Japanese War Flags and Comics’ Lack of Creativity

Earlier this week, Valiant Entertainment unveiled the long-awaited lineup for their Valiant First roster of rebooted and revamped characters. After re-introducing a gender-swapped version of Dr. Mirage last year, this time they’re bringing back another of the publisher’s standout Asian characters: the Japanese superhero Rai, in addition to giving Dr. Mirage her own book as well. (Both Mirage and Rai were Asians that served as foundational characters when Valiant first launched two decades ago). As one of the creators behind Secret Identities, I was very excited. Then I saw the way they redesigned Rai’s look:

If you were curious, this is what he used to look like:

The design may not seem that drastically different at first. But a closer look reveals that the motif on Rai’s chest has gone from the Japanese flag to Japan’s military flag during World War II. And I wasn’t the only person who noticed this tweak.

DC Comics superstar artist Bernard Chang (who’s currently penciling Green Lantern Corps) also noticed the same thing, and shared his thoughts via his personal Facebook page:

I just saw the new Rai design for Valiant. Someone should give them a history lesson on the “rising sun” flag emblazoned on his chest. To put it into context, it’s pretty much the same as having a futuristic German character with a Nazi swastika on his torso.

Quick (non-WWII) history lesson: Bernard got his start in the comic book industry when the first iteration of Valiant launched in the early 90s. In fact, it was Bernard, as co-creator of the original Dr. Mirage, who insisted the character be a non-stereotypical Asian American male supehero. “When Valiant first started in 1992,” Bernard explains, “it was an extremely multicultural company with all kinds of heroes and characters.”

It’s this connection to Valiant that made the revelation of Rai’s new look so resonant — and disturbing — for him. To further clarify his point about why he found Rai’s new look so offensive, Bernard shared the following image:

Needless to say, Bernard’s provocative allusion to Nazis and the swastika elicited some backlash in the comments and on the ‘Net more broadly. I reached out to Bernard personally to talk about his feelings about Rai and many publishers’ lack of knowledge and creativity when they create Asian superhero characters.

I’ve actually spoken about this specific point — re: using Japan’s WWII flag — during speaking gigs at college campuses. I even use the following slide in my presentations:

SI Tour SlideAs you can see, everyone from Sunfire to Silver Samurai to Kabuki and Shi has got Japan’s rising sun motif somewhere on their person — though Shi kinda is wiping her ass with it, brokeback and all. It’s like this is the only way comic publishers know how to signify their characters are Japanese.

Bernard speculates why this may be: “From a graphic design standpoint, the rising sun flag is striking and attractive.”

The problem, however, is that even if something looks cool, it doesn’t mean it’s right. It also doesn’t make sense. According to the solicit text for the book, the future Japan in Rai is supposed to be peaceful and benevolent. So why would their guardian sport the symbol of the nation’s imperialistic past? Granted, I haven’t read the book yet, but it stands to reason that Rai wouldn’t be representing the “Empire of the Rising Sun” in the 41st century. I asked Bernard to expound upon the appeal of imperialistic iconography.

“Nowadays, people associate ’empire’ with Star Wars; it’s something cool, ” Bernard explains. “They don’t realize what an empire actually is or did.”

This is why the symbols our heroes wear have to do more than look cool.

“We live in a visual society,” says Bernard. “Symbols, logos, illustrations, and their attached meanings and messages have profound impacts and implications in our lives, whether conscious or subconscious. Some bring joy, some carry messages, and some represent great pain and suffering.”

A lot of people online have pushed back against Bernard’s allusion to the Nazis. However, this is actually a case in which Godwin’s law doesn’t apply. Remember, for many in Asia, the atrocities committed under that flag are just as horrific as what happened in Europe.

“When I saw the image of the new Rai with the rising sun flag on his torso, it immediately struck me as offensive,” Bernard continues. “The problem is people don’t know their history. Anyone with knowledge of World War II will have the same negative reactions to that flag. But people know about Nazis; they probably don’t know about what Japan did in China and Korea.”

It’s that ignorance of World War II that Bernard finds most troubling. But that issue continues to affect Japan’s relations with other Asian countries to this day. Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been criticized for visiting shrines to Japan’s war dead. Even Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-nominated The Wind Rises has received criticism for glossing over the death and destruction that the film’s romanticized planes wrought.

Many of the voices pushing back against Bernard’s comments are longtime Valiant readers. There’s even a message board dedicated to the controversy. Bernard, though, holds no ill will against these voices and is in fact, looking out for them. “Look, I have nothing but love for Valiant’s characters and storylines,” says Bernard. “Their fans are some of the best and most passionate in comics.”

This is the reason Bernard spoke out. In addition to his connection to the characters, he really feels that the fans deserve better than what they’re getting.

15 thoughts on “Japanese War Flags and Comics’ Lack of Creativity

  1. I never got into Rai. But I believe today’s creators do have some responsibility to be aware of history and what it means to people. I have no patience for history apologists when they’re twisting it for a story. Satire is one thing (History of the World Part 1), completely disregarding it is another.

  2. They really don’t care. It’s their token property. If you have your own publishing house, then you can make as many stereotypical characters yourself. I could make Adolf Hitler into a hero if I wanted to, simply because I’m really good at satire. Unfortunately, there are consequences to creating very popular characters because the audience interprets things differently. So is the case with so-called Asian-American superheroes created by non-Asians.

    1. This is why I love how they depicted the Japanese in The Wolverine movie. They were modern, and updated. It didn’t fall into the obvious cliches that the comics have created.

      1. “This is why I love how they depicted the Japanese in The Wolverine movie. They were modern, and updated. It didn’t fall into the obvious cliches that the comics have created.”

        Are you serious? The Japanese men in that movie were all evil, misogynistic villains. The white hero goes into Japan, saves the day, and the Japanese princess falls in love with him. That story was ripped from the 80s.

      2. When Valiant responded to the issue of the symbol on Rai’s chest they answered EXACTLY what I had assumed they would in the first place. Actually wait to figure out what something is about before you get your feelings tied in a knot about symbolic representations. Valiant is a smart company in it’s new incarnation and you can’t just go on assuming the absolute worst. Just because we have the internet does not mean we just fly off the handle half cocked whenever there is something we don’t like. As adults it is our responsibility to get down to the truth instead of just judging things blindly. But that’s the thing about adults they are always finding a reason to be “offended” without seriously considering the context of a logical explanation from the source. Like Valiant said read the first arc and then you can judge all you’d like. As for now until you have a definitive answer as to why they did this it’s all just speculation and stupidity in motion. Know your facts before you start complaining.

  3. The comparison to the flag of Nazi Germany is wide of he mark because a varient of the rising sun flag is still in use as the flag of the Japanese Self Defence Force.

  4. Just be glad they stopped drawing Asians with buck teeth. All you have to do is look at any female character to realize the comic book industry is not the most enlightened or politically correct.

  5. Clearly you haven’t even read the comic. There is a reason why his design is that flag. So next time maybe get the whole information before you start spouting off?

  6. Well, I understood that many people find it offensive, but I disagree with it. I believe that even if symbols can bring us pain and suffering, it must be something to overcome too. And, this post mostly focused on talking about the rising sun flag, and the swastika (even forgetting to remember that it was a nazi one! It can bring confusion to people who don’t know that exists many other types of swastikas aside the nazi one!), but what about Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs? If someone creates a comic superhero with some kind of symbol remembering that, I doubt it will bring that kind of controversy. And what about some comic heroes having red and blue uniforms, and connotations like “indestructible”, as his characteristics? This isn’t a exaggerated patriotism, saying that US is the one country that can save the world, represented by comic heroes? Now, talking about movies, is it alright to show Russians as villains in war movies, just because the cold war? Don’t even want to mention Vietnam’s! My point is, it’s easy remember and feel offended by symbols remembering atrocities of other counties, but what about your own country symbols? What about always show another country as a villain? Or a villain representing another country? In the end, all this post sounded like a huge hypocrisy to me!

  7. Like it for not the Japanese War flag logo is actually still used in modern day Japan. Unlike the Nazi logo, Japan still use it in schools, dojos, and the military. This is because japan had a better transition post world war 2 unlike Germany who rightfully so took most of the blame of the war and was almost built from the ground up. Japan on the other hand kept it’s emperor since they made a deal with the USA and didn’t execute most of the Japanese high ranking officers. So Japan didn’t do away with the rising sun logo and wasn’t as demonized as the swastika that was created from hitler’s party itself where the rising sun was there WAY before Japan become more imperial and starting trying to take over all of asian

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