When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington, DC last month, I couldn’t help but to think just how these respective cultures, rather than speak to each other, have a nasty of habit of talking to themselves loudly in front of each other, often in mutually incomprehensible terms. I found few symbolic representations more fitting to this issue than the presentation of the Japanese and American flags adjacent to one another. The flag of a nation is a canvas on which these nations can represent themselves to each other. Searching for the emotive effects in their respective flags can be a window to understanding a deeper subtext to the way these nations perceive themselves and one another.
The flag of the United States: strident strength in differences
The United States has one of most easily-identified flags in the world. A doubtless consequence of the way it has been distributed across the globe by various means, such as military bases, bags of grain, and frighteningly successful Michael Bay movies. Nonetheless, decoratively speaking, this flag has a jarring appearance. Either in spite or as a result of the pride and confidence behind it, the contrasting colors of the American flag are an aesthetically loud expression. It has a remarkable stridence in its construction, making it a strong centerpiece wherever it is found.
Red and blue are equitable colors, both primaries that create contrasting balance. Although they are presented in differing shapes, no single color dominates the flag. The red is not inherently stronger than the blue or the white. The striped pattern appears as an iron-like structure of strong fortitude, such as shield. It appears to catch all that which would be thrown into it. If the flag is to be frayed at the ends, either in the midst of battle or by the weathering of age, the horizontal stripes would retain their bold strength and definition. Its asymmetry reveals the direction of the wind, flowing freely when it is charging forward. The five-pointed stars appear equal in weight and spacing, with not one appearing stronger or more prominent than another. The stars themselves have no specified identity. There is no identifier for Alaska, California, or even New York. Each star is as relevant as the next.
Notable, however, is the malleable nature of the flag. One may be forgiven for sketching the flag somewhat incorrectly. It is hardly necessary to draw every single star in off-hand sketch of the flag. The stripes are numerical just enough to evade a careful counting by all but the most perceptive of observers. Yet, such imperfections give no particular offense to any group, body, or subset of American society. No one may fairly contend that their particular state or group was omitted from the whole – as all parts appearing different, remain equal contributors. The flag may be reshaped into different shapes and yet preserve its unmistakable identity.
The United States’ flag, although contrasting and loud in aesthetic, is nevertheless artistically interpretable. Not unlike the culture of America itself, the flag retains its strengths and identity in contrasting and open-ended elements.
The flag of Japan: subtle endurance of unity
The flag of Japan is minimalist in appearance. There are only two colors, a large red circle set against a sea of white. Endemic to this minimalist design, the language of the Japanese flag can be deciphered as much by what is not seen as much as what is not. Nothing suggests a political identity nor a particular cultural tradition. The only lines ever present were oriented towards the circular center, now removed, revealing a smooth and cooling hull, like a hot iron after being doused in a pool of water. There is nothing to particularly indicate any historical bloodshed, nor any affiliate political ideology of any kind.
Ostensibly the circle is to symbolize the sun, from which the nation derives its name and identity. However, this symbolism is not unique to Japan. After all, can any one nation claim sole ownership of the sun? The flag of the Philippines uses sun imagery with pointed rays to denote island provinces. Yet the circle of the Japanese flag possesses no decorations, nothing to suggest anything other than a unitary, singular people – alone in a sea of emptiness.
The deep red and white suggests values of purity, cleanliness and simplicity. Any deviation to its simple design is likely to be immediately noticed as categorically "incorrect." Disturbing the perfection of the circle and its pure, white surroundings harms the beauty of the whole. As with all things Japanese, failing to properly acknowledge the precision of detail is a grievous offense. There is no room to add or subtract. Space is utilized in various forms to create positive and negative areas. Like the heavy, white makeup of geisha, the white of the flag serves primarily to highlight the features of its contrasting shade.
Where American political and cultural ideas are written into the strident stitching of the flag, the Japanese flag flaunts the self-assured love of the unitary group.
So what’s this all mean?
Placed side by side, and American observer may be vexed by the apparent exotic symbolism of the Japanese flag. Round shapes are nowhere found on the United States’ flag, and the scale of the bright red circle dwarfs any singular feature found on the Stars and Stripes. How could such a plain design come to represent such a complex society as modern Japan?
Comparatively, a Japanese observer may be at once bewildered by the apparent complexity of the American flag, with its varying shapes and asymmetrical balance. How could such a busy and ostensibly gaudy standard function as a symbol of a single entity?
The answer to these respective questions is present in the everyday interactions between these two nations – once bitter foes – now the most unlikely of friends. It is a search worthy of exploration, and may begin with a casual observation of the emotive expressions found in these national symbols.© Japan Today