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S. Korea, Japan clash over controversial military flag

Controversy continues to escalate over the Japanese Rising Sun flag, which symbolizes the country’s past imperialism, as Tokyo’s defense ministry pushes back against South Korean military’s request that Japanese warships not fly the flag at an upcoming international naval festival.

According to an Asahi Shimbun report on Friday, an anonymous Japanese defense official said Japan might boycott the naval fleet review scheduled for Oct. 10-14 on Jeju Island, in light of South Korea’s “absurd” request that it refrain from flying the Rising Sun flag.

South Korea’s Navy on Wednesday requested that all participating countries use their national flags at the event, instead of military flags such as the Rising Sun Flag, which many South Koreans view as a symbol of colonialist repression.  

“If removing the Rising Sun flag is a condition for participation, we will even consider not attending the event,” said the official, stressing its status as the official flag of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

The official said raising a military flag is a country’s right enshrined in international law, as it is a way to distinguish warships from commercial vessels. “I don’t think there will be any countries accepting (South Korea’s) request,” the official added. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pays respect to Rising Sun Flag during a military ceremony. Yonhap
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pays respect to Rising Sun Flag during a military ceremony. Yonhap

The controversy came amid South Korea’s increased pressure against Japan over its past wrongdoing, including the mobilization of Korean women as sex slaves. President Moon Jae-in has directly addressed the issue of “comfort women” at the United Nations General Assembly. 

A request submitted to Cheong Wa Dae’s online petition site urges the government to ban the Japanese warships from entering South Korean territory “permanently” if they raise the Rising Sun flag.

The Navy said while it is seeking to prevent Japan from flying the controversial flag, there are no measures to enforce such restrictions. Every country’s naval force is entitled to carry its own military flag in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Navy added.

“The principle is that we cannot force anything under international law and established customs. That said, when it comes to the Rising Sun flag, we are trying to address the people’s concern,” a Navy official said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

By Yeo Jun-suk (