Spurred by the racially-motivated church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, debate has again raged in the United States about the Confederate flag. To its defenders, the blue saltire with its 13 stars and red background is a legitimate symbol of Southern heritage. Yet to its detractors, the flag is an ugly emblem of the former Confederacy’s white supremacist ideology and enduring racism in present-day America.
Yet such vexing vexillographic debate is not solely a Dixie affair. Around the world, national as well as other flags cause offense to millions, on the grounds that they evoke dark periods in history, or are ethnically or religiously exclusionary. Here’s a look at a selection of such fundamentally contentious flags.
To many non-Japanese, the Rising Sun Flag – first used by feudal Japanese war lords in the Edo period and adopted by the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy in the late 1800s – is synonymous with widespread devastation caused by Japan before and during WWII, including the murder of millions of people. Yet despite its painful connotations in neighboring countries, particularly China and South Korea, the flag – with its distinctive 16 red rays setting it apart from Japan’s national symbol of a simple red sun – is still widely flown in Japan.
Though initially banned when the Allies occupied Japan in 1945, the country’s modern army, known as the Japan Self-Defense Forces, uses a Rising Sun Flag variant as its ensign, while Japan’s navy uses the said flag in its original form, red rays blazing and all.
The flag is also popular among Japanese sportspeople and fans, fishermen and advertisers. Asahi beer, Japan’s largest beer producer, even used a variant of the insignia on some of its beers for years post-WWII, and has since released limited editions of the old designs. Imagine if the popular German beer Beck’s used a Swastika variant on its bottles?
The British flag, the Union Jack, is a combination of three elements: the red cross of England's St George, in addition to the saltires of Scotland’s St Andrew and Ireland’s St Patrick. Adopted in 1801 when the modern United Kingdom came into being, it conspicuously excludes the fourth member of the U.K.: Wales. The reason? Wales had been annexed by England centuries earlier, and therefore was considered part of England when the Union Jack was designed (and thus undeserving of graphic inclusion).
Attempts to have a Welsh element added to the Union Jack have so far been unsuccessful, though it has been posited that if Scotland eventually secedes from the U.K, a new flag may have to be designed in any case, providing the perfect opportunity to right a perceived historic wrong. The dragon may yet still have his day.
Nearly 14,000 kilometers away, the Union Jack is controversial for other reasons. Australia’s national flag – adopted in 1901 after six British colonies federated into one country – features the Union Jack prominently in its canton. While expressing the country’s (partial) British heritage, the flag is seen as a symbol of colonialism, dispossession and enduring discrimination by indigenous Australians. The national flag is disputed for additional reasons, including its un-originality and connotation of lingering dependence on a foreign power; whereas former British dominions like Canada, with its unique maple leaf, have adopted new flags to represent their independent status, Australia has not, despite repeated attempts to change it (and a range of stylish alternatives, including quite a few with kangaroos).
With its Star of David taking center stage, many non-Jewish Israelis – who comprise over 20% of the country’s population – see the current flag as discriminatory. Designed by Lithuanian-American Jew Morris Harris, the flag features the historically (though not exclusively) Jewish hexagram set between two blue stripes symbolizing the Jewish prayer shawl, the tallit. It was officially adopted by the Zionist movement in 1898 and by the State of Israel in October 1948. But what about representing Israel’s approximately 1.8 million Arab, Bedouin and Druze citizens? As with the country’s anthem, Hatikvah, the debate cuts to the heart of Israel’s perennial identity crises: should it be the nation-state of world Jewry, or a state of all its citizens?
Interestingly, Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern Zionism, initially preferred a more universalist flag, writing in his landmark book, Der Judenstaat: “I would suggest a white flag, with seven golden stars. The white field symbolizes our pure new life; the stars are the seven golden hours of our working-day.”
While Israel’s flag is criticized as exclusionary, a 2014 Pew Research analysis found that a third of the world’s national flags contain religious imagery. A full 31 of the 64 countries cited feature Christian symbols, over half of which are located in Europe, including ostensibly multicultural Britain (the Welsh aren’t the only Britons to be left out). Even the EU’s flag is said to have a coded Christian message, inspired by iconographic representations of the Virgin Mary wearing a 12-star crown.
While Christianity has been its predominant religion for nearly two millennia, Europe was and remains home to large non-Christian communities – as well as Muslim-majority countries.
The second largest cluster of religiously-inspired flags is found in the Muslim world. From Algeria in North Africa to Malaysia in Southeast Asia – where Muslims constitute less than two-thirds of the population – the Muslim crescent moon symbol appears on 13 national flags, and other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq feature Islamic inscriptions. There are, however, prominent examples of vexillographic inclusivity, such as Lebanon’s cedar flag. Who could feel ostracized by a tree?
Back in the U.S., the sole remaining state flag to still fly the Confederate battle flag is Mississippi. Given that over a third of the state’s three million people are African-American, it’s unsurprising that the flag is regarded as offensive. Whereas other Southern states have removed the Confederate saltire from their flags (the most recent being Georgia in 2003), a 2001 state referendum on changing Mississippi’s flag was defeated by nearly two-thirds of voters. And while Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn this week called for the Confederate saltire to be removed, Governor Phil Bryant responded by citing the 2001 vote results, saying that the legislature should not “act to supersede the will of the people on this issue.”
Glossary of flag terminology:
Saltire: a heraldic symbol in the form of a diagonal cross
Canton: any quarter of a flag, though most commonly refers to its upper left section
Ensign: a flag or banner used by armies and navies
Vexillology: the study of the history, symbolism and use of flags
Vexillography: the art and practice of designing flags
Vexillum: Latin for flag
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