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. Commented Mar 31, 2014 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
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 21:31
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    Here's a map of Kyoto with swastikas everywhere youinjapan.net/maps/kyoto/kyoto_bus_map_jap.jpg And here's a Red Swastika School in Singapore redswastika.moe.edu.sg
    – user17967
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 6:36

2 Answers 2


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. Commented Mar 30, 2014 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
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 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
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 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
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 15:56
  • Also note that Nazi were far from the only Westerners to use swastikas, like the Finnish Army, a danish brewery compagny and the 45th Infantry Division of the US Army (though in this case, it's a navajo symbol, not the swastika). Other examples can be seen on this wikipedia page
    – Luris
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 15:40

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.


  1. JR Kyoto Station, tourist information counter. Ask for a map.
  2. Chuo-dori, Ginza. West side of the street.
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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
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 17:19
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    +1 for pointing out the mirror difference. Most people don't realize that.
    – borrrden
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 1:12
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    My complements to whoever found the photo. The character (like almost all Japanese characters) has more than one possible reading. Typing ばん or まんじ into a Japanese IME both produce the desired character. For another example, 谷やたに
    – paul
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 12:45
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    (continuing) For another example, 谷 (valley) can be read/typed as either や ("ya") or たに ("tani"). And I was referring to the pronunciation of Calpis, which really dents it's popularity amongst western customers (it tastes fine). The references are not at all difficult to check up on - maps at Kyoto station are free and plentiful.
    – paul
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 12:55
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    Another example that some people might find interesting: the original Legend of Zelda, developed entirely in Japan, has a dungeon shaped like a swastika: zelda.wikia.com/wiki/Level_3_(First_Quest)
    – Kip
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 14:21

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