Swastikas and Tourists

Japan needs tourists to boost its languid economy, and a weakened Yen coupled with a growing appetite among Chinese to travel abroad, is resulting in a record-breaking influx of tourists to this country. It is hard to find a hotel in Tokyo or Kyoto, and Airbnb apartments are mushrooming all over the place.

In an effort to make it more convenient for tourists, especially in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games, Japan decided to change some of the symbols it uses on maps. The most talked-about change is ditching the swastika symbol used to indicate temples.

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This ancient symbol has been in use for millenia in Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions before the Nazis came along in the 20th century and ruined it for eternity (they also inverted it, making it right-facing).

Many foreigners naturally associate the swastika with Nazi Germany. Recently, when I posted a map of my jogging run on Facebook, a friend immediately commented about the symbol (in that case it indicated, strangely, a mosque). But the change is met with a lot of criticism here. Many Japanese blame foreigners for their ignorance and believe that they should learn about the symbol’s history and significance. They should respect its traditional use in Buddhist temples and not let their Western bias get in the way.

I remember feeling a little surprised the first time I saw the swastika in Japan, a very long time ago. But since then I’ve gotten so used to it, I hardly notice it any more. Whilst I understand the need to be more tourist-friendly , I think that changing the symbol is a mistake. I believe the questions it raises among visitors is a positive thing, as it leads to deeper understanding of the history and culture of Japan.

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