The Hinomaru: tempting but dangerous for designers
BY SOPHIE KNIGHT STAFF WRITER
Designer Nobuhide Hamada at his clothing shop 'Jingo' in Tokyo's Harajuku district. (Louis Templado)The cover of the English edition of 'Quakebook.' (Photo by James White)
In the weeks following the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan's national rising sun flag was ubiquitous--not only on the covers of magazines and newspapers, but also posters, buttons, T-shirts and other merchandise sold to raise money for the victims of the tsunami.
But although its simplicity was a boon for some foreign designers, some Japanese were offended by the treatment of their national symbol, variously depicted as an egg yolk, a shattered sphere, a jagged seismographic line and a smiling face.
Nobuhide Hamada, who designs and sells clothing decorated with the Hinomaru emblem at his store in Harajuku, Tokyo, was dismayed to see the flag so freely appropriated.
"I know that many people made these designs out of concern for Japan, and I appreciate that," he said. "But from our perspective, designs like this aren't very comforting."
One of the images Hamada found particularly insensitive was a rising sun split into two by a thick, jagged crack, which was featured on the March 21 cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.
Saying that the image portrayed Japanese people as "divided" in the crisis, the Japanese Consulate in New York filed a formal complaint with the magazine, saying that the image had "discouraged a great number of people."
Bloomberg Businessweek said that as the crack was actually an outline of a crying face, the design was supposed to express sadness rather than cause offense.
Some designers took the Hinomaru's sacredness into account when designing products for the Japanese market.
While the English edition of "Quakebook," a book containing personal accounts of the quake being sold to raise money for the Japanese Red Cross, also features a cracked Hinomaru on its cover, the front of the Japanese language edition is graced by a flower sprouting through a crack in the ground.
Edward Harrison, the graphic designer responsible for selecting the images, defended his choice for the English edition.
"As a designer it's all about documenting, expressing, and communicating," he said, noting that the striking design may encourage more people to buy the book, thereby increasing the amount of money going to the Japanese Red Cross. "I think the design reinforces compassion and encourages the assistance of the viewer," he added.
At the same time, Harrison explained that a more "subtle and positive" image was chosen for the Japanese edition because, "Design is very culture and audience specific, and something might work in America but not in Japan."
Hamada, who also designed T-shirts with the Hinomaru on them after the earthquake, would likely agree.
"I don't think Japanese people like to see the flag changed too much," he said. "On the T-shirt I designed, I just left the flag as it was, because I think doing that cheers people up."
Although the flag has political connotations for some, Hamada emphasized that his designs "use the flag as it's always been, clean of any political associations."
Eiji Oguma, a sociologist who specializes in nationalism and Japanese self-perceptions, thinks that the Japanese flag is actually unique in having little ideological basis.
"Unlike the French flag, for example, where the blue, white and red stand for liberty, equality and fraternity respectively, or the American flag that expresses the union of the 50 states, the Japanese flag doesn't stand for anything," he said.
However, Oguma also noted that some groups use the flag to represent their views. "People have tried to align the flag with completely unrelated political movements in Japan, ranging from remilitarization to sexual equality."
For example, Mitsuhiro Kimura, leader of the Tokyo-based right-wing group Issuikai, said in an interview that the flag represents "the Japanese nation, based on imperial rule."
To some, the Hinomaru has military connotations. People who took pens and wrote supportive words on the flag after the earthquake were probably unaware that writing on the flag, known as "yosegaki," was particularly common during wartime where families and friends would write messages on flags to give to soldiers.
Although writing on the national flag is tantamount to desecration in some countries, Kimura said that the practice is not only acceptable in Japan, but something positive.
Context, it seems, is all important. One Japanese music producer, who asked not to be named, said people were only offended at the use of the Hinomaru because the disaster made them feel more patriotic.
"Any other time, they might not care so much--but because of the earthquake, emotions were running high," he said. "You also see torn Union Jacks or modified American flags on clothing all the time in Tokyo and people don't care too much about that."
But Hamada said that the Japanese flag's simplicity is deceptive, and that using it is more difficult than many foreign designers realize.
"By altering the sun motif, you can communicate a variety of messages," he said. "But if you don't pay sufficient care, you can easily hurt someone by playing around with the flag. For Japanese people, it's a sacred emblem."
(Louis Templado contributed to this article)