Japan’s Flag Past And Present

National flags are a very interesting subject; especially when it comes to ancient nations with long, complicated, and vast histories. Japan’s current flag, the Hinomaru, is one such symbol with a history that’s not only interesting but also enlightening.

Almost everyone can immediately identify Japan’s flag, the Hinomaru. It’s that ubiquitous red sun in the center of a white background, emblematic of their 1200-year-long sobriquet, “Land of the Rising Sun.” No one really knows the exact origins of this flag, but its history is nonetheless fascinating.

Japan’s national flag is a rectangular pure white flag with a dark crimson-red circle in the center from the top and sides. The Nisshoki is the official name for Japan’s current flag, although it is more widely known in Japan as the Hinomaru. It is the embodiment of the country’s moniker, “Land of the Rising Sun.”

Religious and Spiritual Connections

Japan’s flag has a rich and full history most people don’t know about. Officially called Nisshoki (日章旗), or flag of the sun, it’s most common moniker is Hinomaru (日の丸), or circle of the sun.

One way or another, it’s always depicted in relationship to Japan’s mythological roots. Shintō is a polytheistic religion surrounding the importance of ancestry and respect for the dead.

Japanese flag flying near Yasukuni Shinto Shrine, Tokyo

Amaterasu Omikami, Ancient Sun Goddess

Shintō focuses much of this ancestral belief structure around the sun. It’s an important aspect of daily life and many Japanese believed the imperial family was direct descendants of the “Great Goddess Who Shines in the Sky,” or Amaterasu Omikami.

There are many ancient legends and tales about Amaterasu. She’s a warrior goddess who has military prowess and represents fertility. In many respects, she is the mother of Japanese culture. But her intrinsic connection with the imperial family is the crowning glory.

Japanese emperor greeting the public on new years

Since the 7th century, Japan’s nickname has famously been, “Land of the Rising Sun.” And Japan’s flag, no matter what form and color it has taken, reflects this quality of the sun in regards to Amaterasu.

Factoring in both of these concepts, it only seems fitting to make the sun part of the national flag.

Design of the Hinomaru

Everything about the flag, its design, shapes, and colors are specific and exact. The sun at the center, called beni iro (紅色), is the same as what you see during a sunrise or sunset in Japan, with a gorgeous and passionate crimson-red hue. The bright white background emphasizes the red.

Morning sun shining over Mount Fuji

The sun’s diameter is three-fifths of the flag’s total height and is placed precisely in the center. The composition reflects the red and white often encountered at Shintō shrines. These colors intend to bring about the energy of the soul while promoting peacefulness and tranquility.  

A Brief History

During WWII, the flag became a symbol of Japanese imperialism and was proudly flown in occupied areas such as the Philippines and Manchukoku. For Japan’s part in WWII, the Hinomaru became synonymous with the country’s militaristic history.

At one time, school children had to sing Japan’s National Anthem when they saw the flag hoisted at ceremonies. Even children’s books with patriotic slogans depicted the Hinomaru and the state encouraged teachers to promote this kind of patriotism. But there are other flags in Japan’s history that help draws a whole picture.

Previous Flag Designs

There’s also a literal Flag of the Rising Sun (旭日旗 or Kyokujitsu-ki) that precedes the Hinomaru. It’s similar to the Hinomaru, but there are 16 rays that emit from the sun at the center. This flag goes back to the times of the feudal warlords during the Edo period in 1870.

旭日旗 or Kyokujitsu-ki displayed with WW II era aircraft the Japanese Zero

After the Meiji Restoration, it became the official war flag for Japan’s Imperial Army. This particular flag has different meanings to different people depending on who you speak to. But, one thing is certain, it’s the center of much debate and controversy.

Imperial Family Flags

It was also during this period, the Emperor and imperial family members had individual flags. The emperor’s flag was a golden chrysanthemum in the center with 16 petals of a deep monochromatic red in the background. In 1889, this flag styled with the chrysanthemum became the official Japanese flag.

 Crest in the shape of chrysanthemum flower on the gate of Yasukuni Jinja shrine, an imperial symbol of the Japanese Emperor

In the early 1900s, the flag’s design went back to a red sun with the 16 rays extending outwards. It stayed this way throughout WWII. Afterward, it became the naval ensign for the Imperial Navy. This came after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese and First Sino-Japanese wars.  

Japanese soldier WW II era uniform

However, some of East Asia consider the Flag of the Rising Sun offensive, particularly in China and South Korea. This has to do with Japan’s occupation of these places before, and during, WWII.

After WWII

But after Japan’s defeat and subsequent US occupation in WWII by US forces, patriotic symbols, like the Hinomaru, underwent strict regulation. Japanese citizens had to get official permission from US military command before hanging or displaying it. It was illegal to show national pride without clearance.

Japanese Zero

Upon Japan’s new constitution in 1947, however, many of these restrictions were lifted and anyone could raise the flag. But even so, public displays of the flag were not nearly as frequent after the end of the war. Such actions reflected the developing pacifism away from nationalism.

The Hinomaru Today

In 1999, a law reinstated both Japan’s flag and the national anthem as the country’s official symbols. Today, the Hinomaru rises during national holidays and official ceremonies.

It’s also part of the décor when welcoming foreign state guests or in the front of government areas. Very rarely will they be part of homes and other private buildings.

The flag portends good fortune, so it’s still an emblem used as a logo on many products and by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. But, it’s gone through some slight modifications since WWII.

Final Thoughts

Although a brief and quick primer on the Hinomaru, it’s advisable for curiosity seekers to delve more deeply into the past and present of this intriguing flag. It has specific and intentional religious connotations while also being a symbol for the imperial family of Japan.

Kochi castle flying the Japanese flag

Each modification and metamorphosis of the flag becomes something of a timestamp in the country’s long and complicated past. While some versions are a sore subject for places like South Korea and China, it is also a sign of national pride for many Japanese citizens.

A comprehensive list of Japans flags via Wikipedia

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.