Origin of the Two Fingered Japanese Victory Salute
Point a camera towards any Japanese person. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Chances are you got either got the back of a fleeing pedestrian or a picture like this:
Not my students.
The V for Victory sign. The peace sign. The ever present staple of picture taking in North East Asia. The origins of this mysterious practice is not one of great socio-anthropological importance, yet it is hard not to notice and wonder, “Where did this behavior come from and why does everyone do it?”
Japan Today asked a random sampling of Japanese why they make this sign in photos. Perhaps the most telling reply was:
“I make the peace sign but I don’t know why I do it, who invented it and when we started doing this. I think I’ve been doing it since I was born. The peace sign gesture must have been programmed in my DNA, or foreigners mind-controlled Japanese to make the peace sign subconsciously when we pose for a photo to keep the peace after the war.”
-Seiichi Igeta, 17
Exactly! No one knows. Furthermore, Japanese culture has become so influential in a number of areas, particularly with youth and pop-culture. The sign has spread and is now a mainstay in many Asian countries, particularly South Korea and China, so that nary a photo can be taken without its presence.
As the quote states, the use of the peace sign has become an inseparable meme from Japanese culture. Children from very young ages are exposed to the fact that this just is what you do in a picture. Like smiling or wearing Hello Kitty inspired clothing.
Not my kids.
But I want to know where this practice really did come from. Let’s start at the beginning:
A debunked yet popular claim places the origin of said gesture in the Hundred Years’ War, which actually lasted 116 years from 1337 to 1453, pitting the French and English in battle. The story follows the French promised to cut the two fingers in question off the right hand of any captured archers. When the outnumbered English won, the “archer’s salute” was a sign of defiance.
No one believes this, though, because injured soldiers can’t be held for ransom and thus useless. Plus, there is no mention of such practice until much later in the 1500’s by some French guy:
François Rabelais, responsible for the V sign?
In the UK, this gesture is called the “Winston Churchill” after the WWII-era leader famously often used the “V for Victory” as a rallying point for allied forces and became his trademark. He boasted a huge increase in it’s popularity.
Other leaders were soon to follow like France’s Charles de Gaulle (who used it in just about every speech) and Richard “not a crook” Nixon.
Not a crook.
Not so fast, leaders of the free world! The symbol was quickly snapped up by American counterculture (read: hippies) while saying “Peace” to symbolize their anti-Vietnam War sentiment in the late 1960’s. Henceforth and still to this day, we have the name “peace sign” most common in the West.
So who was responsible for exporting this to Japan? History points to one Janet Lynn, American figure skater during the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. In true ‘ganbatte‘ spirit, she fell on her ass only to get up in cheerful
ignorance determination and went on to take bronze. Her blissfully smiling face made her an instant celebrity in Japan, where the peace activist and skater generously flashed the sign all over the media. The masses were to follow.
Janet Lynn: she even dresses like a Japanese school girl.
In late 2007, a Japanese variety program called Down Town DX traced the true root of the gesture to Jun Inoue, who was known as Junji Inoue at the time. In 1972, the popular actor starred in a series of commercials for camera maker Konica. He photographed a number of persons all with one thing in common. You guess it: the peace sign! According to Inoue, the idea for the sign was an ad-lib based on his perception of its popularity overseas. The critical number had now been reached for the Hundredth Monkey Effect to take effect and the rest, as they say, is history.
Interesting variations of interpretation have now resulted from the popularity of this oft overused sign. In the Philippines its use is seen as a mockery of other Asian countries while in the UK and English speaking Oceania, a reverse (palm facing inwards) flashing is the equivalent of saying “f*@% off.”
Even in Japan I have noticed a couple variations and unique usage of the sign. First, note placement of the symbol. For most in the West, its held about shoulder high in the front of the body and this is most common in Japan too. Sometimes you even get two signs from the same person. Distinctly Japanese is the placement next to or over some part of the face, which can be see in images above and below.
For the truly trend setting among us, great liberty can even been taken the form one’s hand takes. Its like a postmodern peace sign conveying the same ideas and saying, “No really, look at me! I am wild and crazy!” The ever changing all-girl J-Pop group Morning Musume (モーニング娘) can often been see flaunting such craziness:
Not good music.
The first of two main variations is the “under-extend.” This peace sign means well, but just doesn’t quite get there and the fingers are curled over. The result is the flasher looking like they are trying to make little claws and saying “Rawr!” I believe this usage is an attempt to garner even more cute points and often be seen placed near the face.
The second main variation is the “over-extend.” Like the previous but opposite, too much force has been applied to the flash and the fingers curve with a painful looking convexness. Genetic mutation? Maybe. Some people seem to naturally be able to bend their fingers this way, though it may be the result of years of practice. The image shown, it should be noted, is a very tame play on this variation.
The question about the origin of the two fingered Japanese “Victory Salute” is often one that confusions the non-initiated. It is a question that most Japanese also can’t answer: its just something that has always been done. Nevertheless, everyone from an age young enough to poop their pants to an age old enough to poop their pants will fearlessly greet any camera with the peace sign. We can now trace the roots of using this sign from age old myths to its entrance into pop-culture via an unlikely celebrity.
Many foreigners living in Japan for an extended time will quickly pick up this practice. I know, because I did. I can happily say I am now a recovering peace sign flasher, though occasional relapses do occur.
With a little digging we have found the origins of this mysterious practice and can all sleep a little better tonight. In a final note, I would present an ulterior theory for the meaning behind its usage: “We owe you two, Yanks!”