The symbol of the swastika is a well documented ancient symbol used around the world. It's first recorded occurence dates all the way back the the 6th to 5th millennium BC when it was used in the "Vinca script" of Neolithic Europe. After that it has been used by primitive society consitently from China to the Americas passing by Greece and Africa.
A manhole in Hirosaki, Japan
|A Coca-Cola advertisement dating 1925|
The word swastika come from the Sanskrit and it means "that which is associated with well-being." Its meaning is one of luck, well-being. It has been used consistently around the world, even in the U.S. as a good-luck charm, especially by early aviators.
Native americans and Chinese also used it to represent the sun.
The crooked cross is a historical sacred symbol in all Indian religions. It is used in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It rose to importance in Buddhism during the Mauryan Empire and in Hinduism with the decline of Buddhism in India during the Gupta Empire. It followed the silk road with Buddhism to reach Tibet and China. The symbol was also introduced to Bali with Hinduism by Hindu kings. The use of the swastika by the Bon faith of Tibet, as well as later religions like Cao Dai of Vietnam and Falun Gong of China, can also be traced to Buddhist influence.
In Buddhism, it is said that Gautama Buddha (the historical Buddha) was inscribed with this symbol on the chest by his disciples upon his death. We often see statues of him with this symbol on the chest or on the sole of the feet. It represent infinity in tibet and China.
Many Buddhist texts start with this symbol, thus it has started being
used in Japan as a symbol representing temples, especially on maps as
the torii gate represents Shinto shrines.
If you look at the map of Kyoto above, you'll notice many instance of the swastika.
In Japan, the swastika is called manji 万字, which comes from China. The first character, man, means 10,000 which is a big enough number to represent a myriad, or infinity. The second one, ji, is simply character. thus it is called the infinity character.
It is usually facing counter-clockwise. Meaning that the arms of the cross are turning in a counter-clockwise pattern. This being said, it is not uncommon to see it facing the other way and it is called a mirror-image of the manji.
The signification is the same though and it is still not associated with the Nazis in anyway.
So much so that there is another name for the Nazi's symbol in Japanese. My Japanese dictionary calls it the Ha-kenkoroitsu (from the German word Hakenkreuz, crooked cross ) and it describes it at the 45-degree clockwise manji used by the Nazi party.
That symbol is usually surrounded by a circle. In Japan it is unusual to see the manji at that angle. It is usually flat on one of its side.
I hope this will help dampening the shock I hear many foreign visitors expressing when they visit Japan. The manji has been used for thousands of years as a positive symbol and only in the last 70 years has it been associated with the signification it holds in the Western world. It is a victim of its usage by the Nazis, really.
Just remember that in Japan, this symbol represents a Buddhist temple when seen on a map.
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