by

I look at a lot of Japan-related websites in my spare time (for hopefully obvious reasons), and every now and then I’ll see a post like this:

Question about swastikas in Japan on redditAnd it’s not just Japan-specific site where people ask these questions; you can find them on general question sites like Yahoo! Answers too.

A lot of people, when they see a swastika, immediately think of Nazis. I don’t really blame them; World War 2 and Nazi Germany tend to get a ton attention in popular media (I’m looking at you, History Channel).

But in Japan (and a lot of Asia), the swastika doesn’t stand for the Nazis or anti-Semitism or any of that awful history.

Where Does The Swastika Come From?

The swastika has been used in tons of different cultures all over the world for tens of thousands of years. It just seems to be one of those simple, geometric symbols that developed independently in different cultures throughout history.

The swastika was usually used in a religious or cultural way. Native American tribes (like the Navajo) used the swastika in healing rituals; in European history, the symbol was associated with Norse gods like Thor or Odin; and in Asia, the symbol had strong ties to Hinduism and Buddhism.

Swastika imagery in Indiaphoto by Peter L Barker

The name “swastika” itself is from the Sanskrit word “स्वस्तिक,” which basically translates to “lucky charm” (not to be confused with the breakfast cereal).

For most of human history, the swastika stood as a holy, positive symbol. Then, the Nazis came along.

Nazis And The Swastika

During their time, the Nazis plundered and appropriated lots of imagery from different cultures for their own purposes. This included not only the swastika (which they thought stood for Aryan pride), but they also stole symbols from Norse, German, Celtic, and other European cultures.

The Nazi PartyAnd, with all the horrific things that the Nazis did, it became hard not to associate the swastika with the Nazi’s brand of terror and hate. After all, the Nazis adopted the swastika on their flag and plastered it over anything you can think of – cars, banners, uniforms, arm bands, and so on.

It’s kind of amazing, really – in less than 30 years, the Nazis transformed a symbol that had been around for thousands of years from something positive to something negative.

What Does The Swastika Mean In Japan?

In Japan, the swastika is called manji; when you type out the word on your computer, chances are the swastika symbol will come up (卍). The manji doesn’t have the kind of stigma in Japan as it does in the West, and is used pretty frequently in Buddhist tradition.

In fact, if you look at a city in Japan on Google Maps – especially older cities like Kyoto or Nara – you’ll see lots of manji markings where Buddhist temples are located.

Google Maps view of Kyoto

No, Kyoto isn’t a hotbed of Nazi activity.

The swastika, in the Japanese sense, can mean a number of positive things from strength to compassion.

The bottom line is that when you see a swastika in Japan, it’s not some anti-Semitic symbol; it’s usually used as a positive symbol of Buddhism. I definitely understand why the swastika has such an incredibly negative connotation in the West, but the thousands of years of history that Japan has with the swastika overrides the awful associations that much of the Western world has with it.

[Header image source.]

  • Stroopwafel

    Good job, Hashi,
    A well written article on a difficult and sensitive subject.
     
    There was one thing I thought was missing though. 
    The swastika as the nazis used them, is a mirror-image of the one’s seen in maps, temple’s and boeddist culture. (the manji) 
    So, basically, when the ends of the swastika point clockwise, chances are it’s a nazi symbol.
    If pointing counter-clockwise, it’s a manji.

  • Paladin341

    This is a good subject to write a journal entry for.  I was experiencing a dry spell with subjects to write about.  Thank you Hashi!

  • boxie

    Great article!  To me this just proves that evil mutilates and corrupts whatever it gets it’s hands on, even a symbol.

  • Justin Gareau

    Though the hindu image above is a counter example.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, exactly. Before writing this I’d heard that if a swastika goes one way, it’s a Nazi symbol and if it goes the other, it’s a religious symbol; but as far as I can tell that is not the case.

  • Jeremias Grym

     Actually in Japan it’s deep in symbolism, there are omote manji and ura manji. Both are acceptable for buddhists.

  • berryz

    Sadly, people in Bangkok are turning Hitler into a cute and trendy figure. I wonder if this will catch on in Japan.

    http://www.cnngo.com/bangkok/life/hitler-chic-trend-138530

  • Joseph Goforth

    imagine if instead of a swastika, hitler had been ultra religious and used a crucifix?  or a smiley face.  the world would be a very different place.  

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Hopefully not! D:

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    No problem, glad to help!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tamas.doczi Tamás Dóczi

    Hey, ” tons of different cultures all over the world”  is a bit exaggerated, and – at least as I know – swastikas has nothing to do with Norse gods, or European cultures. I guess, besides the religions of India (Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism) it’s only related to the Buddhist countries in the history.  

    Written by fubito.blogspot (http://fubito.blogspot.com/2010/03/szvasztika-mint-kandzsi.html) originally there were two of them, 卐 (migimanji) and  卍 (hidarimanji), today 卍 is more commonly used. Regarding the etimology of the kanji, there’re many assumptions, one says it’s coming from an ideogram used for scorpion, . 

    (It barely has any connection with the Hindu’s swastika, but according to a Chinese text I recently read, some of the most ancient Chinese family names also has the 卍,  and in they opinion it’s a pictogram for the foot of the bear, as there is a bear in their origin myth.)

    It’s chinese reading ‘wàn’ , the  pronunciation is the same with the character 萬/万 (ten thousand, or simply a great number), some say that the kanji  万 also from the swastika (卐→万).   

    Anyway, later, the swastika used by nazis turned 45 degrees. 

  • ZXNova

    I’m reading the article and I notice that there’s a left handed and right handed manji (swastika). In the picutres of Nazi Germany is the left handed, and the kyoto map is the right handed Manji. What’s the difference?

  • http://www.facebook.com/KariOkamoto Carly Rose Chonbubzkevnigpuff

    Ogosh …that is horrible!! 

  • ಠ_ರೃ

     I guess that means if Kyoto is right, then the Nazis were wrong?

  • Juli

    thats what i always thought.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     I don’t think it’s an exaggerated claim: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika_%28Germanic_Iron_Age%29

  • Peptron

    But there is worse symbology stolen by Hitler: the straight brush mustache belongs to Chaplin!!!

  • Amelia

    I wish the symbol could be used here without nazi connotations D=

  • Asdfa

    Thank you! As an Indian, it’s hard to explain to Americans why swatiskas are used in my culture, and I’m really glad you did this post

  • Peter

    I was surprised not only to see the clockwise hindu symbol above, but also the Nazi banner above running horizontal and vertical, when I thought it was always diagonal, as on the armband, above.

  • Jon E.

    Didn’t they have Hitler plushies for awhile in Japan? I remember seeing those online, along with a video clip of a Japanese TV show with girls going, “かわいい~~~!!!”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    The swastika has a deeply rooted hold in Norse mythology and runes, it was carried over by the Aryans who were also in India. The actual swastika could have resulted from a crossing of two runes for one purpose that was then widely distinguished as a ‘lucky charm’.

  • Kariandayce

    Awesome! good article for the curious ~ 

  • David Sellinger

    There are two types; I don’t remember what they both stand for, but I believe one stands for eternity (the left-facing), and the other stands for power in the Buddhist tradition. Don’t remember where I got that from, though.

  • drayomi

    Actually the swastika looks different than the original symbol. The swastika is a flipped and turned (to sit like a daimond) version of the 卍. Although it orginated from the buddhist symbol, they are now two different symbols.
    Look for yourselves: http://gallery.iskcon.org/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=2911&g2_serialNumber=1

  • DefragEarth

    If you’d like some sort of sociological perspective as to why the thousands of years of positive associations with manji and the like were undone in less than thirty years: the globalization of economy, entertainment and…well, pretty much everything ever was in full swing around WW2.  The television was doing its thing and, as a result, the visual image of the swastika did its rounds and embedded itself in the minds of millions, most of whom probably had no prior associations with the symbol, negative or positive.  And much in the same way that misinformation spread like wildfire—and continues to spread, actually (I’m looking at YOU “The great wall of China can be seen from the moon”!) –with the ease of communication across great distances, the association of the ‘funny looking ‘x’ ‘ symbol with bad people doing bad things just sort of…stuck.

  • drayomi

    Actually, like I said, the 卍 and the swastika are two different symbols. The swastika is a flipped and turned version of the 卍. So, 卍 is still associated with buddhism and positive things. 

  • DefragEarth

    While that is true, considering the extremely vast amount of symbols in the history of civilization, the two are so closely related that the association exists.

    It would be like me showing someone a picture of an ‘x’ and of the multiplication symbol ‘x’.If I were to show a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand people the manji and asked them what they associated with it, there is a far, far better chance of them saying ‘Nazis’ than ‘Buddhism’ and it’s the majority that decides association.At least, this is so in western society–but, as Koichi said, in a lot of Asia, this association doesn’t exist.(I actually would challenge anyone to walk the streets of any American city and ask people what symbols are associated with Buddhism and get more than blank stares.)If you showed them a swastika and the manji, I doubt anyone would be able to pick which is which without having paid special attention.Again, it would be like a zero and the capital letter ‘O’ or an ‘x’ and the multiplication symbol.

  • Rashmi

    In the popular manga/anime series ‘Naruto’, one of the characters (Hyuuga Neji) has the swastika symbol branded on his forehead. This is changed to X in the official English translations.  

  • Hoshinoko

    非常に湯をありがとうございました!本当に!Finally, someone other than me having sense of this one ancient mystical symbol!  I am a Rosicrucian and a Nichiren Shu Buddhist.  The swastika does appear in some of our Rosicrucian work.  Again NOTHING to do with the God damn Nazis!  It has a MYSTICAL significance that has been used, like you say, for thousands of years — uh… worldwide!

    I have only one gay friend in San Francisco (no, just a friend).  He is also Jewish. His mum is a holocaust survivor. Therefore it is so sad, and we have had many arguments over this (which was sparked be some original tile work on one of the bathroom floors in his 1920’s  building in San Francisco).  He unfortunately vehemently denies that this symbol was ever used other than the Nazi cause.  So sad. You and I know better. Being part Japanese myself, I have known this fact for a very long time.

  • User

    “Native American tribes (like the Navajo) used the swastika in healing rituals”.  Generalizing Native American tribes is like generalizing Asians.  There are many tribes, there are tribes within tribes, and an object may have many different meanings in many different tribes, and then mean nothing in other tribes.  But the whole world, even most Americans, generalize Native American tribes, so you’re forgiven.  Mostly.

  • Apfelmarmelade

    In Germany , the use if the swastika is prohibited by law, specifically for political use. You are allowed to use it if it concerns the arts or science and of course for educational use (like histoical documentary etc.). I’m not sure how it is handled as a religios symbol though…

  • Empathyart

    Thanks for the insight. I visited the Fushimi Inari in Kyoto and was shocked to see the Swastika at the top of the temple. Nevertheless, I had learned from a friend years ago that the simple was used in ancient cultures and it actually had a positive meaning to it. Not a surprise when you think of other outlets that started out as positive being used for evil things (religion).

  • Ruleofsevens
  • Ruleofsevens
  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I didn’t mean to over-generalize; I read that the Hopi and Navajo both used the swastika, and I sort of assumed that others tribes had too. My apologies.

  • Julian Gregor

    Can you guys read minds or something because, I was pondering this very topic the other day after watching this video 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW-6U5bCyS4 thinking it would make a good tofugu post then i come here and see this, fucking mind = blown

  • Narcoleptic

    A better troll would have been to ask you how you measured the weight of culture… and ask you to clarify if they were metric tons. Great article btw =)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    We read minds on the side, but we like talking about Japan a lot more :p

  • Nehx

    Awesome article!! Thanks for the information! Keep up this excellent site!

  • linguarum

    And the crucifix itself predates Christianity. You can find all kinds of crosses in ancient Persian and Egyptian archaeology. So saying “Why are there swastikas in Japan?” is kind of like saying, “Why were there crosses in ancient Egypt?” It amazes me how a more dominant organization or culture can appropriate a symbol so completely that the inventors are perceived as the copycats.

  • Hr6991

    Nazi swastikas and ones used by temples in Japan are ‘opposite’
    Nazi one is counter-clock but temple ones are clock-wise

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LBWJT7P2UATG7XM4FJUMIFIZT4 Franklin

    Whenever I read a map with my wife, I point to the temples and whisper dramatically, “NAZIS!”

    She hates it SO MUCH when I do this.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LBWJT7P2UATG7XM4FJUMIFIZT4 Franklin

     The only place I have ever heard this is in America (and I live in Japan and have spent time in both India and Bali). It’s very obviously nothing more than a myth white people have started telling in order to separate the swastika from the Nazis. Obviously, the intention is good – but it’s nothing more than simple rationalizations and made up stuff.

  • BigD

    Thank you for this well written information.

  • HypnoPants

    In Glendale, California, there are actually “swastikas” around some of the light posts or trees, cna’t remember which. I think it is because Glendale has, if I remember correctly, the second highest Armenian population outside of Armenia. But every few years they have a group of people complaining about the swastikas around the trees and then they have to have city officials say, “No, they are symbols of peace.”.

  • Catch22af

    There’s something fishy about Japan. Consider for a minute their relationship with Germany. Germany, we all know what happened to them and the Nazis. However, a lot of people doesn’t seem to know that Japan also had their own idea of being the master race during WWII, this explains their brutality and the many atrocities they committed during the war, you can say Asia went through their own holocaust with Japan. Also, the Japanese culture is very anti-foreigner, you could’ve lived in Japan for half your life, have a Japanese name, and a Japanese family and they still won’t let you forget that you’re not a REAL Japanese. Just ask the Koreans.

  • Hitler made swastikas look bad and the mustache too. while Muslim terrorist made all Muslim look bad

  • TROLLER

    and Hitler made single testicles look bad

  • Stendhal

    I am afraid I cannot agree that this is, as other commentators have said, a ‘well written’ article’. One has only to do a little research – even with Wikipedia – to discover that the swastika symbol adopted by the Nazis during the 12 year reign of Hitler’s 3rd Reich, was probably adopted from the sanskrit language because one possible translation is: “”swa” is “higher self”, “asti” meaning “being”, and “ka” as a suffix, so the translation can be interpreted as “being with higher self”, which is very much in keeping with Hitler’s ideology that the Aryan, or German people, considered themselves to be a superior race. It is clear that the symbol has no connection with the ‘oposite’ symbol found in Japan that is used by Buddhists in religious ceremonies – it is therefore completely false to conclude that the Japanese are in any way nazis, or fascists, because of a symbol which at first glance appears the same, but in fact is completely different. Otherwise you could say that a letter S in our alphabet is the same as a letter Z. Ridiculous – one must be more sure of one’s observations, and facts, before throwing accusations around!

  • Ym

    Suck it up bitch, koreans are pussy ass bitches

  • novarma

    the west is so ignorant, they remove the manji from anime and japanese card games(a pokemon card that had a manji on it had it removed from the english version because americans are too stupid to tell the difference)….i guess that’s what america does best, ignorantly judge and stigmatize non western things out of stereotype or some other dumbassery….point is….if its not connected with the nazi’s at all don’t treat it like it is….

  • Bryan

    Great article and good information. Thanks!

  • *tSuKiNoKo ^.~*

    This is ‘manji'; the swastika is the other way ’round, n00bs =/

  • Morgan

    Oh please koreans aren’t saints they raped Philippines and other asian countries too so peaceful huh? As far as I know koreans now think their so special and people should pity them move on strive for a better future stop looking back… D; STFu cry baby!!

  • Paul

    I noticed that, too

  • thedude

    no, chapling used that beard to portrait hitler
    so he stole it
    it was hitler’s intellectual property

  • think

    There are also some self styled neo nazis in japan who use swastika for political purposes. There is no law against it