When Discomfort Threatens to Overpower Culture

My family’s collection of goshuincho, including my beautiful manji-covered orange book.

A few weeks ago, some pretty major news dropped: the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (they make maps) proposed a set of changes to its tourist maps. The goal is clarity–some of the current symbols are a bit confusing for those who have just arrived. For example, “H” stands for “hotel”–not “hospital” or “helipad”, while an “X” means koban (police box)–not, um, treasure.

I understand the thought process behind the considered changes. How many foreigners wanting to send off a postcard would see this – 〒 – and think, “Oh, hey! Post office!” I get it–standardized symbols are handy things. But then, map legends/keys are also pretty nifty. I studied them in grade five; I have a feeling that your average adult could figure things out pretty quickly.

But those map suggestions aren’t the ones getting lips flapping and tweets sent.

The big-deal change–the one that’s getting an awful lot of people awfully hot under the collar–is replacing the manji (卍), which represents temples, with a three-tiered pagoda. Anyone up on their Eurocentric WWII history will understand the problem: the manji looks pretty similar to the symbol the Nazis were so fond of.

Of course, many will already know that the symbol has been around for thousands of years, and out of those thousands of years, for only roughly seventy or eighty has it been associated with anything negative. It’s also oriented a bit differently. The Nazi version sits in a diamond shape, while the manji version is a square. Some will also say they face opposite directions, but that’s not altogether true: Japanese Buddhism has both a right-facing and left-facing manji.

Many will also know that it comes from the Sanskrit language (where the symbol is called svastika), and is used in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It has to do with well-being, good luck and health, and auspiciousness–all good things. It has a very long history in Japanese Buddhism, and even if it’s off the map, it’s all over the country. So, visitors are gonna see it. Period.

When articles on the changes started showing up on my Facebook feed, I was torn. In fact, just the week before, I had gone to post a photo of my new goshuincho (stamp book for collecting stamps/calligraphy at temples and shrines) to my Facebook, Twitter and blog when I stopped mid-post. I hadn’t noticed until then, but my beautiful, bright orange little book was covered in manji. I knew they were manji. Many other people who would end up seeing the photo would know that they were manji–but what about the people who didn’t, the ones who thought the manji were Nazi swastikas? I thought long and hard–do I write an educational blurb to post with the photo? Would I hurt or offend friends and/or people I have never met, even with the blurb? Would people take one look at the photo, be shocked to the point of outrage and not even read the post and label me a neo-Nazi anti-Semite? I was honest-to-goodness worried.

I remember seeing the symbol for the first time after coming to Japan. I knew a bit about its Sanskrit heritage, but I was still taken aback. A history degree with an interest in the European Theatre of WWII and a habit of reading war- and Holocaust-related novels from about age 9 was a lot of background to work through. It took a long time to lose my cringe-reaction, and to be honest, it’s still there when I see the manji on jewellery or away from a temple setting. I know what it is, but I worry what would happen if some poor Japanese kid bought a manji necklace and headed abroad beyond Asia. It’s a huge cultural difference, and it could lead to a pretty bad situation.

When it came to my beautiful goshuincho, in the end, I chose not to post the photo. But I continued to wrestle with my decision. I’m not a fan of the watering-down of education–the way people can opt out of assignments because they don’t agree with the content. Education (and travel) is about challenging perceptions and learning new things, after all, which can’t happen if you swaddle yourself in bubble-wrap–or three-tiered pagodas for that matter. I was angry with myself, but Nazi symbolism is a terrible beast to try to slay in one Facebook photo and accompanying blurb.

And then my newsfeed lit up with articles on the proposed changes. I saw a Change.org petition to prevent the map alterations, which I re-tweeted with my at-the-time-still-torn feelings only to be slightly called out by the original poster, who pointed out, as I already knew deep-down, that education is the key.

And so here is my attempt to educate, even while I’m nervous some will still take one look at the photo and label me. Even though my wee blog has a small readership, and really, what difference will this little (okay, long-winded) post make? Perhaps I think too highly of myself to be worrying so much…

But I do believe that education is the key. The manji is in Japan. It belongs in Japan. It will be seen by shocked visitors even if it isn’t on maps representing temples. People coming to Japan need to know before they arrive at their first temple what the sign is and what it means–it’s a manji, and it means auspiciousness.

And one last thing–as a friend pointed out, if they go with a three-tiered pagoda to represent temples, there are going to be an awful lot of confused and disappointed foreigners searching in vain for pagodas that are not, in many cases, there.


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