If you’ve ever been to a Buddhist temple in Japan or looked at a Japanese map, you’ve probably seen swastikas, called “manji” in Japanese, all over. In Japan, the character has become popular youth slang.
As Tofugu points out, the manji has long been a holy and auspicious symbol in Japan and throughout Asia. Now it’s something schoolgirls put in Instagram posts and tweets when showing off their latest hairstyles.
Manji, written as 卍 in Japanese, was voted the number one buzzword among Japanese schoolgirls in 2016. Its use continues to grow, and this past fall, message service Line released a video explaining the slang use, among other recent schoolgirl catchphrases.
In Japanese slang, manji now has an array of meanings. According to My Navi, kids say it when they’re taking photos like the English word “cheese,” and it’s also used to refer to mischevious or excitable personality. As with the the original character, which can mean mercy or good fortune, its slang version has various definitions.
Other uses include “to appear strong,” “high class,” a symbol of someone running (sometimes depicted with Final Fantasy’s Cactuar), and a pun on the Japanese word “maji” (まじ), meaning “seriously” or “really.” It’s even used as punctuation marks or to mean “yay.”
It’s not to be confused with the Nazi swastika, which certainly could happen. This character is the manji.
The Japanese have another word for the Nazi swastika: “haakenkuroitsu” (ハーケンクロイツ), or “hakenkreuz,” which is German for swastika. The Nazi swastika often is tilted, but not always; however, Japanese Buddhism uses both left and right-facing manji. The left-facing horizontal manji is used to mark Buddhist temples. In the past, there have also been other variations in Japan used as crests.
Last year, the BBC reported there were plans to drop the manji symbol on Japanese maps because Westerners might mix it up with the Nazi stain which hate groups continue to embrace. Considering the horrific stigma the Nazi mark has and how similar the symbols are, that is understandable. Things can get muddled further by the fact Japan was Germany’s ally during WWII.
Some in Japan were unhappy about this decision. “We have been using this symbol for thousands of years before it was incorporated into the Nazi flag, so I believe it would be better for us to keep it on our maps and ask others to understand its true meaning,” Makoto Watanabe of Hokkaido Bunkyo University told The Telegraph. Even if the map marker is removed, at some Buddhist temples, the manji is carved into the structures or gates.
The manji’s association with Buddhism is so strong in Japan that Call of Duty: Black Ops’ publisher Square Enix removed swastikas from zombie mode, replacing them with iron crosses because Japanese players might confuse it with the Buddhist symbol, just as some visitors have been mixing up the temple markers with National Socialism. (Both groups could probably use a quick seminar on iconography!)
In the meantime, teens strike manji poses and draw the symbol all over sticker pictures, inadvertently reclaiming an ancient symbol, while being, presumably, remiss about what it means at home or even how it could be misconstrued abroad. This is a manji, after all.
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