Once again South Korea is in a frenzy over the “Rising Sun Flag” [kyokujitsu-ki].
This time “patriotic netizens” have gone so far as to virulently attack a young woman in the Philippines for having an arm tattoo that incorporates elements of the flag’s sunburst pattern with 16 rays. The result has been a nasty Korean-Filipino war of words. The fallout has even spilled over into Japan’s online community.
According to South Korean media, the tempest erupted when eagle-eyed Korean netizens noticed during her dance routine that Filipina TikTok star Bella Poarch was sporting a red tattoo that vaguely resembled the flag they revile. That led to a wave of criticism and denigration of Filipinos, despite the fact that Poarch apologized for her “negligence.”
In recent years, attacks on the Rising Sun Flag as a “symbol of Japanese militarism,” a “war crimes banner” and so on have become a notable aspect of the anti-Japan movement. As a result, many South Koreans believe that the mere sight of any sunburst design that “brings to mind Japanese militarism” is reason enough to protest and criticize. The result is a truly strange phenomenon that has gripped South Korean society.
Unbalanced Attack on Filipinos
What makes the latest spat between Koreans and Filipinos particularly outrageous is that the Philippines was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific War, while the Korean Peninsula did not see combat.
What are we to make then of aspersions by Korean TikTok users that Filipinos “are apologists for the country that started the war,” as well as being “short,” “poor” and “not properly educated?”
These attacks provoked a volley of angry reactions from Filipinos. For example:
The Philippines supported South Korea during the Korean War by sending soldiers to fight there for you.
Do you only remember your history of being ruled as a colony and forget the truth of how we helped you in the past?
The hashtag #CancelKorea even started trending on social networks in the Philippines.
The cyberspace mudslinging eventually died down, thanks to the intervention of cooler heads on both sides, with some Koreans urging their compatriots to do a bit of self-reflection and Filipinos urging the “TikTok star” in question to apologize for “having hurt the feelings of the Korean people.” That appeared to put the controversy to rest.
Any Excuse for Anti-Japan Attacks
Nevertheless, we can say that the uproar caused by the incident continues to fascinate as a classic example of how South Korean society has repeatedly jumped at the chance to use objections to the Rising Sun Flag as an excuse to attack Japan. In the eyes of international society it is a bizarre story often repeated.
Without a doubt, for many Koreans the Rising Sun Flag evokes memories of Japan’s past history of militarism and colonialism. However, it has really only been in the last decade or so that critics have taken to referring to the Rising Sun Flag as a “war crimes banner” and weaponized it in their constant efforts to engage in one-upmanship vis-à-vis Japan. They’ve even taken to exporting this “weapon,” and the South Korean media has heaped praise on such criticism as a “patriotic movement.”
The results can sometimes be ridiculous. For example, there was a much-publicized case in the United Kingdom in which a student from Korea bought a sushi bento lunch that had a rising sun mark on it. He protested that fact to the manufacturer, leading to the removal of the offending mark from the product.
Then there was the case of a South Korean living in the United States who took offense at the design on a wall of a favorite bank which supposedly brought to mind the Rising Sun Flag. The bank obliged by having the design removed.
Political Exploitation of Anti-Japanism
Although the frenzy occasioned by the Rising Sun Flag manifestation of “anti-Japan syndrome” is centered among anti-Japanese activists and the online community, we cannot afford to ignore the baneful effects it has had in the areas of politics and diplomacy.
Japan withdrew from scheduled participation in an international fleet review held off the South Korean island of Jeju in October 2018 after the South Korean government announced that it would not recognize participation by Self-Defense Force vessels flying it as their standard. Incidentally, South Korea is the only nation that refuses to allow SDF vessels flying the Rising Sun Flag to visit.
Previously Japanese vessels had participated in such events in South Korea flying the flag without incident. Moreover, the Japanese Navy had used the flag in question long before the Pacific War.
But the situation has changed under the administration of President Moon Jae-in, who has actively exploited anti-Japanese public opinion for political advantage.
Moreover, South Korea’s official athletic association has been the only organization in the world to oppose the design of the gold medal for the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics because it suggests the rising sun.
Although the recent South Korea-Philippines Internet firestorm was only the latest episode in an ongoing saga, it may well offer South Korea a golden opportunity to consider just how abnormal is its addiction to manipulating public opinion by falling back on the Rising Sun Flag anti-Japan trope.
International common sense dictates that course of action for Seoul.
(The article can be accessed in its original Japanese through this link.)
By Katsuhiro Kuroda, The Sankei Shimbun
Katsuhiro Kuroda is a visiting editorial writer in Seoul for the Sankei Shimbun.