Critics say that adding a katana to the insignia is offensively evocative of Japan’s World War II military aggression.
For the most part, the world seems to have decided that samurai swords are pretty cool, aesthetically speaking. The katana is also one of the most instantly evocative symbols of Japan, which is why it shows up frequently in the logos of events and organizations related to the country.
Samurai swords are even experiencing something of a renaissance these days, as a byproduct of the surging interest in history among young Japanese women. However, a katana recently appeared somewhere that critics are saying is inappropriate: the emblem of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force.
In May, the GSDF unveiled its new Sakura Katana insignia. One of multiple emblems the organization uses, the Sakura Katana features the flag of Japan above a samurai sword, with a cherry blossom-shaped star, a common motif in GSDF uniforms and paraphernalia, at the bottom.
At first, it might be hard to see what all the fuss is about. After all, the members of the GSDF are the closest analogue in modern Japan to the samurai of old. However, unlike certain military organizations, such as the United States Marine Corps, none of the GSDF uniforms have personnel wearing a sword. The last time soldiers in Japan carried swords was in World War II, during the days of the Imperial Japanese Army.
Because of this, some in Japan are saying that this visual connection between the GSDF and the IJA is insensitive towards the countries that were on the receiving end of Japanese military aggression during the first half of the 1900s. What has the potential to be particularly problematic is that the Sakura Katana emblem is to be used in international peacekeeping operations and joint training exercises, where it will also be part of banners, plaques, and other commemorative items. In other words, it’s in a position to be getting greater-than-usual amounts of attention from people of other nations.
In general, the Japan Self-Defense Forces go to great lengths to distance themselves from the Imperial Japanese military. GSDF spokespeople have said that the samurai sword was implemented in the Sakura Katana merely because it is an indigenously Japanese symbol of strength, and not as any sort of salute to the organization’s World War II-era indirect predecessor. It is true that the history and traditions of the samurai go back several centuries, well before the formation of the Imperial Japanese Army, and in describing the Sakura Katana the GSDF stresses that the sword is positioned behind the scabbard, as a metaphor for the organization being “the final institution of homeland defense.”
Detractors, though, could counter that the emblem’s sword being unsheathed at all is indicative of a bellicose stance. A recent online petition to halt the use of the Sakura Katana has gathered some 22,000 Japanese signatures in roughly three weeks, but at the moment, the insignia remains at the top of both the GSDF’s Japanese and English websites, as well as in plans for continued use.