Japan’s official map-making organization wants to get rid of the Buddhist manji symbol (卍) that marks the location of temples on city maps, as foreigners associate it with the Nazi swastika. In China, where the symbol is known as the ‘wan’ character, some netizens seem to find the controversy entertaining.
This week several international media, including the BBC, wrote about the decision of the Japanese map-making association to change its manji symbol on tourist maps.
The 卍-symbol indicates the location of temples, but is often seen as the Nazi swastika by foreigners. With the Rugby World Cup and Olympics taking place in Japan in 2019 and 2020, Japanese authorities deem it is better to remove the symbol in order to avoid any misunderstanding amongst international visitors.
“Ignorant foreign travelers simply don’t understand Buddhist traditions”.
The news was also reported by Chinese media. The manji symbol is used in China as well, where it is a character pronounced as ‘wàn’.
China’s Sohu news writes that the Japanese manji is actually not the same as the Nazi swastika: the first has arms going anticlockwise (卍) whereas the arms of the Nazi symbol go clockwise (卐).
The article says that Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist Party designed the swastika that way because the German words for state and society both start with an S. This is allegedly why they designed the swastika in an S-shape. Another difference, according to Sohu, is that the Buddhist swastika usually is gold, whereas the Nazi symbol is black.
The confusion between the two symbols is mostly created by foreigners, Sohu writes, who do not know the difference. Japanese netizens reportedly complain about “ignorant foreign travelers”, who simply “do not understand Buddhist traditions”. They should not protest its use – “When in Rome,” they say: “do as the Romans do.”
“By all means, don’t let them come to Chinese Buddhist temples. They’ll go crazy”.
On Chinese social media network Sina Weibo, a netizen called Wuguaixing seems entertained by the news. The micro-blogger, a PhD student at Tokyo University with over 100,000 Weibo followers, writes on his account:
“Ha ha! The much used Buddhist ‘wan’ (卍) character that marks temples on Japanese maps is opposed by foreigners, who think it is the Nazi ‘卐’ symbol.
They now want to get rid of it.” Other Weibo users commented on the post, saying: “Foreign tourists are just not culturally educated at all!” And: “By all means, don’t let them come to Chinese Buddhist temples. They’ll go crazy!” The symbol can be found in many of China’s temples, either depicted on the Buddha or in ornaments. The writer of one of the post’s most popular comments wonders why the manji symbol is a problem at all: “Does this centuries-old symbol really need to make way for the Nazi symbol, that is just some decades old?” One Weibo user remarks: “If this was about any other Asian country, it would be no problem. But because of Japan’s past war crimes, the issue is very sensitive.” “Where did everyone’s IQ go?!” Some Weibo users address the history of the symbol: “Strictly speaking, this is an old Hindu symbol that was then used by Buddhism.” This comment is backed up by a netizen nicknamed Black & White, who writes: “The 卍 and the 卐 are two different characters, and they both read as ‘wàn’.” According to Brittanica Academic, both symbols, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, are referred to as a swastika. It comes from the Sanskrit svastika meaning “conductive to well-being”, and is an ancient symbol of prosperity and good fortune. It represents the revolving sun, fire, or life, Buddhas Online explains. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica: In the Buddhist tradition the swastika symbolizes the feet, or the footprints, of the Buddha. It is often placed at the beginning and end of inscriptions, and modern Tibetan Buddhists use it as a clothing decoration. With the spread of Buddhism, the swastika passed into the iconography of China and Japan, where it has been used to denote plurality, abundance, prosperity, and long life. The swastika was used as a sign of ‘Aryan race’ in the 19th century, and was adopted by Nazism in the 20th century (Quinn 1994, x). “Where did everyone’s IQ go?!” one Weibo user wonders. China’s Ifeng news wrote an article about the swastika and the issue of the clockwise and anticlockwise arms. It explains that Buddhism actually uses the sign in both ways, and they both represent wisdom and compassion. Although the issue seems more nuanced than a simple (anti)clockwise explanation, for some netizens, it’s not complicated at all: “The 卍 is a Buddhist symbol, and the 卐 is a Nazi symbol, please don’t mix them up.”