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Comedian David Sedaris performed at the Sydney Opera House. During his performance, he gave an anecdote about being in a store in Japan. (Confirmation link, but I heard about this elsewhere)

He was looking at a T-shirt with a bear with a fish in its mouth, a river, and a bright yellow swastika. Sedaris looked at the T-shirt with some puzzlement. A shop assistant noticed his puzzlement, and helpfully explained what he obviously was pondering about: the fish was a salmon!

Are swastikas considered so normal in Japan that a shop-keeper wouldn't have thought of that being the source of Sedaris' confusion?

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The key is that "swastika" is not a German word. Check where it came from before Germany started using it in the 20th century. –  hippietrail Mar 31 at 4:14
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There are only so many simple symbols in the world, and "squared spirals" are a fairly basic one. As with words which may sound the same but mean completely different things in different cultures, you need to understand the intended context. (The offensive thing isn't so much the symbol as that one particular historical group of idiots is so strongly associated with the symbol that we need to get into this discussion.) –  keshlam Mar 31 at 21:31

3 Answers 3

Yes. However, he neglected to mention one detail during his performance.

Swastikas are a common symbol in Buddhism. Buddhism and Shinto are the two most common religions in Japan (with people often practicing both).

More likely than not, the swastika in question was not representing Nazism, the ideology of one of Imperial Japan's allies in World War II.

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Not to mention Hinduism and Jainism. The name swastika itself is a Sanskrit word. Also note, that the Asian sauwastika (opening to the right) and the Nazi Swastika (opening to the left and maybe rotated 45 degrees) are not the same. They are mirror images so given an arbitrary swastika you can tell which ideology it represents. –  Fixed Point Mar 30 at 18:27
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@FixedPoint: I'm not sure what you mean by "opening to the left/right" (although it seems liked you have mixed them up), but the statement [G]iven an arbitrary swastika you can tell which ideology it represents. is false: 1. The Nazi party used both the right-facing (卐) and left-facing (卍) swastika. It is true, however, that the right-facing one dominated after 1920. 2.Both orientations are used in Asian tradition and religions. For example, in Hinduism, the right-facing swastika is used to invoke shakti, while the left-facing one is considered a symbol for Buddhism. –  Dennis Mar 31 at 3:53
    
@Dennis, I thought the Nazi party used through-and-through, rather than specifically right-facing or left-facing? (Which would result in both appearing on items such as flags.) –  Brian S Mar 31 at 15:41
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@BrianS: That's only true for the flag of the Kriegsmarine; this is why I said "dominated". Other flags, e.g., only displayed the right-facing swastika. –  Dennis Mar 31 at 15:56

The ( "ban" ) character is common at many temples, and predates Nazism by many centuries. Also note the mirror image and the rotation compared to 卐, the swastika used by the German Nazi party.

Japan makes no particular associations between the character and the Third Reich - it appears on many street maps, tourist guides and the like.

It's carved in stone in front of Sensoji, one of the largest Buddhist temples in Tokyo and a major tourist attraction.

Swastikas from temple Source

The maps printed in English avoid the character over prolonged complaints from the tourists. Still used extensively in Japanese online maps in areas like Kyoto, where there's a temple every few blocks.1

Other segments of Japan, like publishing, have learned the hard way what the rest of the world thinks but they aren't that interested in changing anything. After all, they had it first. There's also a "KKK Building" in Ginza2 and a popular beverage called Calpis.

References:

  1. JR Kyoto Station, tourist information counter. Ask for a map.
  2. Chuo-dori, Ginza. West side of the street.
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Are you referring to the pronunciation of Calpis, or its logo? –  Oddthinking Mar 31 at 16:40
    
@Oddthinking I'm guessing they mean the old Calpis logo. –  rjzii Mar 31 at 16:43
    
@rob: If the OP is referring to the old logo [Warning: Rather violates US cultural sensitivities.] the fact that it is the old logo undermines the claim it tries to make. –  Oddthinking Mar 31 at 17:02
    
The references are rather difficult to check up on. Can anyone improve them? –  Oddthinking Mar 31 at 17:05
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My Japanese is non-existent, but the sources I found called it a "manji", rather than a "ban". Do you have a reference (or explanation) for "ban"? –  Oddthinking Mar 31 at 17:19

It's used around the world where it's more commonly known as the Fylfot Cross (literally, four footed cross), and supposedly integrates the cross and wheel as one symbol. It's seen in religious symbolism from time immemorial across a very wide range of cultures through Europe and Asia.

Where the cross part may represent, say the four elements, this would symbolize those attributes in motion, as if rotating (clockwise, counterclockwise /sinisterly or dexterously; depending on the direction) or as in the cross of the cardinal points of a compass as the cosmos revolving around the universal axis, or Yggdrasil (Norse culture.)

It also is used to represent the signs of the zodiac and the elements in rotation with the sun as in this example:
Fylfot Cross

In general it is/was considered a lucky talisman and powerful symbol of balance and motion. Searching for the term Fylfot Cross should lead you to a lot more information.

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Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your claims - including an attribution for the image. –  Oddthinking Apr 1 at 1:24

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