By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Tokyo Olympic organisers said on Friday that the display of Japan's "Rising Sun" does not constitute a political statement and a spokesman said there were no plans to ban the controversial banner, as demanded by South Korea.
The flag, a centuries-old symbol that was also used by Japan's military during World War Two, is the latest diplomatic football in a worsening feud between South Korea and Japan over the bitter legacy of their shared past.
South Korea's Sports Ministry this week asked the International Olympics Committee to prohibit any use of the flag, which it likened to the Nazi's use of the swastika.
Tokyo 2020 does not anticipate banning the "Rising Sun" flag, spokesman Masa Takaya told Reuters.
"The 'Rising Sun' flag is widely used in Japan and we think the display of the flag is not a political statement," the Tokyo 2020 organisers said in a statement, echoing the committee's previous stance.
The statement added that, as had been done at past Games, it was considering designating non-participating countries' flags as among items that cannot be brought into venues. Takaya said this was a general statement, not a reference to the "Rising Sun" flag.
Ties between Washington's two Asian allies have deteriorated to their worst level in decades after South Korea's Supreme Court last October ordered some Japanese firms to compensate Koreans forced to work in their wartime mines and factories. Japan says the matter was settled by a 1965 treaty.
The feud has since jolted trade and security ties.
Many Koreans resent the "Rising Sun" flag as a symbol of Japan's 1910-1945 colonisation of the peninsula, but its use has become more controversial as relations with Japan chilled.
LONG, COMPLEX HISTORY
The "Rising Sun" flag - a sunburst with 16 rays - is separate from Japan's "Hinomaru" flag that was legally made the national flag in 1999. Domestic critics at the time opposed the move because of its association with wartime militarism.
Japan's Olympic team uses the "Hinomaru" flag, a red disc on a white background.
The "Rising Sun" flag, flown by Japanese feudal warlords, was adopted in 1870 as the flag of the Japanese Imperial Army. In 1889 it became the navy ensign.
It was then adopted as the ensign of the Maritime Self-Defence Force, as Japan's navy is known, when the MSDF was established as part of Japan's Self-Defence Forces in 1954.
Last year, Japan called off its plan to take part in an international fleet review in South Korea after Seoul asked it not to fly the flag on warships - although it had done so without objections in fleet reviews in 1998 and 2008.
China, which also shares a bitter wartime history with Japan, did not complain when a Japanese naval vessel flew the "Rising Sun" ensign during an April visit to a Chinese port.
Football's governing body FIFA, however, has banned its use and in 2017 the Asian Football Confederation sanctioned Japan after Japanese fans flew the flag at an AFC Champions League.
The "Rising Sun" flag is a favourite of Japan's ultra-right, but it is also used on commercial products and is a corporate logo of the liberal Asahi newspaper.
Some experts said comparisons to the Nazi swastika were overdone. "The swastika is indelibly linked to the Gestapo, the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazism," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Tokyo's Temple University campus.
"The Japanese view this as a flag with a long tradition extending well beyond Japanese colonialism," he said. "For Korea, it symbolises unresolved grievances of the colonial era."
(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by William Mallard & Simon Cameron-Moore)