Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Reappropriating the Swastika

While I was in Toronto this past weekend, my father gave me a small token that he had gotten from my devoutly Buddhist grandmother over Lunar New Year while he was visiting her in Taipei. I'm not particularly religious, but my father and I are both highly superstitious, and so he felt obligated to pass it off to me (although I'm embarassed to say I think I forgot to pack it in my suitcase before leaving Sunday morning, since I can't seem to find it now), as well as giving another one of the tokens to my sister. The reason I write about this is because the token happened to bear this symbol: As soon as my sister left the room, my sister asked me in a panicked whisper -- "Is that a Nazi sign?" Now, this symbol is a swastika or a manji (meaning 'whirlwind') and is an ancient icon in Buddhism. It represents universal harmony and balance, and when facing left, as above, it represents love and mercy. When facing right, as with the infamous Nazi swastika, it represents strength and intelligence. The token my grandmother gave me and my sister were meant to be good luck charms, to bring us peace, tranquility, mental harmony and especially, good luck when travelling. However, most people don't know that. The swastika was appropriated from Eastern culture by the Nazis and mutated into a symbol of evil and destruction, but it has appeared in Buddhist imagery for centuries and retains its original, peaceful meaning to this day. Yet, the inherent Eurocentrism of Western culture dictates that that history is irrelevant next to the horrendous associations of Nazism. Sure, my sister choosing not to carry her Buddhist token around for fear of offending her Jewish friends is acceptable, but that's a fairly minor consequence of the misappropriation of this symbol. Without any regard for the innocent meanings of this symbol, any occurrence of the left-facing or right-facing swastika has been virtually culturally outlawed in the Western hemisphere; a few years ago, Nintendo pulled a Pokemon card bearing a Pokemon creature with a right-facing swastika while outraged parents chastized Nintendo and the creators of Pokemon for their insensitivity. Little or no mention was made of the swastika's "original" meaning -- it was taken almost at face-value that this was some sort of Nazi-related symbolism. Last year, Coca-Cola got in trouble for offering free toys with purchases of Coke, including a replica of an obscure character from a 1970's Japanese TV show which featured swastikas on his chest. There have been several other fiascos like this with any toy or image featuring a swastika being immediately associated with Nazism and usually treated as a public relations nightmare for any West-based company that associates itself with it. Even ancient Buddhist relics are somehow suspect of Aryan supremacy; several years back, I visited a museum in Toronto which proudly displays a very beautiful and serene-looking 16th century Buddha statue in the foyer and which has a swastika on its chest. Despite the fact that this statue predated Nazism by hundreds of years, the museum felt obliged to include a disclaimer about the swastika next to the statue, explaining the lack of any connection between Buddhism and Nazism. A comic book called 'Blade of the Immortal' also has this disclaimer, to field any outcry over its main character, Manji, wearing a rather appropriate right-facing manji on his robes. Appropriation of culture is hardly a new phenomenon. Britney Spears wears traditional Korean hanbok (the article has a photo), is dedicated to the American fad of tattooing meanigless or poorly translated Asian languages on American bodies, and Gwen Stefani has done a bang-up job appropriating Harajuku culture for her latest pop-trash CD. However, rarely have I gotten a chance to think about how truly destructive appropriation of culture can be: the misappropriation of the swastika by Nazis irrevocably destroyed that very object of appropriation. And while I think it's important to remember the genocide of Jews by the Nazis under this symbol, the fact that that association has become more important than the centuries-old Buddhist meanings comes off as a (dare I say racist?) slight to Asians and Asian culture. Perhaps Asians in the East don't yet feel the ramifications of this twisted meaning but for Asians in America like myself and my sister, that piece of our culture has been lost, probably for good. After all, American Asians don't even have to know that the swastika could be part of our heritage, let alone how recently it was stolen from us. Update: Here's a good article on the origins of the swastika and how it was misappropriated by the Nazis.


Blogger James said...

The problem here is radical Holocaust remembrance and misplaced Zionism. In the post WWII America, nothing remotely associated with the National Socialists of Germany could be considered anything but pure evil, and Americans have ignored all other concerns. So, Buddhist symbols are discarded regardless of their true meanings, and Americans continue to ignore all other genocides in the Twentieth Century, including the Armenian Genocide of 1919 and the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Nicolas Kristof's NYT column today discusses the Bush Administration's nonchalance toward the Darfur genocide, after Bush's GOP 'culture of life' protests during the Terri Schaivo fiasco. Mainstream Americans after the Holocaust decided that mass killing and genocide is so terrible and horrible that it’s too disgusting to think about, and therefore must be ignored anytime it happens in the world, except in the one recent instance where Europeans were the targets.

Cultural misappropriation by Western civilization provides the only real cultural energy keeping the West from falling into stagnation. We should not be surprised that Westerners rip cultural traits from other groups; just ask Elvis and Eminem, they've been robbing and plundering African and African American culture for centuries. But the denial of original meaning can not be ignored by the victims of Western cultural misappropriation. I'll never forget the time a young White male student tried to explain to me that regardless of the origin, acupuncture was a Western cultural trait. When I tried to read some Blade of the Immortal later, with the character Manji on the cover, I had to field questions of anti-Semitism.

Personally, I’m sick and tired of mainstream Americans looting and stealing culture from minority group in this nation. Yesterday, to make the mainstream feel better, the swastika became synonymous with evil. Today, when evil happens around the world, the mainstream ignores it, but considers itself morally upright when it stops to remember the disgusting, bureaucratic precision of the Holocaust. How Christian Americans are to forget both that thou shalt not kill and that thou shalt not steal!

5/03/2005 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Roshnii said...

I am very interested in the plight of the swastika, as it is an ancient symbol that was indeed stolen by the Nazis but deserves to be redeemed. You may be interested to look at Reclaim the Swastika, it is a site my friends and are are working on.

Please take a look and leave a comment if you wish, Thanks.

10/06/2005 10:23:00 AM  
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