“What’s a swastika doing on a Buddhist temple?”
Four years ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, that’s what local officials are worried foriegn visitors will be asking during the games, only knowing the symbol’s terrible history with the Nazis.
The symbol is in fact the equilateral cross, with each leg bent at a 90 degree angle. It’s a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and it dates back at least 2,500 years to ancient India. It has 1600 year history in Japan, where it’s known as the manji.
The word swastika itself is derived from the word, “srivatsa,” which refers to the curls on the breast of the Indian gods Vishnu and Krishna. It stands for the hands, feet, head, and spokes of the dharma — or Buddhist doctrine — bringing good fortune and virtue.
But for the last nearly 100 years, many in the West see it as a symbol of hate.
The Nazi swastika was adopted as the symbol of the Nazi Party in 1920 under Adolf Hitler. Now it serves as a stark reminder of the Holocaust that cost the lives of roughly six million Jews over the next two decades.
The Nazi symbol is associated with white supremacist sentiments today. Just over a year ago, a Seattle-area Hindu temple was vandalized with the words “Get Out” emblazoned on its wall right alongside a blood-red swastika. The incident is only one of a number of cases of swastika-themed graffiti in the area over the past few years, including the defacing of a Jewish statue outside Olympia’s Temple Beth Hatfiloh.
There are differences between the Nazi symbol and the Buddhist symbol: the manji turns clockwise, the Nazi swastika turns counterclockwise. But this subtle distinction goes over most foreigners’ heads in Japan and abroad.
It’s the swastika’s case of mistaken identity that reportedly is driving the Japanese government to consider its removal from foreign-language maps and road signs. Japan’s Geospatial Information Authority has since introduced 18 proposed substitutes, which includes a three-tiered pagoda design. There was much debate in Japan over the decision to change the map symbol for a temple from a swastika to a pagoda because of the confusion — or whether it was the tourists’ responsibility to learn the difference.
The manji in Seattle
Buddhists accounted for 7 percent of the world’s total population in 2012 with 488 million Buddhists worldwide, and about 95 percent of them live in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Pew Research.
The Seattle area is among the top ten most densely concentrated Buddhist cities in the U.S. with 1,130 Buddhists per 100,000 people. Local worshippers have grappled with Japan’s dilemma: whether to display openly an ancient symbol many Americans continue to see as inherently antisemitic?
Many of Seattle’s historic Buddhist temples pre-date the Nazi era, Rev. Don Castro of Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple said.
“A number of our Japanese Buddhist temples have the swastika symbol on the cornerstone of the temple, which caused big problems when WWII came along,” Castro said. “Most temple buildings were built in the 1920s and 30s.”
Many Japanese-American Buddhist temples such as the Tacoma Buddhist Temple have chosen to replace the manji altogether. The temple’s manji emblem is now covered by wisteria branches, the symbol of its Jodo Shinshu tradition, according to head minister Kojo Kakihara. The wisteria of Jodo Shinshu Buddhists features two hanging Wisteria blossoms symbolizing humility and a welcoming heart.
The symbol is far older than the controversy surrounding it, says Toshikazu Kenjitsu Nakagaki, formerly of the Seattle Buddhist Temple and author of several books on Buddhism.
“The swastika used to be in many Japanese American temples,” Nakagaki said. “Wherever Buddhism went, the swastika went. In every Eastern tradition the swastika refers to auspiciousness, light and goodness, and in Buddhism it also represents the mind of the Buddha. After 1,600 years, most Japanese people do not pay attention to the swastika.”
Nakagaki says Hitler also recognized the difference between the two symbols.
“The swastika that is used by white supremacists is a hooked cross,” he said. “Hitler himself used the term Hakenkreuz (hooked cross) to refer to his Nazi symbol, not a ‘swastika.’ It is this cross, not the original swastika, that carries the long history of antisemitism in the West.”
Where do symbols get their power?
Reverend Kanjin Cederman of Seattle’s Choeizan Enkyoji Nichiren Buddhist Temple recalled his own experience as an American bearing the swastika. As an 18-year-old Buddhist monk, he carried a travel bag bearing a variety of Buddhist symbols on it – including a swastika.
“When I was a monk, people used to come up to me,” Cedarman said. “I think they were just curious. I was a white man with no hair carrying a bag with a swastika on it.”
Cedarman, a native of Wheatfield, NY, converted to Buddhism while studying the Japanese martial art of aikido. He considered Buddhism as a “natural evolution” of his search for “the spiritual, the ultimate.” He disagrees that the calls in Japan for censoring the manji originated from antisemitic concerns.
“This complaint isn’t coming from the Jewish community,” Cederman said. “If I could guess, it is just Japan trying to modernize itself. Maybe people who ask questions in Japan ask, ‘What’s this?’ and [the Japanese] do not know how to answer. Foreigners (visiting Japan) just don’t care to look deep enough.”
Cedarman believes that reclaiming the swastika, not removing it, should be Buddhists’ best course of action.
“I believe that it is people who give symbols their power,” Cedarman said. “By keeping the swastika Buddhist, we can help change the way people see it.”
He believes that censorship should not be the answer to changing people’s view of the manji.
“Everyone I have spoken with believes it should be combated with education,” Cedarman said. “The swastika is a word, it is a symbol. [Removing] it would be removing part of the language. People do not believe their prayers are received unless it is in their own language.”
To that end, Cedarman believes that the Japanese government’s decision may serve as a critical example of Buddhist representation going forward — both in Japan and elsewhere. “This could mean a lot for religious freedom,” he warned. “This is how it starts — the removal of our symbols.”