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The "non-religious" red cross emblem and Japan

31-03-2003 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 849, by N. Margaret Kosuge

This article traces the ideological interpretation of the red cross emblem in Japan from its inception to the end of World War II and analyses the effect of such interpretation on the activities of the Red Cross society, the practices of the national army and the national identity. Unlike Turkey and Persia, Japan chose not to denote any religious character to the emblem. However, the symbol came to take on a national significance with ties to the Imperial Family and indigenous traditions, including those of warfare.


N. Margaret Kosuge, Ph.D. (History), M.A., B.A. (Sophia University, Tokyo) is an Associate Professor in History and Peace Research at the Yamanashi Gakuin University, Japan. The author gratefully acknowledges helpful discussions with Philip Towle, Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University. She also wishes to thank Bill Carter for his assistance in translating the paper. 
In spite of Japan being a non-Christian nation, it did not, as in the cases of Turkey and Pers ia, choose to adopt its own new emblem of adherence to the international Red Cross organization. Japan publicly took a clear stance against any interpretation of the “red cross” emblem as having any religious character, and until 1929 supported the idea that there should be a uniform international emblem. Nevertheless, there did exist a certain incongruence between the myth, which grew up in response to Turkey’s adoption of the “red crescent” emblem, that the international Red Cross movement had never had any “religious” links and the myth that Japan’s own national Red Cross organization was completely devoid of any “religious” coloration. Japan had accepted the red cross symbol and went on to make it a “national symbol” that was thought to fuse with indigenous “traditions” to be part of a new consciously formed and more cosmopolitan “tradition.” In this process, the Japanese Red Cross became connected with efforts to unify the nation’s people in a scheme that had the Emperor and the Imperial Family as the capacity to face up to the'eurocentric'international society. Such a scheme formed part of the base for nourishing the Japanese nationalism that, in a non-Western international system, was expected to respond to, but stand apart from, Western Europe and even to surpass it in certain respects. 

This translation from neutrality stricto sensu to a very strong ideological connotation explains that, on the internal scene, the majority of Japanese entertained feelings of admiration and deepest respect toward the emblem of the Red Cross. It also explains that, on the external scene (i.e. battlefields), Japanese armies generally did not respect the universal message of humanity delivered by the red cross symbol, because this message was in so strong contradiction with the " indigenous " vision of the Red Cross emblem.

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