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The Banner of Golden Brocade

Article about: The Banner of Golden Brocade This is Part 1 of a 2-part story on Rising Sun Flags. Please do not interrupt until you see the photo saying “End of Part 1” “D’OH! --- but, it’s still an attrac

  1. #1

    Default The Banner of Golden Brocade

    The Banner of Golden Brocade

    This is Part 1 of a 2-part story on Rising Sun Flags. Please do not interrupt until you see the photo saying “End of Part 1”

    “D’OH! --- but, it’s still an attractive flag”

    That is the last sentence in too many threads at Japanese militaria forums, because collectors just seem to love the Rising Sun flag, and tend to buy them indiscriminately. But, let’s be frank and blunt; much of that love is actually totally misguided. So it is again time to burst some bubbles, and I may end up breaking several hearts as well, but it’s better to take the pain now than later. And if a cliché can be any consolation, you’ll eventually gain from the pain.

    Reality Check

    Instead of dragging it out for paragraphs, I’ll give it to you straight and leave the longーwinded explanations for later.

    Misconception 1
    If the rising sun is centered, it is supposedly an army flag, and if offset staff-ward, a navy banner. The truth is that, regardless of where the sun is, the vast majority of these flags are just civilian patriotic flags. Of which, the so-called army flags actually only saw use by the army for 4 years in the 19th century and were purely civilian renditions since the army stopped using them in 1874. On the other hand, some of what you put aside as navy may indeed be navy, provided they are a minimum of 1 meter in width (anything smaller is commercial civilian).

    Misconception 2
    Like Wehrmacht standards, coming out of a GI’s footlocker, collectors entertain the wishful thinking that an IJA regimental standard may still be “out there” and might be unearthed by a lucky collector. So frilled rising sun banners sell well until the collector finally stops seeing blinking dollar signs when learning it was a Youth School Flag, Veteran’s Association Flag or worse yet, last year’s Victory Banner for Little League baseball sponsored by Asahi Newspaper.

    Army regimental flags are not “out there”. You will NEVER unearth one from the woodwork, so leave rising sun banners alone unless you love school flags for what they are and not for “what they could be”. Indeed, battleship flags may still be out there, but the army regimental standard was a totally different beast. For the navy what really counted was the ship, and flags were just expendable war supply. But for the Army, the attitude toward the flag was that the regiment existed to serve the standard, not the other way around. For them, the lives of all in the regiment were expendable, but the standard was irreplaceable. It had to be denied the enemy at all cost, so when the end came, and it was clear the regiment was doomed, the commander would torch the standard and bury the ashes before launching a Banzai attack.

    In August 1945, all troops were ordered by the Supreme Command to burn their standards before capitulation. There was only one standard that survived this fate, which is now enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine Museum. The destruction of all other banners were meticulously executed and recorded, all of them accounted for. Some fragments of burnt fabric and shards from shattered pole tops are known to have been brought home by soldiers, but that is as far as a collector’s luck could ever get you.

    Misconception 3
    The Rising Sun flag is not an obsolete symbolism of WW2 like the Nazi Swastika flag, but is still very much in use today. It was in use since the 19th century and WW2 just happened to be the last of the many wars it had been through.

    However, just as Jewish tourists to Japan are taken aback by seeing swastikas at Buddhist temples, (The Swastika has been used as a Buddhist symbol for hundreds of years and Japanese maps have them all over the place, as they also mark locations of Buddhist temples) Chinese and Koreans are appalled to see rising sun flags still fluttering on Japan’s Naval vessels and sometimes at sport competitions. WW2 gave the rising sun flag such negative exposure, so you cannot blame people for not being able to separate it from the evils of WW2.

    However, the modern world has also learned that long-standing tradition simply cannot be condemned and dismissed just because it was on the wrong side of the last war. Otherwise losers end up losing even its own language and be forced to speak the victor’s tongue, like in colonial times. Nonetheless it remains a touchy subject with Japan’s neighbors, as can be seen in the diagram below.
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  2. #2


    Part One---The Army Regimental Standard

    I explained how the Navy treated its flags as expendable supplies, whereas the presence of the army standard weighed heavily upon the souls of all its men, who showed fanatical devotion to the flag. This stark contrast in dealing with a piece of cloth came from a tradition that went back a few hundred years and was rooted deeply in the moral fiber of Japanese identity.

    Fast-Forwarding through Japanese History

    In ancient Japan, when she was not yet a homogenous country and still composed of multiple ethnic groups, the emperor himself personally led his troops in battle, against the “barbarians of the East”. (As a side note, the character, Ashitaka from the animation film “Princess Mononoke” is a member of such a minority clan destined to extinction.) However, as territory was won and his responsibilities grew from that of tribal chief to head of a nation, delegation of responsibilities naturally developed. The delegation of his role as Commander-in-Chief came with the title, “Sei-i-Tai-Shogun 征夷大将軍”, which meant “Great Commander of the Barbarian-subjugating Armies” or if you prefer, the “Great Barbarian Slayer”, who was sent out on conquering expeditions in the “Veni, vidi, vici” style.

    Much later in history, this title would be shortened to “Shogun”, but anyway, the symbol of appointment that came to be used in the 6th century was a sword called “Settou節刀”, comparable to a field marshal’s baton in significance. In addition to this sword, in the year 1221, came the first recorded instance of the emperor presenting his generals with a “Banner of Golden Brocade” (錦の御旗, Nishiki-No-Mihata), which the troops would follow. The Army’s regimental banner was a reincarnation of this tradition, signifying the emperor’s personal army.

    Like in so many other countries in modern times, the Shogun appointed by the Emperor eventually usurped the Emperor’s power as ruler and established a military dictatorship lasting several hundred years. However, despite being overshadowed by the Shogun, during these centuries, the Emperor’s status did not quite blink out to Zero from Hero. Like the delicate balance of power that existed in medieval Europe between the King and Pope, the Emperor’s status lived on in the hearts of the population as the spiritual anchor of the Japanese identity.

    1868 - The Invincible “Nishiki-No-Mihata (The Banner of Golden Brocade)”

    The most recent reappearance of a Banner of Golden Brocade on the battlefield was in 1868 at the time of the Meiji Restoration, when Samurai clans in Southern Japan resolved to overthrow the Shogun, who they saw as spinelessly selling out to the Americans by allowing Commodore Perry to bully Japan at gun point into ending 200 years of national isolation and signing a humiliating trade treaty. “Countering the threat of Barbarians, once again under the imperial banner” or “Sonnou Joui(尊皇攘夷)” became the rally cry for these Samurai rebels. And once they got the Emperor on their side, the table got turned around, and the hunted suddenly became the hunter, as what started out as a rebel cause gained the banner of Righteousness, what the Banner of Golden Brocade essentially stood for, like the Christian Cross leading the Crusades.

    Just as no King could afford to send troops against the Pope, no Japanese would dare take arms against the emperor, as being labeled the “Enemy of the Imperial Court” was comparable to being excommunicated as an “Enemy of the Church” in the West. Thus the raising of this banner made many in the Shogun’s army immediately drop their weapons.

    Historically, the Banner was not something prepared by the Imperial Court for presentation, but was prepared by those given the right by the Emperor to carry it. Therefore various designs existed in the past, with some featuring the name of a Shinto deity to suit the bearer. The latest version featured the Imperial Chrysanthemum in gold. And just like the story of Betsy Ross and the first American banner, there is a story about the making of this moonshine banner by the rebels, starting with a Samurai claiming to buy red brocade for his wife to make into a Kimono Obi (waist sash) at a shop in Kyoto.
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  3. #3


    Evolution of the Rising Sun Flag

    1870, May -- The Dawn of the Rising Sun

    Three years after the Restoration of the Emperor, on 15th May 1870, a rising sun flag was introduced in the new army and was called the Army National Flag (陸軍御国旗Rikugun Go-Kokki). This was the first ever appearance of the rising sun design in the army. The flag was 1.51 meters wide and 1.33 meters high. The diameter of the sun in center was 1/3 of the width and it had 16 beams of ray radiating out of it. Unlike the later regiment flags, they had no frilled fringes nor regiment designations on them.

    In the previous month, on 17th April, Emperor Meiji was invited to see the training of soldiers at the Komaba training grounds in Tokyo. But as this was still a year before the establishment of modern prefectures, Samurai soldiers milling around the field would have displayed a hodgepodge of family crests representing their home Domains, which at that time would have counted as many as 305 Domains altogether. Thus it was clear to the Emperor at a glance that a new symbol for a unified national army was desperately needed and the old Samurai flags needed to be driven off the field. This was the reason for the launch of the first rising sun flag. 10 regimental flags and 16 battalion flags were issued in May to replace the domain flags with family crests. This 1870 flag was, therefore, merely a stand-in for the Samurai flags and nothing with deep symbolic meaning. As a matter of fact, this flag was introduced quite unceremoniously within the pages of a decree that launched army tarp screens and paper lanterns, so its significance in modern day supermarket terms was that it came off the same shelf as flashlights and curtains.

    In those terms, it sounds quite innocent and trivial, but it was actually the tip of the iceberg of a diabolical (from the Samurai’s point of view) scheme to destroy the Samurai class itself. In quick succession, came the abolishment of the fiefdoms, legal requirement to change to western hairstyles ( Chaos ensued when many women mistook the decree to apply to them as well and reluctantly got the same hairstyle as western men, and a revolt even occurred demanding the freedom to keep their Samurai hairdo in which 6 men were executed.). No fiefdoms meant no more pay for the Samurai class (they were now all out of a job) and to add insult to injury, came the prohibition of wearing swords, unless one was in a uniformed service. If a film reference helps, this was the background to the “Last Samurai”.
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    1874, January -- Birth of the Sacred Regimental Standard (Gun-Ki)

    As I mentioned already in a different story, the true version of the Last Samurai story was actually a French military advisor, not American, and it was through such French officers that Japan learned of the European military tradition of presenting standards and swearing of oaths. As the slate was being wiped radically clean of any Samurai tradition, the time was ripe to reinstall into this vacuum the Imperial system based on central control. Western tradition and the Japanese Imperial tradition of the Banner of the Golden Brocade meshed together to give birth to the Imperial Army Standards that now gained a golden halo around it, so to speak.

    So on 23rd January 1874, the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments of the Imperial Guards were presented rising sun regimental standards. At this ceremony a carefully scripted exchange of words took place between Emperor Meiji and the Regimental Commanders.

    Emperor Meiji:

    ” I proclaim the completion of the establishment of the First/Second Imperial Guard Infantry Regiment and hereby confer upon you a Military Standard. I expect you, my soldiers, to support each other with dedication and set ever higher examples of bravery in protecting the nation.“

    This was the very first time the flag was referred to as a “Gun-Ki (軍旗 military flag)” and not as “Rentai-Ki (連隊旗 regimental flag)”.

    After the Sino-Japanese War, as it became necessary to expand the army and create new divisions, the wording was slightly modified and later versions went;

    “I confer upon the Xth Infantry Regiment a Military Standard. I expect you, my soldiers, to support each other with dedication and set ever higher examples of bravery in protecting our Empire. “

    Regimental Commanders:

    “Humbly taking heed of your Majesty’s precious words, we, your subjects, shall dedicate life and soul to our vow to protect the nation.”

    This reply was initially scripted to have the regimental commander vowing “in his personal name” to protect the “Imperial gates”, but instead of a personal vow, “we, your subjects” was made the subject, and the emperor himself had the “Imperial Gates” changed to “Nation” to make it a general oath applicable to the entire army, not only to the Imperial Guards.

    1874, December -- the Law Catches Up

    The presentation of the standards to the Imperial Guards was done as if it was only on a one-off basis, as official specs for Infantry Regiment Standards had not yet been released as any regulation. In the same sloppy manner as when the army launched its first war medal for the 1874 Taiwan campaign, the chicken often preceded the egg in these early days of the army. So a “Decree by the Grand Council of State number 130” finally caught up on 2nd December, 1874 to give legal backing to the new banners, and to declare the 1870 style flags discontinued. This Decree intended to establish regimental standards for Infantry (100 x 80 cm), Cavalry (82 x 82 cm) and Artillery (82 x 82 cm) Regiments. All three were to have frilled fringes in purple silk, a blank white box at the lower pole-side corner for the regiment numbers, and were to be framed on all 4 sides in gold brocade tape. The flag poles in Oak were to be finished in black lacquer and were to have gold colored metal pole top ornaments in the form of the imperial chrysanthemum crest. However, at this time cavalry and artillery were still only at battalion strength, so those regimental standards were not issued and existed only on paper.

    The regiment’s designation was entered into the blank white box by the emperor himself with brush and ink and handed over to the regiment by him in person, which would have given all the soldiers at the presentation ceremony goose-bumps of awe.
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    1885, January -- Artillery Banner dropped and Reserve Infantry Regiment Banners Added

    11 years after they were introduced on paper, the artillery and cavalry standards still remained unissued, and on 10th January 1885 the artillery banner was now completely dropped. For artillery members, their guns had traditionally served as the symbolic soul of the troops, similar in status to standards, so it was decided to keep it that way. Instead, Reserve Infantry Regiments (後備歩兵連隊) were now to be issued flags identical to the active regiments, but the silk frills were in red instead of purple.
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    1896, September -- Cavalry Standard Size Reduction

    The cavalry flag still remained unissued, but the drag from the 82 x 82 cm size as announced in 1874 now seemed a bit too unwieldy for horseback, so the size was revised to a more compact 64 x 64 cm on 4th September 1896. This scaled down flag was finally issued for the first time on 18th November of that year as cavalry expanded to regiment strength.

    1917, April -- Further Spec Details Defined

    Previous regulations did not specify dimensions of the pole nor the pole top ornament, but these finally got laid down into drawings in a document dated 9th April 1917. An army memo explained that this new spec release was merely tying down detailed specs and that otherwise nothing had been changed on the flags. This was the most up to date spec description and shows how the banners were issued also during WW2. The center orb is shown as 31.8cm across, silk frills now revealed to be 106mm long, the pole-top ornament 62.7mm in diameter, width of the golden brocade tape 15mm and pole height 162 cm in case of the infantry standard. The silk used for the body of the flag is also revealed to be in Seigou weave with Sashiko stitching applied. Seigou weave uses fine silk threads softened in an alkaline solution in a dense weave as the longitudinal element and thicker silk threads as the lateral element, resulting in a stiff fabric. Sashiko stitching is decorative reinforcement stitching in running stitches.
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    Manufacturing of the Regimental Standards

    Orders for new standards were issued through the same army channels as guns or bayonets, and production number statistics for the flags were also in the spreadsheets for weapons production, so for the purpose of administration, they belonged to the weapons category, unlike the 1870 flags. The flags were supplied by the private sector, by Suya Shoten (壽屋商店) in Shiba, Tokyo, which must be a very familiar name to those who collect swords. They had been in the sword trading business since the Edo period and collectors would be familiar with Suya markings on Type 95 NCO swords, officer swords and navy daggers, etc. The 1945 production schedule compiled by the Tokyo Arsenal in April 1945 shows Suya producing at a pace of 10 to 15 standards a month.

    1899 -- The Ultimate School Banner of Keio University

    In the beginning of this story, I wrote that collectors routinely buy Youth School flags in the misguided hope they would turn out to be Regimental banners. However, there actually was one “reverse” case in which a genuine regimental banner did turn into a school banner. Keio University, a leading Japanese university in Tokyo set up military drills in their curriculum in 1898, and organized student units. The army was delighted to cooperate and let them have ex-army weapons. Then when a banner was needed, the school learned that Suya Shoten had an extra army banner in stock. When they applied for special permission to buy this flag, their wish was granted, and they had Suya change the purple silk fringes to yellow and replace the pole top ornament with the crossed pen-tip school emblem. And mimicking the army practice of having the Emperor enter the unit’s name, they asked the founder of their school, Yukichi Fukuzawa to enter the designation, “Keio Gijuku Student Unit” (慶応義塾生徒隊). This standard was presented to the unit by Fukuzawa on 15th March 1899. This episode is recorded in the school’s 75th anniversary book published in 1932 and it refers to it as one of the school’s treasures. So it was still there in ’32, but I am not aware what happened to it since and can find no photos of it. 

    1906, May – “Repair or not to repair”, that was the Question

    By World War 2, most banners of regiments with long histories were no longer even recognizable as flags, and only retained the purple silk outer frills hanging like entrails from the pole. Despite the unsightliness of these relics, the regiments did not seem to mind at all and continued to display them with pride which actually seemed to grow as the tattering got worse. Repairing or replacing became unthinkable.

    This kind of mentality was not totally unique to the IJA, as WW2 saw such styles as the “50 Mission look” in other armies as well. However, the IJA seemed to take this to the extreme in the case of their banners, and one cannot help having difficulty in reconciling this attitude of neglect with the awe in which they initially received these treasures from the emperor. Between these two seemingly conflicting poles, there actually was much expected tossing around that took place before they finally settled on a policy of benign neglect. Let’s take a look at how this evolved.

    Having experienced two wars in close succession in 1894/95 (Sino-Japanese War) and 1904/05 (Russo-Japanese War) damages and casualties were also unavoidable to these flags that had to lead the attacks, so after the war with Russia, it was time to make some decisions on how to deal with damaged flags. Damage suffered by the 1st Infantry Regiment’s banner served as a case study report that ran to 77 pages.

    The flag of the 1st Infantry Regiment was received on 19th December 1874 (as soon as decree number 130 provided the legal basis for all 1870 flags to be recalled and replaced). During the Russo-Japanese conflict, in May 1904, their banner took an enemy rifle shot immediately below the Chrysanthemum pole-top ornament, and the top of the pole broke off from there as well as causing damage to the lower part of the ornament. In May of 1906, the regiment commander requested repair, but also stated that they wanted to keep the bullet-gouged pole as a memento from their battle.

    Here’s how they illustrated the extent of the damage in their damage report.
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  8. #8


    The 1st Infantry Regiment cited the following memo from 20 years earlier as justification to have their pole repaired.

    Memo of 1887 29th December

    Notice to all Imperial Guard bases
    1.The flag’s fabric body shall not be repaired, however severe the damage to it may be
    2.When the pole or other accessories are damaged, a repair request should detail the extent of damage and be addressed to the Minister of the Army.

    In the end, the damaged pole was replaced as per the 1887 policy. However, at the same time, regiments were sounded out by the Ministry of the Army on an amendment idea to that policy that took a more pro-restoration view towards repair and replacement. This proposal consisted of the following points.

    1.Regimental banners which do not retain its form due to extensive damage shall be, in principle, exchanged with a new one.

    2.If the pole remains serviceable and only the fabric of the banner has suffered extensive damage, only the flag shall be replaced.

    3.If the fabric of the banner remains sound and only the pole has suffered extensive damage to render it useless, only the pole shall be replaced

    4.Replaced damaged components are to be returned to the Imperial Court.

    5.Replacement formalities and protocol shall basically follow those of new presentation ceremonies

    6.Replacement requests are to be raised by the regiment commander, and the divisional commander shall further direct this to the Minister of the Army should he agree the repair was necessary.

    7.The Minister of the Army shall obtain his majesty’s approval for the replacement.

    What was new was that this proposal now offered the possibility of replacing the fabric body of the flag, but this idea did not sit too well with the combat units that actually held the flags. The cavalry was of the opinion that for the flag to be replaced, it should be made a prerequisite that the flag had experienced multiple battles or otherwise had seen use for a certain minimum number of years such as 50 years (!!). They also proposed that replaced flags should easily be identifiable as such. Combat engineers saw no need at all to revise the 1887 policy, but should it come to that, it must be absolutely unrecognizable and useless as a flag to be considered for replacement.

    Their initial resistance to replacing the cloth must have been based on the irreplaceable nature of the emperor’s personal favor, but gradually they also seem to have developed a perverse pride in the battle scars the cloth displayed; the more tattered it got, the more irreplaceable it became.

    1906 July -- Benchmarking of European Repair/Replacement Practices

    At this point, the army, always mindful not to set precedents that would appear ridiculous to European armies, ordered its military attachés in England, Germany, France, Russia and Austria to investigate European military practices on how to deal with damages and losses.

    The main questions asked of the attachés were the following points.

    1.In the event the flag is heavily damaged to the extent of not retaining recognizable form, would a new flag be issued?

    2.When extensive damage is limited to the main body of the flag or to the pole, would the fabric or pole be replaced?

    3.When in the foregoing case replacement is made, how do they keep/dispose the damage parts?

    4.When a standard is lost (due to capture or in fires) what form does the presentation of a replacement banner take?

    These reports came back in between July and October of 1906. I will not get into details of the results, but will provide below the Japanese spread sheet summarizing how the countries above dealt with the issue.
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  9. #9


    Russia with whom Japan had the most recent conflict had the strictest practice of the 5 countries, and the IJA seemed to have felt that its own practices should not be any more lenient than the Russians, whom they just won against, as the revised “repair/replacement regulation draft” below is closest to this Russian practice.

    1. Regimental banners which have not retained its form due to extensive damage shall be exchanged with a new ones.

    2. When a banner is lost (through capture or in a fire) depending on the circumstances, the unit may be disbanded and a new regiment be formed. If not disbanded, the regiment shall be awarded a new banner.

    3. Replaced flags taken out of service are to be returned to the Imperial Court.

    4. Replacement banners are to have a patch of white cloth attached in one corner, which should carry an explanation for the reason of reissue.

    5. Replacement formalities and protocol shall basically follow those of new presentation ceremonies

    6. Replacement requests are to be raised by the regiment commander, and the divisional commander shall further direct this to the Minister of the Army.

    7. The Minister of the Army shall obtain His Majesty’s approval for the replacement.

    An idea proposed at this time was to award war medals to Regimental Standards as well, in order to show its heritage. This was a French practice, which found a lot of support from the French-trained IJA cavalry. This was to be in the form of attaching a long ribbon identical to that of the medal to the pole.

    How much of the above draft was actually adopted at that time in 1907 I have not been able to verify, but how this was handled during WW2 is clear below.

    1934 February -- Regimental Banner Repair Regulations during WW2

    Army Ordinance 1143 issued on 27th February 1934 stated;

    1.A log shall be maintained for each banner, recording details of any damages observed and details and dates of any repairs made to the banner. The log shall further record in detail the condition of the banner at the end of the autumn maneuvers each year so the storing conditions may be monitored.

    2.Repairs to the banner would be made according to the following rules

    a.Loose pole-tops, its plating, flag pole and its metal fixtures may be repaired
    b.Replacement of the pole-top or repairs to the fabric body, fringes or brocade taping, in principle, shall not be made

    3.When repairs are requested, the Minister of the Army is to seek permission from His Majesty, providing details of the circumstances, and the repairs need to be arranged through the Army Main Arsenal. Therefore Regiment commanders are not to attempt any repairs beyond temporary first aide, and submit a request for repair to his divisional commander, who will forward this further to the Minister of the Army after attaching photos or drawings detailing the problem and also a letter detailing the punishment of the individual responsible.

    4.Though there are requests from the regiments to keep the damaged components such as the pole after the repair, this will not be allowed, considering the symbolic significance of these banners.

    5.Should there be the need to travel for banner repairs, travel expenses are to be borne by the division requesting these repairs.

    6.For detailed requirements on caring for the banners refer to the attachment “Reference for caring for the Gunki”.

    It goes on to describe in detail how to care and check for damages, but I will not get into them any further. However, from the above it is clear that the 1934 regulations basically follow the 1887 policy and not the more lenient line proposed in 1907.

    So by WW2, banners presented early on all looked like below.
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  10. #10


    Only Virgins as Flag Bearers

    As we have seen, the flags may have become total rags, having seen hell but also better days, but the army nonetheless demanded that the bearer had to have fairytale-like qualities of purity to deserve bearing the banner or whatever remained of it. Regimental Standard bearers were generally selected from newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenants (rarely 1st Lt), who took turns 1 year at a time. They had to be from the top of the class, of upright character, good-looking and tall. An unwritten rule (perhaps not to embarrass the man selected for this honor) was that only men still without carnal knowledge of a woman could be allowed. As such, frequent patrons of army bordellos were absolutely out of the question as candidates.

    On the battlefield, there was a whole company assigned to protect the banner and its virgin bearer. There was no retreat for him. Even during parades, he was prohibited from doing any 180 degree “About-faces”. Instead, he was expected to do a 90 degree “Right-face” twice, if such a need arose. Being the embodiment of His Majesty himself, the banner was to be accorded salutes identical to how the troops greeted the Emperor. On the other hand, regulations required the flag to bow to no one, except to the Emperor and to the Shinto deities.
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