What happened to the rays of Japan’s flag ?

As a ten year-old kid, one night my father called me up to his bedroom. I am not really sure, but I probably thought that he was going to scold me for something I did. I was wrong. He was laying in bed watching TV and everything seemed normal. Without even looking at me, he pointed to the large screen and said – you are going to like this. Oh, he was so right! I loved “this”. It was a TV series which told the story of some events during World War II in the Pacific. Then and there my curiosity about Japan’s flag was born.

The series was called “Baa Baa Black Sheep. It was the histrionic story of a yank fighter squadron, the VMA 214, whose commander, Greg “Pappy” Boyington was one of the most famous pilots in the conflict. Boyington and his men were known for several reasons, their lack of respect for the authority, their love of women and alcohol, and their prowess in the sky. The VMA 214 was one of the most ñaureated squadrons in the war.

It is worth saying that the squadron and Pappy Boyington did exist, but the rest of the pilots were not as undisciplined as the series portrays them. Hollywood needs to sell.

The matter of the flag

I am supposed to be writing about Japan’s flag. I’m working on it.  In this series and in any film of the era, we can see how pilots marked their kills with a little flag of the enemy on the exterior of their cockpit. The Black Sheep, of course, accumulated lots of them.

Robert Conrad como Pappy Boyington

Robert Conrad as Pappy Boyington.

But I realized that the flag American pilots used was not the flag of Japan that I knew. I asked my father but he wasn’t sure. There was no Google I could ask to, so I had to wait a few years until I got to study history in Junior High. In the meantime, I just thought that Japan’s flag had changed like many others have. When I found out the truth, I realized I had made a mistake, but the story is quite interesting and complex.

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That flag that we see everywhere in WWII films, is the one known as the Rising Sun. On a white field, a red circle closer to the lanyard with sixteen rays radiating from the circle to the edges of the flag.

La bandera del Sol Naciente

The Flag of the Rising Sun

The real flag of Japan is the Hinomaru. On a white field, the same red circle, but in the center and without the rays.

Hinomaru, bandera de Japón.


My first research

I don’t remember who I asked first the reason for the change. I do recall the answer. Supposedly, at the end of the war, the allies had obliged the Japanese to get rid of the rays because they represented the expansionist spirit  of the Empire of Japan. Those whose countries had been invaded and ravaged by Japanese forces during the war, did not want to see the damned rays. I don’t blame them, More than 10 million people perished courtesy of the Japanese, six of them in China alone.

Apparently, it was general Douglas MacArthur who obliged the defeated country to change its flag. This is what I heard and I believed for a long time. When, a bit older, decided to investigate the matter in depth, I was surprised.  


I realize my mistake

That ubiquitous ensign in war films and documentaries, was not really Japan’s flag. It was in fact the flag of the Imperial Japanese Navy (the army had a similar version). If we see that flag so much in war films it is because most of the war effort fell on the shoulders of the navy. Also, most of the airplanes shot down by the Americans were the navy’s, so the pilots used that flag to keep track of their kills.

Funnily, if we look carefully, the Mitsubishi Zeros used the Hinomaru.  It took me years to take notice, shame on me.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

One of the reasons why the Rising Sun flag was everywhere at the time, even more than the Hinomaru, was the popularity of the navy, pride of Japan. The other, that Japan really did not have an official flag until the end of the twentieth century. Strange, but true.

Japan’s flag

In any case, the red circle in Japan’s flag represents the Sun. From approximately the seventh century A.D., the symbol was already identified with the country. More so with Japan’s royal family. However, it was not the only one, and the Hinomaru coexisted many years with other flags.

During the war, Hinomaru was the de facto flag of Japan, but it was not officially recognized as such. It wasn’t until 1999 that the government of Keizo Obuchi decided to adopt it institutionally, together with the national anthem.  

Once again, if in films we see more often the flag with the rays it is because most of the action in the Pacific, such as the conquest of islands, was done by the navy. In Tokyo, the flag that decorated the buildings was the Hinomaru. Of course, we do not see that often in documentaries.

Actually, right after the war  it was the Hinomaru which was rejected by the allies. It took a while until Japan’s flag was authorized to be flown again. The Rising Sun flag is still the flag of the Japanese Navy, A.K.A. the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. It was never forbidden.


Then, Japan’s flag never lost its rays, there were two different flags, and I didn’t know it. Maybe you, dear reader, knew the true story. I have asked friends and relatives and nobody knew the real story. The majority actually knew no story.

I still thought this was an interesting anecdote, an excuse to review this part of history. Maybe there are more like me, who are not aware of the difference between the two symbols. You can let me know in the commentaries.

Finally just for fun, I leave you with an episode of the Baa Baa Black Sheep, I hope you enjoy it.


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