What is The True Meaning of Japan’s Flag?

I was doing some research about Japan the other day, when I inevitably came across the Japan’s Flag. Very simple at first sight, this flag is filled with symbolism and history. Do you want to know more? You’re at the right place!

japan flag
A design picture of Japan’s Flag

So what does the Japanese Flag mean? The Japanese flag is composed of a white banner with a crimson-red disk at the center, which represents the sun. Officially, the Japanese Flag is known as Nisshōki, meaning the “sun-mark flag”, but it’s also called Hinomaru, which means the “circle of the sun”.

Ok, so this is the basic information about the flag, but now let’s dive together into the true meaning in detail.

Japanese Flag History

To understand the true meaning of the Japanese flag, we must undoubtedly understand Japan’s history and the changing perception of the flag.

There’s no real evidence of when the Japanese flag was created, but there are lots of references to it, way before the flag was used as a national symbol. For example:

  • In a letter to the Chinese Emperor, in the early 7th century, the Japanese Emperor refers to himself as “the Emperor of the rising sun
  • During the Mongol Invasion in the 13th century, Japanese Buddhist priests gave a sun banner to the military dictator of Japan known as shōgun
  • In 1854, the flag was used to identify the Japanese ships when Japan started to develop diplomatic relations and commerce with Europe. It became the official merchant flag in 1870

With the arrival of conflicts and war, the flag started to gain importance and was seen at celebrations after victories. During this period patriotism was at full expansion and taught as a virtue. Now let’s take a look at some examples of the sun disk usage at that time:

  • Soldiers received flags as lucky charms with a prayer to return safely from war, but the writings must never touch the sun disc at the center. This lucky charm was known as Hinomaru Yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き)
  • The flag was raised at schools in morning ceremonies
  • Kamikaze pilots used a white headband with a red disk at the center that looks like this one on Amazon. This headband is known as hachimaki (鉢巻) and is still used today to encourage the person who wears it, as a symbol of effort and perseverance.

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After the war, people were no longer legally required to display the flag on national holidays, even if the Japanese government still encouraged it.

There’s a huge debate regarding Hinomaru and Japan’s National Anthem called Kimigayo (君が代 which means “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign”) due to their post-war history. As a matter of fact, some teachers and schools refused both symbols, though they were obliged to apply them in schools.

In 1999, both symbols were recognized by law as national symbols of Japan and though some teachers opposed it, after some incidents, the Japan Teachers Union finally accepted their use inside the school system.

Nowadays, the white color of the flag represents the honesty and integrity of the Japanese people. As for the crimson red disk, it symbolizes the sun goddess Amaterasu (天照) the ancestor of Japan’s emperors and the mythical founder of Japan. This is why the country is called the land of the rising sun; and also because Japan is located at the far east of the Asian continent.

By the way, if you’re curious about the events of World War II, there are some great books that can tell you more about the flags’ symbolism during this dark period of history, like Flags of Our Fathers or The Girl with the White Flag both available at Amazon. You can actually read a book for free during the free month trial of Amazon Kindle Unlimited or the Audible Free Month Trial for audiobooks too.


Other flags in Japan

Like many other countries, Japan’s flag evolved over time. At first, the flag had the sun disk at the center surrounded by 16 rays, and it was used by the Imperial Japanese Army. On the other hand, the Imperial Japanese Navy had the same flag, but the disk was slightly to the left. Both flags stopped being used at the end of World War II. The former Imperial Japanese Navy flag was re-adopted in 1954 by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and is still being used in the present day. As for the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, they use a flag with a golden border and the sun disk surrounded by 8 rays. (See the picture below for a better understanding)

You can get yourself a cool Imperial Navy Flag from Amazon or even the magnificent Nisshōki, the white flag with the red disk.

Japan has also 47 prefecture flags (one for each prefecture). Just like the national flag, prefecture flags are composed of a symbol over a mono-colored background (except for one prefecture which has a bi-colored one). Most of the prefectures respect the 2:3 ratio and the symbol in the center.


japan flag
Japan’s country shape over Japan’s flag

As you can imagine, the Japanese flag history was far from calm. All the changes and the fact of being involved in war didn’t help the people accept it easily. That’s why there were a lot of incidents related to the flag, even though its colors have a beautiful meaning.

And since the government only established its national symbols officially in 1999, not much time has passed to make the respect of the symbols a natural habit.

Even if it has a problematic history, I still think that the Japanese flag’s meaning reflects well the Japanese people. And you, what do you think? Leave your feedback in the comments below.

In the meantime, I’m going to watch the movie 1945 End of War available for free with my Amazon Prime subscription. Get your free Amazon Prime month trial here 🙂

Ana Costa

Hi everyone, my name is Ana. I'm currently living in France, but I've always been passionate about Japan and it's culture. I love drawing manga, watch anime, eat sushi and all things related to Japan ;)

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