Where the Nazis are graphic design gurus, Hitler a T-shirt selling meme and the SS a fashion icon: understanding Asia's strange Nazi obsession.
Just the Basics
Scandals involving Nazi symbolism occur with surprising regularity across Asia
It is important to note that by far most such incidents are due to historical illiteracy and ignorance rather than support for Nazi ideology
People in the West are also guilty of using imperial Japanese symbolism in flippant ways which would spark strong rebuke in places such as China or South Korea
Dressing up in Nazi regalia is a sure fire way to announce to the world that you are a xenophobe, fascist, football hooligan or in one instance, Prince Harry. At least this is the case in the West. Throughout Asia, stories appear with surprising regularity detailing the latest ill-considered use of Nazi symbolism. From India to Indonesia, China to Japan, one need not dig too deep to uncover often bizarre (and from a Western perspective) disturbing cases of Nazi-themed branding gone amok.
The latest instance of this trend came only a few weeks ago, with the international media lambasting an Indonesian waxworks museum for displaying a Hitler statue. With a striking pose and an Auschwitz background, the Hitler statue has become a hit with guests, with many taking selfies with the infamous dictator. This casual, not to say disrespectful display was quickly removed by the establishment in question, which argued it only included the statue as part of its educational mandate.
While this is most likely the case, the lack of any information clarifying the gravity of Hitler’s deeds, nor any injunction against selfies with the statute do not help the museum’s case. Moreover, while the ‘museum’ features close to a hundred statues of world leaders and celebrities, the fact that Hitler was placed next to Darth Vader seriously undermines claims of any ‘educational’ benefit. Back in 2009, a Thai waxworks museum in Pattaya made headlines for similar reasons after it commissioned giant billboards proclaiming “Hitler is not dead” to advertise its latest statue.
Asia's list of Nazi inspired oddities
Since 2012, Indonesia is also home to the Soldatenkaffee in Bandung, which has been shuttered several times, only to re-open. Evoking the eponymous locale favoured by German soldiers in Paris, the establishment boasts extensive Third Reich branding. Back in 2000, Time highlighted various Third Reich themed cafes in South Korea, and Hong Kong fashion chain Izzue received international criticism after displaying Nazi flags and banners in its stores in 2003. Moreover, Taiwan used to have a concentration camp themed bar, and back in late August, South China Morning Post writer Kylie Knott happened upon the Brecht Circle bar in Hong Kong sporting a giant likeness of Adolf Hitler.
In 2014, Indonesian pop-star Ahmad Dhani was criticized for dressing in a uniform not dissimilar to those worn by SS officers in a music video promoting presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Speaking on the issue, Dhani remarked “what is the connection between German soldiers and Indonesia. We Indonesians didn’t kill millions of Jews right?” What makes Dhani’s comments even more surprising is that he is actually a member of Indonesia’s tiny Jewish community.
That someone of Jewish descent can be so flippant about Nazi Germany shows just how disconnected the region is from Western norms regarding Second World War history. Indonesian historian Zen Rachmat Sugito explains: “Nazism is a European taboo. There is no Nazi taboo in Indonesia, but that doesn’t mean we deny that the Holocaust happened.” This point is key, because for the overwhelming majority of individuals, sporting Nazi imagery is a statement about fashion, not ideology.
Understanding ‘Nazi chic’
Laura Kidd, professor of fashion design at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale explains that there are two main branches of Nazi-related paraphernalia in Asia.
“[In Asia] the use of ‘Nazi chic’ has appeared with greater frequency since at least the late 1980s. The two most popular styles of Asian Nazi chic are swastikawaii - or cute swastika - which uses the swastika as the main design motif, and the other is referred to as ‘Führer-chic’ which uses soft-cuddly and cute characterizations of the image of Adolf Hitler.”
An almost total lack of historical awareness about the European theatre during WWII leaves Asian youth with no preconceptions about Nazi symbology. Devoid of any ideological baggage, the images exude their graphic appeal unhindered. It is important to note that the stark lines, colour scheme and graphic design of Nazi symbolism and propaganda material were explicitly created to exude strength and trigger strong emotions.
Propaganda is just marketing by another name, indeed both fields emerged around the same time, and involved many of the same people (the BBC documentary series Century of the Self makes for excellent viewing on this very issue.)
Nazi propaganda competes with the best graphic design efforts to create a bold and above all memorable brand. Similarly, the appeal of German military and SS uniforms across Asia is due to the design choices of the Nazi party. In contrast to the drab, formless uniforms of Asia’s communist regimes; the cut and styling of SS uniforms appeal on many aesthetic levels. These uniforms were custom made by German fashion house Hugo Boss, and it shows.
Without any knowledge of the historical associations which are interwoven with these garments, it is unsurprising that Asian youth are drawn to the honed aesthetics of a major fashion company. These uniforms have a sizeable influence in popular culture, especially in movies, music videos and comics. Consequently, these styles are often on display at cosplay conventions. This appeal has even led some Chinese couples to dress in SS uniforms for their wedding photos.
Similarly, Sony Music had to apologize after girl band Keyakizaka46 appeared on stage with capes and hats redolent of SS uniforms. This is not the first time a Sony Music group has had this issue: Japanese band Kishidan also caused controversy for their costumes in 2011. Moreover, K-pop group Pritz also had to apologize after wearing black shirts with red armbands in a 2014 music video.
The most striking example of this historical illiteracy are the repeated Nazi-related events in various Asian schools. In December 2016, a Taiwanese school staged a Nazi rally resplendent with Nazi flags, banners, uniforms and a mock cardboard tank. With the school’s history teacher delivering a Heil Hitler salute while perched atop the cardboard tank, international reaction was swift. The school maintained the event was an educational exercise, but it nevertheless apologized, and the principal promptly resigned.
In 2007, hundreds of Bangkok students sporting toy guns staged a Nazi-themed costume parade as parents and public onlookers cheered and waved, quite oblivious to the costumes' connotations. In 2011, a similar incident occurred when students in Chiang Mai, Thailand showed up to a school sports day in Nazi uniforms. “It’s a lack of exposure to history,” notes Harry Soicher, a Romanian who teaches at a Bangkok high school. “If you don’t live in Thailand, you may find it hard to believe they really mean no harm.”
Hitler in Asia: Meme, brand, fashion icon
In Asia, Adolf Hitler has made his way onto all manner of clothing, knick-knacks and other accoutrement. The image of Hitler has also become a marketing tool, halfway between unofficial logo and funny meme. Youth wearing Hitler branded clothing are oblivious to the offence they are causing, nor can they recall why Hitler is so controversial. While some vaguely remember Hitler that is a world leader of some sort, many simply consider his stern visage and trademark moustache as comical.
Even those who are aware of Hitler’s place in history argue that since he lost it is okay to wear a shirt with his face on it. Reduced to a silly meme, various iterations of Hitler litter Asia, from Hitler as Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders to Hitler in Teletubby and chibi form. Back in 2011 some 7/11 stores in Taiwan even briefly sold key-chains and dolls with Hitler’s likeness.
One Thai shop owner selling the Hitler shirts (along with apparel sporting the faces of Kim Jong Il, Michael Jackson etc.) notes that “It's not that I like Hitler, but he looks funny and the shirts are very popular with young people.” The haphazard company which Hitler keeps in the store is mirrored in how Nazi flags, SS helmets and other items are on sale in Thailand’s Chatuchak weekend market - right next to the Bob Marley posters.
Even less marketable items, such as Hitler’s writings do not elicit the same kind of response as in the West. Part of this is a curiosity about things considered forbidden or risqué. While the re-release of Hitler’s Mein Kampf became a best-seller in Germany in 2016, the new edition includes commentary and annotations countering the books extremist rhetoric. In Asia this is not the case, with the book simply considered just one of many written by famous people.
In Japan there is a mildly successful manga based on the book, and Mein Kampf remains quite popular in India: “I saw this for myself in Mumbai” notes Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “You have the corner peddlers peddling Steve Job’s autobiography and right next to that bestseller is Mein Kampf. In India, the book was (and I think still is) being marketed as a reflection of a highly organized mind [to] business students.”
The West’s casual attitude to the Japanese flag
The history curriculums in many Asian countries are woefully inadequate, with little to no emphasis on world history, and often a very selective narrative concerning local histories. The little attention that is given to the Second World War focuses on the experiences of Asian countries. With Nazi Europe on the other side of the world, Asian countries experienced the conflict via their interactions with Imperial Japan.
There is a substantial emphasis - especially in China and South Korea - on the atrocities committed by Japan. Consequently, the symbolism of Imperial Japan occupies a similar position that of Nazi Germany does in the West. Many of those unconcerned about sporting a shirt with a swastika would baulk at wearing a shirt festooned with the Imperial Japanese flag.
Whereas Germany has atoned for its wartime legacy, many in Asia feel that Japan has not done enough to make amends. Key elements in this controversy are the lack of official apologies and concerns about the content of education material in Japan. Moreover, whereas Nazi symbols are strictly forbidden in Germany, the Japanese military still uses the same flag it sported during the war (a fact which Western governments have remained silent about). These facts, together with East Asia’s extant territorial disputes, gives the controversy surrounding the Imperial-era flag an immediacy not seen in the debate on Nazi symbolism.
While many of the examples listed in this article are patently offensive, Western readers should pause for thought lest they be too quick to judge. A quick Google search for 'Japanese flag shirt' results in dozens of clothing items casually sporting the Imperial-era flag. The flag is also a popular motif on various other items, again due to its stark graphic design and general Western ignorance. For instance, insensitive costumes depicting Japanese military personnel round out the ‘Pantheon of Bad Choices’ in various Western Halloween stores.
Throw in all those Che Guevara shirts, Mao hats and Soviet flags and the West's track record in appropriating world history is not much better.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.