Risqué K-Pop duo Troublemaker recently came under a little fire for the ‘couple hoodies’ they were photographed wearing. The image on the front included what looks like the rising sun symbol, and many commentators cited how offensive this symbol is in Korean culture. Apparently, it was all a misunderstanding and the symbol in question is actually a flower. Nevertheless the tension surrounding the rising sun symbol is almost palpable, so we thought it would be good to post a short piece that gives a little background explanation to any K-Pop fans that might be curious.
The UK history curriculum tends to focus more on British history (which is, perhaps, to be expected) as well as both world wars; however, this is still very much from a Western perspective. So, if you do not take on specialist courses at a higher level of education or do not have a particular personal interest, you can be forgiven for not knowing a lot about East Asian history.
Fear not, this is not going to be a long-winded history lesson, and of course, there is no way to adequately explore an entire section of the past in a single post. However, hopefully this will be helpful enough to somewhat enlighten you!
As with all neighbouring countries, Japan and South Korea have a long and tumultuous relationship that stretches back to ancient times, for the interest of this piece though, we shall focus on the more modern history of the 20th Century and the South Korean perspective.
It is said that the occupation of Korea by the Japanese people actually began during the late 1800s, however, migration of Japanese nationals can really be noted in the years after 1910. The Japanese were interested in cultivating agricultural land in Korea and many Japanese farmers were encouraged to migrate. As the presence of Japanese landowners grew exponentially, so did Japan’s power over the country.
It was during the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Showa (a.k.a Hirihoto) over Japan in December 1926 that the idea of Japanese Imperialism gained significant strength – it is traditionally said that it is the Japanese emperor’s divine right to rule the world and by this belief, an imperialist attitude became justified. So their efforts to colonize countries across the whole of Asia amplified, starting with China and moving to Korea, Thailand, Philippines and so on.
As Germany’s Nazi Party began to gain power under the guidance of Adolf Hitler, it seems unsurprising that Japanese Imperialism gained further momentum. The fascist ideologies of Germany (as well as the other Axis countries, most predominantly Italy) fit in with Japan’s already progressing colonizing efforts.
As WW2 rumbled on, the shortage of Japanese labourers came as a result of the higher military enlistment rates. The solution the Japanese arrived at was to bring many Koreans to Japan to carry out the work that needed to be done, much of this relocation was involuntary and it is said many were forced to work under appalling conditions. Many Koreans were also forced to enlist and fight for Japan during the war. Ethnic Koreans were soon allowed to change their family name to a Japanese alternative, which undoubtedly most did so unwillingly, but felt it was necessary to avoid racism and to fall in line with Japan’s strong efforts of cultural assimilation.
As Japan’s colonization continued, many brothels – then often known as ‘comfort stations’ – were created. Women from all over Asia were kidnapped and forced to become sex workers and ordered to service the soldiers of the Japanese military.
As far as education went, the initial hybridisation and efforts of cultural assimilation took place with both Japanese and Korean history and language lessons were given, however, over time the presence of Korean education began to weaken and it fell to ethnic Koreans themselves to establish their own ways to educate children about their history and language outside of formal education. Korean cultural artefacts and books were transferred from Korea to Japan and many Japanese collectors became owners of these historical pieces.
Under the Emperor’s rule, many Koreans were expected to covert to the Shinto religion, this even led to the Sungyemun gate in Seoul being altered to coincide with the style of Shinto architecture (this was later reversed).
The Rising Sun flag (a.k.a Kyokujistu-ki) was actually adopted as Japan’s national flag back in 1870, but it was later that a slightly modified version was adopted by Japanese self-defence forces which gave it very militant connotations. Unsurprisingly, the symbol of the rising sun was also disseminated throughout Japanese society through propaganda and commercial products in general to help rally the support of the public.
After the end of the Second World War in 1945, Japan was left devastated by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of the same year by US forces. Korea was granted independence and Japan changed its flag to the Hinomaru (the flag that still remains today). Given this sudden change, it is easy to see why the symbol of the rising sun is now so synonymous with Japan’s Imperialism rather than with Japan as a whole.
You might have seen that the rising sun symbol is actually included on some Western clothing, accessories and bags today. This clearly shows that some meanings are definitely culturally ascribed. Of course, there may be many Asian people who think nothing of the symbol’s use in mainstream culture, but it is undeniable that there is a feeling surrounding it that shows us how important a culture’s history is in informing present attitudes. It is a symbol that can be problematic not just in Korea, but in every Asian country affected by the colonization of the past.
It is also worth noting that, much like contemporary Germany’s attitude towards the Nazi Party swastika, the majority of Japanese people will also find the rising sun symbol offensive. While it is important to learn the history of the world, Japan is undoubtedly eager to move on and live a peaceful and respectful future with the cultures around them.
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