me believe that flag design is one of the most important and politically involved art forms.