Vessels of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF), including a destroyer, will participate in the October 11 International Fleet Review near South Korea’s southern island of Jeju.
The MSDF participation, complete with naval vessels hoisting the ensign of the MSDF — the naval design Rising Sun Flag — was announced by Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera at a news conference on the morning of September 28.
In South Korea, there is strong criticism of the naval design Rising Sun Flag. It has 16 rays extending from the sun to the flag’s edges against a white background, and some in South Korea regard it as symbolic of Japan’s militarism in the wartime past. In the run-up to the event, the South Korean side has been calling for the MSDF to voluntarily refrain from letting its vessels raise the naval flag, known as Kyokujitsuki in Japanese.
Japan’s national flag, called Hinomaru or Nisshoki, is a simple Rising Sun without the rays. Seoul is asking that vessels from participating countries hoist no flags other than their respective national flags, or that of host country South Korea, or both, during the maritime parade.
With Japan’s defense chief having clarified the country’s posture to reject South Korea’s request, attention has been drawn to what actions Seoul will take in response.
Preposterous, Discourteous Behavior
Onodera declined to say explicitly in the news conference whether there was any official request on the matter from South Korea. The defense minister, however, stressed that MSDF ships “have been mandated to fly the Kyokujitsuki as the MSDF ensign under the Self-Defense Forces Law and relevant regulations.”
He went on to say, “Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the MSDF ensign is one of the ‘external marks’ [as stipulated by Article 29 of the pact] that indicate nationalities of vessels belonging to the military of their respective countries.”
Onodera also told the new conference, “When MSDF vessels are dispatched to an international fleet review, they will act in accordance with Japan’s domestic laws and regulations.”
The Kyokujitsuki version of the Rising Sun Flag was used as the naval ensign of the former Imperial Japanese Navy and for other purposes. It was adopted for Japan’s MSDF ships when the MSDF was established in 1954.
Referring to a barrage of criticism in South Korea against Kyokujitsuki, Onodera put emphasis on the fact that flags with the same pattern as that of Kyokujitsuki, which he said models on the sun, “have been widely used for centuries throughout Japan by fishing boats as Tairyoki — or good catch flags — representing fishermen’s hopes for a good haul of fish, as well as on such auspicious occasions as childbirths and seasonal festivals.”
As a high-ranking MSDF officer put it, “The MSDF ensign represents the vessels’ Japanese nationality and should be taken to symbolize Japan’s sovereignty. Asking us to ‘haul down’ the flag is a preposterous as well as discourteous act which we cannot accept.”
His response made no secret of the MSDF's distrust of the South Korean side for asking Japan to act contrary to the internationally-established rule.
The Kyokujitsuki flag with the sun and its rays was used for warships of the former Imperial Japanese Navy, and after the war it was adopted for vessels of the MSDF. It has been recognized broadly in the international community, including the United States, which waged fierce battles against Japan during World War II. Nevertheless, anti-Kyokujitsuki sentiments have remained deep-rooted in South Korea.
Surges in South Korean public opinion against Kyokujitsuki caused cancellation of the planned entry into the port of Jeju island by the naval vessels of participating countries in the 2016 joint naval exercises, including Japan, the United States, South Korea, and other countries.
A senior officer of the MSDF pointed out: “It is an internationally accepted consensus not to bring political issues into the military exchanges between countries, however thorny they may be. However, anti-Japan feelings are apt to take priority in South Korea.”
“Cooperation between Japan, the United States, and South Korea is highly important to enable the problems involving North Korea to be squarely addressed. Unfortunately, recurrence of such issues as the one relating to the flag could make it impossible to build a relationship of confidence between the three countries,” he said.
Author: The Sankei Shimbun