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History of the Japanese Flag

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

The flag of Japan has two names: the Nisshōki and the Hinomaru which mean "Japanese standard" and "solar disk flag.

The background of the Japanese standard is white and the circle in the centre is red. White stands for honesty and purity, red shows passion and sincerity.

History of the Japanese Flag

As of August 13, 1999, the Nisshōki became the flag of the Republic of Japan. It is an enacted law that officially considered this flag. No law has adopted this type of flag in the past.

According to the declaration of February 27, 1870, a flag with a sun disk had been used as a national pennant by some merchant ships. But the military navy chose another standard during the Second World War. This one also had a red sun on a white background, but this circle had 16 concentric rays.

His Origins

The flag, as we know it today, was designed to embody the nation's nickname, the Land of the Rising Sun. The Japanese flag is also called Hinomaru by some Japanese, which means circle of the sun. In AD 701, Emperor Monmu had already used the first solar-themed flag according to some history books. Also in the Unpo-Ji temple is the oldest Japanese flag, which is said to be older than the 16th century. It was donated to Minamoto no Yoshimitsu by Emperor Go-Reizei and has remained a family treasure for the Takeda clan for 1,000 years.

And if you are wondering where the expression "Japanese" comes from to evoke Japan, here is the historical reason: At the beginning of the 7th century, in a letter to the emperor of China, the emperor of Japan qualifies himself as "the emperor of the rising sun". Beyond Japan lies the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, from a continental perspective, Japan is in the direction of the sunrise. For this reason, the Japanese began to call their country Nihon or Nippon, which literally means "source of the sun" and is often translated in English as "land of the rising sun".

In the 12th century, samurai (bushi) warriors appeared and during the power struggle between the Minamoto and Taira clans, the bushi drew solar circles on folding fans called gunsen, notes the Japanese Foreign Ministry on its website.

A legend traces the origin of the flag of Japan to the 13th century when a Buddhist monk known as Nichiren presented a sun disk to the great Emperor of Japan. The latter is considered to be the descendant of Amaterasu, the sun god.

This symbol then appears in images depicting the wars of the 15th and 16th centuries. Military generals in Japan also used the sun sign around the 17th century to distinguish their ships from those in other territories.

In 1868, the red circle flag on a white background was recognized as the national emblem of Japan, but still unofficially. It was not until August 1999 that the flag was officially declared. Note that at the same time, the Kimi Ga Yo was considered the country's national anthem.

This flag with the sun or the red disc on a white background is the one that was later adopted by the Japanese military, commercial ships and, later, at the official level.

However, it is not the only one to float as a Japanese symbol.

The Symbol of the Red Sun

The Japanese flag with the red disc refers to the Rising Sun. Its name, Hi no Maru, designates the solar disk. This expression means "the disc of the sun".

This red disc not only represents our creature but above all the solar goddess of the Shinto Amaterasu, ancestor of the Japanese imperial lineage.

The symbol is ancient and its origin dates back to the 8th century, but it is no coincidence that this flag was first raised in 1868 when the nationalists restored power to Emperor Meiji - head of the Shinto religion - after centuries of shogun power.

At the time, it symbolized the monarchy, ancestral religion and Japanese identity. The return of the emperor even gave rise to the ban on the practice of religious syncretism, a mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism.

The other flag

The Flag of the Rising Sun or Kyokujitsu-ki, its Japanese name, has a similar red disc, but with 16 rays of the same colour coming out of it.

It is not official, but its use is widespread in the country. In fact, the two flags have been used simultaneously for centuries in conflicts.

During the 19th century, the flag of the Rising Sun became the symbol of the army. As such, it floated during the imperialist expansion of Japan, when it occupied Korea and part of China.

But during World War II, it became the flag of the navy, and its reputation changed after Japanese troops occupied much of Asia and committed atrocities against the local population.

Use of the Flag by the Japanese

The Japanese are still quite reluctant to use the national flag today. It is little put forward during sporting victories or national holidays. Moreover, there is no obligation to float it and its degradation is not a crime according to the law (whereas the degradation of foreign flags is one).

There is a public debate on the use of the flag, especially in schools or on national holidays. For many, it remains the flag of the time of the Great Empire of Japan, while others see it as a more general symbol.

Lucky charm and encouragement

The Japanese flag can often be found associated with many other official flags, those of prefectures, municipalities or even schools, which float side by side.

More anecdotally, the flag is sometimes used as a good luck charm: it is offered to a person with messages of encouragement and good luck arranged like rays around the central disc. Students often purchase hachimaki headbands with the red disc on them to express their determination to pass exams.

The Flag of the Japanese Navy

Like many other countries, the Japanese flag has evolved. Initially, the flag had the solar disk in the centre surrounded by 16 rays and was used by the Imperial Japanese Army. In contrast, the Imperial Japanese Navy had the same flag, but the disc was located on the left. These two flags ceased to be used at the end of World War II. In 1954, the old Imperial Japanese Navy flag was readopted by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and is still in use today. The Japanese Self-Defense Force and the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force, on the other hand, adopted a flag with a gold border and a sun disk surrounded by eight rays.

By presenting a motif almost identical to that of the standard of the Imperial Japanese Army, Japan does not facilitate its diplomatic relations with its close neighbours. In the late 2000s, several Japanese supporters hoisted the Imperial Flag during an international football match. Since then, especially for the last twenty years, South Korea has fought fiercely against the use of Kyokujitsuki, the Japanese naval flag.

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