What Swastikas Mean in Japan Clue: it's not a bad thing

By Abi King | Behind The Scenes

Jun 18

Swastikas in Tokyo

I love this photo. I love the smoke, I love the skin creases and the sequins, the small clues that show us that two different people are here.

And I love the swastikas in the centre.

I took this photo at Sensoji Temple in the heart of the city of Tokyo. The Asakusa region throngs with crowds, with street food stalls and arcade games. The hustle and bustle makes King’s Cross Station feel sedate.

People ring bells, they burn incense, they clap hands and they bow their heads for prayer. They scoop water from the mouths of frozen dragons and trade fortunes and trinkets at the booths that squeeze into the shadows.

And everywhere everyone goes, the swastika follows.

What Swastikas Mean in Japan

Here in Japan, the swastika isn’t a symbol of menace and isn’t a byword for politics. It’s a religious symbol said to be derived from the Sanskrit that means “to be good.”

I know that. I know I know that. I know I knew that the last time I was here.

Yet I’m still surprised by the silent gulp that those spider legs induce. I’m still a little shocked that they make my heart beat faster.

And I think that’s why I love this photo so much.

It shows so little: two hands and the hint of a swastika. Yet it reminds me of so, so much.

That without the right perspective, it’s so easy to misjudge others.

Couple at Asakusa

Asukasa dragons and water

Asakusa shrine sale

Asakusa shrine folded paper

Asakusa shrine

Asukasa golden dragon

Have you ever had a moment like that while travelling? Or at home for that matter?!

wftristan June 20, 2012

The swastika is a fascinating symbol – pre Hitler is was regularly seen on xmas cards and was a symbol of all things good.
There is a really good book called “the gentle swastika” by the oddly named Man-woman – Well worth a read and is all about reclaiming it from evil

Also for any people in the UK – next time you at Waterloo station – walk past the costa as if you are walking outside and look up at the decorative metal thing that runs around the outside – its a repeating swastika pattern.


    Abi King June 24, 2012

    Thanks Tristan. I’ve probably walked through Waterloo station over a thousand times and never noticed that. Something to look out for next time…

Candace June 22, 2012

Thanks for sharing these stirring images, Abi – the fact that most of them are in black and white makes them even more so. I had a few similar moments while in India last year – as you know with it coming from the Sanskrit, the swastika is also an important Hindu symbol and is thus seen all over. I definitely understand your surprise/shock!

    Abi King June 24, 2012

    It’s a bit disconcerting to realise what an impact such a small squiggle can have! I wonder what symbols in Britain and the US have a similar effect on people from other countries…

Abhi June 24, 2012

Just as Candace mentioned, Swastika is an important Hindu symbol, and note how the orientation of the Swastika arms is in the opposite direction between what you see here (and in Hindu religion) vs what you see from Nazis. That’s a good way to identify and lessen the shock, I hope! :)

p.s. Last year when I was in Berlin, I became very curious about Hitler’s Swastika and if it had any connection with the symbol used in Hindu religion. My research after coming back from the trip revealed that Hitler essentially just picked up a symbol from Sanskrit/Aryan mythology and he wasn’t really concerned with it’s meaning. To him Swastika was just another Aryan symbol that he adopted and made (un)popular.

Camels & Chocolate June 25, 2012

Beautiful! And I never knew much about the swastika background but did notice it being quite prevalent when we were in Japan last fall.

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