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Long before it became a reminder to the West of the horrors associated with WW2 and Nazi Germany, the swastika existed in the East as a symbol of peace and goodwill. Is it time to reclaim it?
I saw my first public swastika somewhere on the border between Thailand and Malaysia. I was about eleven. It was humid, and the cavern we walked into was cool and welcoming. The ground was uneven, and as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I noticed the cathedral stretched further back than I realised. Other local tourists wandered about, voices echoing in the quiet space.
The swastika was about 30 centimetres wide. It was a glaring red, with singular dots placed between the angled arms. It was painted underneath the statue of a large, reclining Buddha. His eyes closed, a slight smile on his face; all peace and tranquillity. We were in a Buddhist temple.
I was horrified.
To me, the swastika represented Nazis. I asked my aunty, who had taken us there, “Did Nazis invade all the way to here, too?”. I didn’t remember this part of WW2 from school. She looked at me and laughed, and said in her Malaysian accent, “Nooo, lah, this is good only. It is from Buddha. No Nazis here!” She shook her head and laughed good-naturedly at my youthful stupidity.
My mum then explained that the swastika was used here as a symbol of peace, harmony, luck – good things. And that it pre-dated Hitler’s use by millennia. I took that in, but still, the overwhelming meaning of the swastika was still inexorably linked to Nazis; to the horror of the Holocaust. Even with my Malaysian-Chinese heritage, I wasn’t aware of any “other” meaning – I had not previously been exposed to swastika as anything other than a symbol of WW2.
I had grown up on a diet of mostly Western media, and by that age, I’d watched movies which tackled the history of the Jewish experience. Movies like Sophie’s Choice to Fiddler on the Roof. I had read Anne Frank’s diary. My parents had educated my siblings and I about the Holocaust, about the persecution and pogroms before that, and my father even hinted that modern-day racism still bred such beliefs. To him, it was important for us, even though we had no Jewish connection, to remember the horror of Nazi Germany, to ensure it never happened again. To forget history was to let it happen again. Perhaps it would be us, next.
The swastika was used by many cultures (from Celts to Jains to Native Americans). A universal symbol of peace, the antithesis of hate. Hitler’s hijacking of it is one of the best examples of plagiarised branding in the world.
We moved to Australia in 1988. And as my family was not particularly religious, we visited no other Buddhist temples. So the next time I was to see the swastika publicly was when Pauline Hanson ran for Parliament, and won. The people who brandished this symbol revelled in its power. As it is a powerful symbol; it has a history, a reputation. An aura. It fed their belief and they, in turn, owned the symbol, as the swastika had no other meaning or origin apart from Hitler’s plagiarism.
The third time I saw another public swastika was in Hong Kong around 2009. I was buying shoes in the maze of tiny boutiques in Tsim Tsa Shui. The store was tiny, with walls covered from floor to ceiling with boxes of shoes. Shoes, which were, miraculously, in my size. I was going to be a while.
The sales assistant was young, up-beat and talkative. She spoke Cantonese and a smattering of English. As I tried on an avalanche of shoes, we made, or tried to make, conversation. Through some broken English on her part and terrible Mandarin on mine, I found out that she was a single-mother. She had not been a “good” person when she was younger. Now, she was dedicated mother who worked hard for her child and wanted her kid to study hard and be happy. She said things changed for her when she became religious. She mimed this by placing her palms together in prayer, and pointed to her calf, where a large swastika was tattooed and said, “Buddha”.
As a Westerner, I was still slightly appalled. I was aware of the meaning it held to her, but I couldn’t help it; a socially conditioned reaction, I suppose.
However, the more I travelled, the more I saw it used benignly, innocently and with positive intent.
The swastika is linked with Buddhism, Jainism, Odinism and Hinduism and is used liberally in Asia as a symbol of peace, auspiciousness, protection and harmony. In Japan, it can be found in Buddhist temples, and is used on maps to mark their location. It is a repeated motif carved into the roof and the elaborate embellishments in the Forbidden City in Beijing. It adorns temple grounds and prayer beads in Tibet. The Balinese use it as a symbol of goodwill, as a way of asking blessing from the gods. It is painted on statues of Kuan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy) in Malaysia. On Buddhas. It is painted on cars in India and Nepal as a good luck symbol to avoid accidents (thus explaining the number of times you see it marked on cars, buses, rickshaws, cows and buildings if you travel through the maddening streets of Delhi – all, the, time). In fact, the symbol has an ancient history throughout the world that pre-dates Hindu and Buddhist religions.
By the early 20th Century, the swastika was no longer in common use in the West, but was still used actively in the East. As wealthy Westerners travelled to the East in the early 1900s, there was a renewed interest in the swastika in the salons of the wealthy Americans and British. It was then that the Westerners starting using it as a common symbol of positivity. Steven Heller details how it was then adopted prior to WW2 in his book, The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?. It was used by WW1 military units, Coca-Cola, Carlsberg, and by RAF planes as late as 1939. Just like rickshaw drivers in Delhi, RAF pilots wanted as much luck and protection as they could get. The Boy Scouts and Girl’s Club even named their magazine Swastika.
70 to 80 years of use by fascists and 3,000 years or more by everyone else. A symbol has power when we give it meaning. It can define a group. Right now, we agree that the meaning of the swastika symbol is hate. The only group we allow the swastika to give power to, is racists.
I’m no expert on the history or contemporary use of the swastika outside of the Holocaust, so the examples I’m listing here are based on my personal experiences in travel, and from pretty basic Google searches. (Soz, academia). However, it’s clear that throughout the ages, it was used by many cultures (from Celts to Jains to Native Americans). A universal symbol of peace, the antithesis of hate. Hitler’s hijacking of it based on claims of its pure “Aryan” nature, is a joke – one of the best examples of plagiarised branding in the world. Every documentary on the Holocaust, every racist rally, every inept vandalism by Neo-Nazis, uses the swastika as its calling card. The repetition of the imagery of the swastika in our media constantly links it to hate.
Now, in the 21st century, with more of us travelling, there is a shared ignorance of what the symbol means to different cultures, from both West and East. In parts of East Asia, there has been the shocking and, frankly, infuriating use of Hitler’s symbolism as a fashion trend. There’s no understanding of the darker horrors of this familiar symbol. And worse, no intent to find out more. Earlier this year, Japan’s tourism board received complaints from Westerners who were offended that swastikas (known as “manji”, in Japan) are used to mark temples on maps. To their credit, the tourism body decided to replace the symbol on Tourist map with something more akin to a pagoda. They didn’t change the Japanese map, but they were very aware that the meaning to Westerners was very different and took action to acknowledge this.
I can understand the feelings of shock and horror that some tourists would feel upon seeing the manji. But by focusing on “our” narrative, are we by default, letting Hitler’s legacy continue in a more insidious way? Through an understandable collective trauma, we in the West have – through our divorcing ourselves from its past – passively given full ownership of the ancient swastika to racists. To the fascists, the ignorant, the bullies and supremacists.
But even worse, we have made ourselves just as ignorant as those who use it for hate. We expunge its history and its positive heritage across thousands of years, multitudes of countries, cultures and religions. We wipe out the rich and positive, powerful symbolism it had throughout the world, and still has in Asia. Ironically, in keeping to such a Eurocentric view, we are ignorant to any other existence or meaning.
For a very tiny period in human history, the swastika was used by the worst of humanity.
Yet, for the most part of its existence, and to this day, the swastika is a universal symbol of good – spanning continents, languages, cultures. 70 to 80 years of use by fascists and 3,000 years or more by everyone else. A symbol has power when we give it meaning. It can define and unite a group. It provides a recognised history and narrative which can build on a reputation. And right now, we collectively agree that the meaning of the swastika symbol is hate. So the only group we allow the swastika to give power to, is racists.
If it were to become common knowledge that this symbol comes from and is constantly used in Asia, many would laugh at the utter stupidity and absurdity of a racist using an Asian symbol to espouse hate. Let’s share this knowledge.
My most recent public sighting of the swastika in Australia (yes, I chase them like Pokémon) has been from photos of the Reclaim Australia rallies. (No, I did not throw Poké balls at them but I would pay for an app that would do so.) These are the people who now own the swastika – now the strongest visual propaganda for hate in the 21st Century, held by racists.
But should it be?
As a global community, we should never forget the Holocaust, or try to diminish the anguish that the symbol can generate. It’s part of our global history, it cannot be erased. Nor should we start accepting the use of the swastika symbol in the West or allow the Nazi version to be used ignorantly in the East. My experience with the swastika is as someone who is aware of the WW2 history, and also as someone with Asian heritage. I know this is a complicated discussion to navigate and I may have done so clumsily, but my aim in raising this is to educate, share and erode the power of supremacists by taking away their brand; to acknowledge its existence in Asia as a peaceful symbol for good.
If it were to become common knowledge that this symbol comes from and is constantly used in Asia, many would laugh at the utter stupidity and absurdity of a racist using an Asian symbol to espouse hate. It’s as ridiculous and hilarious as Dave Chapelle’s “white is right” sketch.
Let’s share this knowledge.
Millions of (mostly yellow and brown) people around the world use the swastika for good. These are the people we should acknowledge as the real owners of the swastika. Let’s not forget the Holocaust, but let’s allow the reality of its use in Asia to be part of our shared human narrative. In this golden age of social media where knowledge can be shared with a click of a button, it would be a shame to silently ignore this “other” positive meaning, and to let the legacy of hate win.