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Studying in the United States had made me desensitized to the traces of the Japanese colonization of Korea that I see all the time back home. Without the recurring news on the latest developments in the drawn-out trade war between Korea and Japan, or the history lessons I had growing up that drilled into my mind the pain that my people endured during the occupation, it became difficult for me to be fixated on the past. For this reason, the shock I felt when I came across a certain poster advertising Hist 1023: Japan in Asia and the World in the Center for Government and International Studies was greater than ever.
It clearly stood out among the numerous other posters on the wall — it showed the image of a red sun on a white background, with its deep red rays covering over half of the poster. I immediately recognized that the image on the poster was the Japanese imperial flag, otherwise known as the Rising Sun flag. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.
The Rising Sun flag is often likened to the Nazi Swastika, and rightfully so. It was used as a flag of war, officially made the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1870. The flag reminds especially Chinese and Korean people of the horrors of Japanese occupation. The Japanese imperialists’ crimes against humanity include forced labor, gruesome medical experiments on innocent people, and forced prostitution. The Rising Sun flag became a flashpoint of tension during the Beijing Olympics and other major sporting events. FIFA has also instituted a ban on the flag at international football matches in response to South Korean protests. As such, the flag is internationally recognized as divisive, if not downright offensive.
On a campus that strives to be politically correct and hesitate from making any statement that may offend a certain ethnic group to even the slightest extent, I was left in shock by the blatant disregard for Japan’s crimes against humanity that the History Department demonstrated in allowing this image to be used in promotional materials. The Rising Sun flag may be widespread and symbolic in Japan, but this in no way means that the crimes against humanity associated with the flag’s symbolization of Japanese imperialism should be ignored. Harvard is home to a considerable amount of Asian students, and the Class of 2023 is 25.3 percent Asian American. Even if the offensive nature of the Rising Sun flag is not widely known, to display a poster with the flag in a public space is grossly disrespectful to the Asian population at Harvard. What makes matters worse is the fact that the Rising Sun flag was used as a promotional image for a class on Japan.
Considering how Japan refuses to directly acknowledge its war crimes, using the Rising Sun flag as a representation of Japan is deeply troubling. The matter is left unresolved even today, with the Korean Supreme Court ruling demanding Japanese firms to compensate for the victims of forced labor during World War II leading to a trade war as well as soured relationships between Korean and Japanese people. With the shadow of Japanese war crimes continuing to affect Chinese and Korean people today, the Rising Sun flag is a painful and cruel reminder that the victims of Japan’s atrocities have yet to be fully compensated.
I know my perceptions of Japan may be somewhat biased because of the Korea-centric history I learned growing up. But, history is history. Leaving biases aside, the historical record of Japanese atrocities in Korea and China during WWII remains. The Rising Sun flag is a symbol of Japanese imperialism that took away countless lives of the innocent — that alone justifies its inappropriateness. The History Department and the teaching staff of History 1023 should acknowledge their mistake in some format, raising awareness of the offensiveness of displaying the Rising Sun flag in public. That this poster did not generate a huge outcry on campus does not absolve them from blame. Ignorance of history and its cultural connotations will only lead to more ignorance and hurt.
Daniel Kim ’21, a Crimson Editorial executive, is a Government concentrator in Leverett House.
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