Top of a red and gold temple with a manji symbol in front of a blue clouded sky

Anthropology: Controversy and Cultural Confusion Surrounding the Buddhist Manji Symbol or Swastika

Did you know, before Nazi Germany used the swastika, the symbol actually represented happiness, good fortune and prosperity in various Asian cultures for thousands of years? In Japan, the swastika is called the manji symbol.

Sadly, though, the symbol’s seemingly irremovable Nazi associations mask these rich religious and cultural meanings. Many Westerners take offence at the sight of a Buddhist swastika (or manji symbol). They mistakenly assume it represents the Nazi’s atrocities in the West. Undeniably, the Nazi’s use of the manji symbol represents one of the worst cases of cultural appropriation in history and its effects linger.

What is the manji symbol?

The pointed top of an ancient Japanese temple with red paint and gold lining and a gold manji symbol encased in a circle
Image Source: sanpai-japan.com

The manji symbol is the Japanese Buddhist variation of the swastika symbol. Despite common associations with Nazism and anti-Semitism, the swastika is an ancient religious icon. Long before its use by Nazi Germany, the swastika represented (and still represents) good luck and prosperity in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain countries such as India, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China and Japan.

Many Westerners are unaware that the swastika is not restricted to Nazism. These people presume its connection with World War II, forgetting that Eastern culture housed the symbol for thousands of years. There are several variations of the swastika and each has its own unique meaning.

History of the swastika symbol

A graphic illustration with blue, orange and yellow segments and two cartoon women and a red manji symbol overlayed
Image Source: hinduamerican.org

The name ‘swastika’ is derived from the ancestral language of India – the word ‘Sanskrit’/’Savstika’ roughly translates to ‘wellbeing’.

The swastika’s origins date back to at least 3000 BC. It’s considered one of the world’s oldest symbols. The swastika is found in different cultures all over the world. In these places, it’s associated with only positive meanings and can be found in both clockwise and counterclockwise form.

In Asia, Indian religions hold strong connections to the swastika symbol. Buddhism facilitated the proliferation of the emblem throughout Asia because of its associations with fortune and long life. Some people view the swastika as a motif of Buddha himself, with its shape symbolising an eternal cycle.

Architectural designs

Swastikas, based on chiral symmetry, were once an ordinary architectural design before Nazi Germany co-opted them during WWII. If you look closely, many building walls and public edifices adorn the ornamental motif.

Skillman Branch Library, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Black and white image of a building wall inscribed with a manji symbol swastika pattern and two bikes resting against it
Image Source: howderfamily.com

Lampposts, Glendale, California, USA

The bottom of a green lampost with manji swastika patterns around its diameter
Image Source: howderfamily.com

The Travellers Hotel, Ladysmith, British Columbia, Canada

Worm-view shot of a brick building with a swastika symbol on the wall
Image Source: howderfamily.com

Swastika in Japan (manji)

As early as CE 907-1125 (the Liao Dynasty), the swastika symbols became part of the Chinese writing system. The Chinese writing system was introduced into Japan in the 8th century. Subsequently, the swastika symbol became prevalent in the Japanese language and culture, commonly referred to as ‘manji’. For thousands of years, the Buddhist symbol was an emblem for Japanese clans such as the Tsugaru and Hachisuka. The left-facing, horizontal swastika marks the location of Buddhist temples on a map.

The manji symbol represents universal harmony, eternity and good luck. Firstly, the vertical axis represents the juncture of heaven and earth. Secondly, the horizontal axis represents the connection of yin and yang. And finally, the four arms symbolise the interaction, movement and rotating force of the elements.

In Japanese art, the swastika frequently forms part of a repeating pattern. A common pattern is the sayagata, also called the key fret motif in English (as seen below).

Black and white stencil drawing of the key fret motif pattern
Image Source: Behance.net
Katagami stencil with a pattern of manji tsunagi - linked swastikas (an auspicious Buddhist symbol and Japanese symbol of virtue) and karahana (highly stylised 'Chinese flowers')
Katagami stencil with a pattern of manji tsunagi linked swastikas (an auspicious Buddhist symbol and Japanese symbol of virtue) and karahana (highly stylised ‘Chinese flowers’) / Image Source: vads.ac.uk

Expanding meaning of the manji symbol in Japan

In contemporary Japan, the meaning of the manji symbol has diversified and now takes on an array of new interpretations beyond its traditional representation of good luck and fortune. For example, in Japanese slang, manji can have a similar function to the English word ‘cheese’ when smiling for a photograph. Moreover, people may use manji to describe a playful and excitable personality.

Manji often forms part of popular slang. For instance, in 2016, manji was voted the number one buzzword among Japanese schoolgirls. In an interview by Asian Boss, Japanese people interpreted the symbol in different ways:

  • ‘It’s a slang young people use at the end of their sentences’
  • ‘I didn’t really think it meant anything…it’s just something you say to add emphasis’
  • ‘Young people use it frequently in their everyday conversations’
  • ‘You see it a lot on Instagram and Twitter…hashtag manji’

With its now diversified interpretation both in Japan and worldwide, there are questions as to whether the swastika can ever reclaim its original meaning.

Three Japanese schoolgirls stand side by side in a classroom forming the manji symbol with their arms
Image Source: Line via Kotaku.com

Nazi Germany demolished the swastika’s symbolism

Many Japanese people that Asian Boss interviewed struggled to identify the similar-looking Nazi symbol. One man stated, ‘it looks like it could be a band logo.’ However, most Westerners hold a strikingly different view as manji’s immediate elicited meaning tends to be that of Nazi Germany. The Nazi swastika is typically black, turned at a 45-degree angle to the right with the corners pointing upwards.

In 1920, Hitler adopted the swastika as a symbol for the Nazi Party. The Nazi swastika represented the ‘Aryan master race’ and the party’s goal of racial purification in Europe. By 1945, the symbol was emblematic of WWII, fascism and genocide.

To further preserve the swastika as a Nazi power symbol, Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s minister of propaganda) issued a decree in 1933 that prevented unauthorized commercial use of the symbol. The Nazi’s used the swastika on uniforms, flags or even in marching formations and rallies (as seen below).

Black and white birds-eye-view image Hitler Youth marching in a swastika formation to honour Germany's Unknown Soldier at a rally in 1933.
Image Source: ushmm.org

Historian Malcolm Quinn writes:

‘When Hitler is absent… his place is taken by the swastika, which, like the image of the Führer [tyrannical leader], becomes a switching station for personal and national identities.’

Today, Western society heavily stigmatises the symbol. Many people continue to interpret the manji swastika as a symbol of racism and hatred. Even after hundreds of years, the symbol cannot break free from its immoral associations. Furthermore, white-supremacy groups and modern iterations of the Nazi Party often carry and reignite the symbol. In this way, the atrocities of the past seep into the present. This association perpetuates the swastika stigma that continues in modern Western society.

Differences between Buddhist swastika and the Nazi symbol

The Nazi swastika and the Buddhist manji swastika side-by-side
Image Source: change.org

The Japanese have different words for the Nazi swastika – ‘haakenkuroitsu’ (ハーケンクロイツ), or ‘hakenkreuz’ (German for swastika).

The Buddhist swastika originated over 2,500 years ago. It was a symbol of religion representing good luck and prosperity. On the other hand, the Nazi symbol emerged in 1920. It represented a dictatorship founded on fascism and discrimination, often employed by white supremacists.

The physical appearance of the Buddhist swastika also diverges from the Nazi symbol. While the Nazi symbol has arms in a clockwise direction (卐), the Buddhist version’s arms are anticlockwise (卍). Moreover, the Buddhist swastika is traditionally gold, whereas the Nazi symbol is black.

Stigma and censorship

Due to its widespread use by Nazi Germany since the 1920s and its presence in the Second World War, the swastika (and its variants) has become irreversibly associated with white supremacy in many Western countries.

Manji symbol and Tokyo Avengers

Screenshot of Tokyo Avengers opening scene shows cartoon characters marching down a street with a manji symbol on the ground
Image Source: Kotaku.com

Recently, the Buddhist manji symbol was removed from the anime Tokyo Avengers, an anime about youth toughs in the Tokyo Manji Gang.

The Buddhist swastika appears on the Japanese-language manga title and throughout the original anime. It also appears on various items worn and used by the characters, including their clothes, bikes and flags. Unfortunately, however, many social media users have mistakenly identified the manji symbol as the same symbol the Nazi’s used during WWII. To avoid confusion with the Nazi swastika, producers removed the symbol from the anime’s English language release.

Manji symbol and Pokémon cards

Yellow pokemon card titled 'trainer' shoes a cartoon with the manji symbol and a box with text below it
Image Source: Ebay.com

Censorship of the manji symbol also occurred with Pokémon cards. The trading card ‘Koga’s Ninja Trick’ stirred controversy when the card set was accidentally released in the States (it was originally intended only for Japanese distribution). Countless people mistook the manji symbol for a Nazi swastika.

Manji symbol and Japanese pictograms

A map of Kyoto temples marked with the manji symbol
Image Source: tofugu.com

Furthermore, the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) aims to remove the manji temple markers from tourist maps to avoid potentially offending visiting Westerners. Recently, Japan redesigned its pictograms to make them more ‘foreigner-friendly’ for the influx of tourists with the 2020 Olympic Games (held in 2021). Authorities worried that without cultural knowledge and context, tourists would associate the swastika symbols with the Nazi swastika. Through this association, Japanese people could be subject to unwanted hatred and fear.

However, there is controversy about changing the Buddhist swastika symbol among Japanese citizens. One Twitter user said:

‘It’s said some would mistake the Manji for the Nazi symbol, but Buddhism has a much longer history with this symbol. So I strongly oppose changing our maps for some foreigners who are ignorant and extremely stupid. The idea is foolish’ (translated).

A black manji symbol used to mark the location of a temple positioned next to a symbol shaped like a temple for foreigners who may be offended by the swastika symbol
Image Source: BBC

The problem with censoring the manji symbol

The problem with censoring the manji symbol is that it perpetuates a divide between the East and the West. Outlawing the swastika gives in to the perception that there is only one version of the symbol: the Nazi version. Moreover, it fails to consider the symbol’s rich cultural history. Rather than educating people on the importance of manji in Asian culture, this censorship approach prioritises the West. In other words, it aims to appease Western sentiment. Censoring is the easier – and lazier – option.

One Youtuber commented:

‘The effort put into trying to hide/remove the symbol just makes the symbol’s link to Nazism that much stronger. It puts the focus on the Nazi’s use of it, instead of its much longer historical significance.’

TV shows, street signs and video games are all outlawing ancient swastika symbols. I wonder how long it will take before local councils demolish building walls adorned with swastika patterns?

Solution: knowledge and education

Green sign with a gold manji symbol and people standing to the right
Image Source: qz.com

In our new media age, culture proliferates online in shared spaces. Sometimes, different people from various cultures with contrasting understandings of certain symbols share these spaces. Unfortunately, this cultural fusion inevitably means that some people may misunderstand or take offence.

Time and time again, Western viewers – TV watchers, video game players and tourists – have considered foreign symbols problematic or offensive.

‘If the proposed solution is censoring instead of educating, it may only breed ignorance, resentment and ironically, more hate’ – Bhromor Rahman

An interviewee in the Asian Boss video said:

‘People are not being educated properly. That’s the problem.’

Rather than censoring the manji symbol to appease Western discomfort, perhaps viewers should be open to education for context and cultural knowledge.

Reclaiming the manji symbol

Two blurred heads in the foregound and a gold manji symbol on a green wall clear in the background
Image Source: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko via timesofisrael.com

Some say the swastika that originally represented happiness and prosperity may never be culturally reclaimed – ‘it’s weaponization has made it irredeemable.’ However, others are more optimistic:

‘People should not have to give up their traditions because they were misused by others. That seems wholly unfair to those who never wanted them to be appropriated in the first place. Nazis should not dictate how millions of people practice their religions in the twenty-first century.’ – Sangeetha Thanapal

Undoubtedly, the symbol is centuries older than the Western controversy surrounding it. Reverend Kanjin Cederman of Seattle’s Choeizan Enkyoji Nichiren Buddhist Temple believes that reclaiming the swastika – not removing it – is the best course of action.

He says:

‘The swastika is a word, it is a symbol. [Removing] it would be removing part of the language.’

Cultural significance in anthropology

Top of a red and gold temple with a manji symbol in front of a blue clouded sky
Image Source: theoutline.com

Censoring the Buddhist swastika (or manji symbol) represents the West’s continued cultural dominance of the East. The incitement of hatred and fear for many Westerners when they see a swastika sheds light on their lack of cultural knowledge.

In Australia in 2019, a delivery man destroyed a Hindu family’s Rangoli (a South Asian decoration) after he mistook the symbol for a Nazi swastika. Apparently, the man thought he was doing the right thing.

Around a similar time in the UK, outrage simmered as customers of an Indian restaurant mistook a Buddhist swastika symbol (a symbol of peace) for the Nazi swastika on a garland hung at the front entry.

Certainly, the Nazi seizure of the swastika is one of history’s gravest instances of cultural appropriation. It continues to stand as a symbol of hatred and violence, masking the rich religious meaning for various other cultures around the world.

All things considered, the cultural confusion surrounding the swastika symbol reveals the importance of anthropological and cultural education. Sometimes, we are too quick to judge things. We assume that only our reality is the truest. Sadly, Western cultural dominance often comes into the equation. The censoring and removal of manji symbols from public view to appease Western fears and unease is evidence of this cultural dominance.

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