TOKYO – As Japan gears up to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and caters to a surging influx of foreign visitors, the country faces a cultural dilemma: Should it stop identifying Buddhist temples on maps with the traditional "manji" symbol that is often confused with a Nazi swastika?
The symbol, from ancient Sanskrit, means happiness and prosperity. It has been used for centuries by Hindus and Buddhists, and has turned up in archaeological digs in Europe. But many Western tourists associate it with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust because the emblem was adopted by Nazi Germany to try to enhance a sense of ancient lineage.
The swastika in Japan — which usually points counter-clockwise, the reverse of the Nazi symbol — has been used for centuries in Buddhist decorations and to denote Buddhist temples on maps.
At Sensoji Temple, a top tourist destination in Tokyo, a big gold "manji" emblem appears on a pair of lotus-shaped bronze ornaments, while smaller, more subtle ones decorate roof tiles. It's even an official emblem for Hirosaki, a city in northern Japan.
In a report released last month, a government panel at the Geospatial Information Authority proposed a three-tiered pagoda symbol to replace the swastika. It is one of 18 suggested icons for landmarks like hospitals and convenience stores for foreign-language maps, part of a broader push to create user-friendly maps for the growing number of foreign tourists, which jumped more than 40 percent last year to a record 19.7 million.
A final decision is expected in late March following a period of seeking public comment.
Japan's main Buddhist group is nonchalant because the change doesn't affect domestic maps and therefore likely won't alter perceptions at home.
"We are aware that some people say the 'manji' symbol could remind them of the 'hakenkreuz' symbol, which was created much later in history," said Ryoka Nishino, a spokesman for Japan Buddhist Federation, referring to the "hooked cross" term often used to denote the Nazi emblem.
"Even though we have more foreign visitors, our symbol that decorates each temple will stay," he said.
Public opinion seems divided on Twitter and other social networks.
Supporters for the change say it would help avoid confusion among tourists, while opponents say there is no need to change the ancient sign just to cater to foreigners. Instead, they say, the symbol should be kept as a way to teach people about the ancient history behind it. Others point out that the "manji" symbol turns the opposite way from the Nazi symbol, so it is different.
The objective is to make symbols easier to understand, said geospatial authority mapping officer Takayuki Nakamura.
"A good symbol on the map should be able to tell a visitor what it is at the first glance," he said. "The question is whether one can easily tell it's a temple by looking at the current symbol."
The recommendation was based on survey results collected from more than 1,000 foreigners, including embassy officials, exchange students as well as tourists.
Other symbols that would be altered for foreign maps include the one for a hotel, which currently looks like the symbol for helipads, and a saluting policeman would replace the current giant X sign supposedly representing a pair of clubs for police station.
The maps would add a new symbol for convenience stores, which are ubiquitous in Japan — a sandwich and water bottle.
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