What comes to mind when you see this flag? History, sports, food, entertainment? Isn’t it amazing the thoughts and emotions something as simple as a red dot can evoke?
Most people around the world recognize the elegantly simple flag of Japan. The large red dot on a white background is a well-known symbol of “the Land of the Rising Sun.” But where did it come from? Like most flags, the history of how Hinomaru came to represent Japan is a long, interesting tale of war, politics, and national pride.
Overview of the Japanese Flag
The Japanese flag is very simple. It’s just a large red dot on a white background. If you didn’t already know, this dot actually represents the sun. For this reason, the flag is officially called Nisshōki (日章旗), which means “flag of the sun” in Japanese. However, people colloquially call the flag Hinomaru (日の丸), which means “circle of the sun.”
The Origins of Hinomaru
The Japanese have used the circle of the sun as their national symbol for so long that no one really knows when it started. The sun plays a large role in the nation’s self-image for a number of reasons.
Japan has been referred to “the Land of the Rising Sun” by its own people and other neighboring countries since at least the 7th Century. That’s simply due to its geography. It lies east of the Asian mainland, specifically China, which was historically the power in the region. Therefore, Japan seems to lie in the area the sun rises from.
The Imperial family of Japan also has a close relationship with the sun. According to legend, they are descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu. The goddess was a major part of the ancient Ko-Shinto religion that included nature worship and animism. Ko-Shinto laid the foundation for Japan’s modern Shinto religion.
Since Hinomaru has been closely tied to the Imperial family, it makes sense that its use didn’t really begin until the Emperor gained direct rule in the 7th Century. However, it was mainly just a decoration and symbol of the emperor, not any sort of national ensign.
In fact, Japan remained a loosely unified country of feudal lords called daimyō who used their own flags. Flags served to identify armies, units, and even specific soldiers. Sometimes, certain clans would try to use the sun to claim they were the true military of the emperor. As a result, Hinomaru slowly came to represent national unity and Japan as a whole.
Who created the Japanese flag?
Although Hinomaru became an increasingly popular symbol throughout Japan’s feudal period, it was not always the typical red-on-white design we see today. Designs varied greatly, including a golden sun on a blue background, until Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, thus beginning Japan’s Edo period.
Although it’s unclear exactly why, the Tokugawa shogunate apparently identified with the particular red-on-white Hinomaru and put it on any ship carrying the shogun. However, soon after coming into power, the Tokugawa shogunate instituted sakoku, a policy of strict isolation that cut Japan off from the outside world. As a result, they had little need for national symbols.
In fact, when the American expedition led by Matthew Perry forced Japan to open in 1853, they hardly understood the concept of foreign ensign since they had little need to identify themselves to other countries. Soon the Tokugawa shogunate realized it needed some sort of symbol, though, and in 1854, they decreed that Japanese ships had to display the Hinomaru to distinguish them from foreign vessels.
Soon after opening, the Meiji Restoration began, removing the Tokugawa shogunate from power and restoring the Emperor. Japan wanted to modernize and become a major player on the world stage as fast as possible, and they needed a flag.
The Meiji government developed many national symbols like the national anthem and imperial seal. In 1870, the Meiji Grand Council of State issued Proclamation No. 57 that made the Hinomaru Japan’s official flag on foreign vessels. It was initially only displayed on ships and government buildings, but the patriotic public quickly adopted it, solidifying Hinomaru in its current design.
Although it's the official flag of the country, some people still criticize Japan’s Hinomaru flag because of its association with the nation’s imperial past. Immediately after World War II, it was not used prominently, and there was considerable resistance to its users around the world. These days, however, it’s an accepted symbol of Japan’s diplomatic presence, even if reluctantly by some.
Most Japanese people identify with the flag, but there is some objection to it within the country as well. For example, the Japanese Communist Party specifically opposed a bill that would have distributed flags to the population. Most opposition comes from Okinawa, originally a Japanese territory that doesn’t identify as much with the Japanese people. Incidents have included burning the Hinomaru flag before special events and tearing the flag down from schools.
Kyokujitsu-ki and the Rising Sun Flag
You may have seen other forms of the Japanese flag. Specifically, you’ve most likely seen “the Rising Sun Flag,” which is similar to Hinomaru but has 16 additional rays expanding out from the dot. This design is known as Kyokujitsu-ki (旭日旗).
Like Hinomaru, this design has a history that dates back to the very beginnings of Japan. It was especially prominent during the Edo period when it was used by feudal warlords. In 1870, the same year that the Meiji government adopted Hinomaru as their national symbol, they made Kyokujitsu-ki their war flag.
The Japanese Flag in World War II
Kyokujitsu-ki was the wartime flag of Imperial Japan, and as the nation entered a state of total war during World War II, the flag became even more of a symbol for the country than Hinomaru. The Japanese Imperial Army used a symmetrical version while the navy used an asymmetrical version with the dot situated to the left. Both had 16 rays.
Throughout World War II, Kyokujitsu-ki and Hinomaru were used as national symbols. They flew over any territory that Japan conquered and was used in propaganda to promote patriotism and national pride. It was common for Japanese soldiers to carry flags signed with messages from loved ones for good luck.
Once the US defeated Japan and occupied the country at the end of World War II, the traditional Japanese flags were essentially banned. They were removed from Japanese territories like Korea, Manchuria, and the Philippines, and anyone who wanted to fly Hinomaru needed permission from American General Douglas MacArthur, who held the position of Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. Kyokujitsu-ki wasn’t used at all.
Starting in 1954, Japan reinstituted the Kyokujitsu-ki for military purposes. In fact, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, Japan’s navy, uses the original off-center design with 16 rays. The Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces use a heavily modified design, however. It only has eight rays with the red disc in the center.
Although the Kyokujitsu-ki has come back into use, it hasn’t been without controversy. Even more so that Hinomaru, this military design is associated with Japan's colonial and imperial period and its subjugation of foreign populations.
Most objections to the flag come from Korea, which was a colonial territory ruled by Japan for several decades. Korean activists have criticized celebrities for displaying Kyokujitsu-ki, and the government made the point of demanding the 2020 Summer Olympics ban the flag in any form. Later, a Chinese organization seconded the request, but the Japanese government refused.
Fun Facts About the Japanese Flag
- Although Hinomaru was adopted as a civil ensign by the Meiji government in 1870 and has been the de facto diplomatic symbol for Japan since the 1950s, it was not made the official flag until 1999.
- The Hinomaru flag has precise rules about size. The ratio of the flag itself is, by law, 2:3, while the red disc follows the Meiji tradition of ⅗ the hoist width. Despite these strict rules, the color is not defined as anything other than “deep red.”
- In 1971, Dutch protestors burned the Hinomaru flag in opposition to a visit by Emperor Hirohito to the Netherlands. They demanded he be tried for the deaths of Dutch prisoners of war during World War II.
- In 2011, famous South Korean soccer player Ki Sung-yeung was accused of making a racist gesture into the stands. He defended his actions by claiming he was reacting to a spectator waving the Kyokujitsu-ki Rising Sun Flag. This began a large campaign against the flag in Korea.
- In 2018, Japan withdrew its ships from a naval fleet review hosted by South Korea because the South Korean government demanded Japan only fly Hinomaru and not display Kiyokujitsu-ki on their vessels.
- A tradition that began in World War II, it’s common for Japanese people to eat a lunch made to look like the flag, called a Hinomaru Bentō. White rice creates the background of the flag, while a red umeboshi (a kind of pickled plum) creates the red circle of the sun.