During the Meiji Era, Japan made a strategic decision to take control of Korea. After decades of meddling, Japan moved to take full control of the country in 1910, and launched a brutal campaign to exterminate Korean culture. This oppressive rule lasted for 35 years, and didn't end until Japan's unconditional surrender in World War II, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The colonization of Korea was an historic disaster. The political rift caused by the invasion tore the country in two, with the anti-colonial Communists claiming the North, and founding a dictatorship that continues to threaten regional stability. South Korea was plunged into decades of militaristic rule and economic turmoil. And relations between South Korea and Japan have never healed. Just recently, a South Korean court caused a diplomatic uproar when it ruled that Japan had to compensate South Korean plaintiffs for forced labor during colonization - a matter that Japan already regards as settled history.
Meanwhile, despite all of this, the citizens of both countries freely exchange their cultures. In Korea, this takes the form of anime and idol groups, with the top animated shows in South Korea all being from Japan. Meanwhile, some say Japan is going through a second "Korean Boom" resembling one that occurred earlier in the decade, where the Japanese public developed a thirst for Korean entertainment. Top imports include Korean drama, as well as remakes of Korean drama and movies: recent TV shows like Signal and The Good Doctor, and movies like Confessions of a Murderer (２２年目の告白), are all based on Korean originals.
And then there's music. Some Korean bands and singers are enjoying immense popularity in Japan, and routinely tour and make TV appearances in the country. One such group is BTS, or 防弾少年団 (boudan shounendan) - "Bulletproof Boy Group". The group was slated to appear on Music Station (or "M-ste"), TV Asahi's popular and long-running weekly music program.
That was until social media blew up over a t-shirt.
While performing at a friendship concert between Korea and France, BTS member Jimin showed up in a shirt replete with words like "Patriotism", "Ourhistory", "Liberation", and "Korea" in English. To the right is a picture of one of the atomic bombings of Japan, and on the bottom left is a picture of Koreans whooping for joy over Liberation Day - August 15th, or the day Korea was officially liberated from Japanese rule.
Since the incident erupted, the t-shirt's designer, I Gonje, has apologized, and claimed that it wasn't his intent to create an "anti-Japanese" message, but to take advantage of the street art movement at the time to get younger Koreans interested in history:
This part [the photo of the atomic bomb] isn't there to mock Japan. It's there to indicate that Korea was freed as a result of the atomic bombs dropping, and Japan's unconditional surrender.
(JP) Link: BTS's M-ste Appearance Put Off: T-Shirt Designer Apologizes; Explains His Reasoning Behind Using a Picture of the Atomic Bombing
It seems like a somewhat specious excuse, to be honest. At any rate, the damage was done. The photo of Jimin blew up Japanese social media with the hash tag 原爆Tシャツ (Atomic Bomb T-shirt), sparking outrage from multiple quarters of Japanese society. BTS's appearance on M-Ste has been indefinitely postponed, and South Korea and Japan find themselves at war during a time when official relations between the country are at a low point.
(And in case you were wondering...the shirt's still listed for sale, but marked as "sold out". One can only hope that's an administrative override, and that boxes of those long sleeves are slowly rotting at the back of a warehouse.)
Hatred Over Colonization is Always Just Below the Surface
This incident caught my eye because, believe it or not, it's not the first time that a seemingly innocent pop group has used the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bash Japan. In 2014, Korean group Red Velvet caught shit when the video for their song named (ironically) "Happiness" was found to contain backgrounds with pictures of US newspapers from World War II referencing the bombings. Several of the headlines even contained Japanese racial slurs.
In this case, the offending video was an Equal Opportunity Hater. On closer inspection, other scenes depict disasters that has befallen other countries, including the high-speed rail accident in China in 2011, the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11th, 2001, and the 2005 London bus bombings.
Since the controversy erupted, the newspaper background has been replaced with a non-offensive (actually un-readable) substitute, and the picture of the smoking Twin Towers removed.
As Huffington Post Japan reported at the time, another such incident occurred in 2006, when the musician Rain used a picture of an atomic cloud in the background of the video for his song "I'm Coming".
(JP) Link: Why Korean Pop Groups Continue to Use Atomic Bombing Imagery in Their Video Scenes
韓国アイドルのビデオに「原爆投下」 のシーン 繰り返し起きるわけは
The Fallout - in Both Korea and Japan
HuffPo Japan attributes this casual use of atomic imagery to a lack of understanding - not only of how references to the bombing ripple in the consciousness of modern day Japanese, but how the atomic bombings were a shared tragedy. In Hiroshima alone, several tens of thousands of Koreans died when the bomb hit. An investigation by the Korean-based Peace House found that, out of 29 middle and high school textbooks, this fact was referenced in exactly one.
While I think education is helpful, the belief that mere education can resolve this issue is naive. What these incidents prove is that the colonization of Korea has created a lingering hatred of Japan that is always simmering just below the surface. Given the active political negotiations between the two countries, outright expression of this anger is usually kept under wraps. Hence, it tends to "leak" out in places where you'd least expect it...such as the backgrounds of music videos, and the backside of a boy band member.
The reaction to the t-shirt on social media spans a wide spectrum. On the South Korean side, some people express exasperation that Japan continues to use the atomic bombs to play the "victim card", which some see as a way of soft-peddling the atrocities committed during colonization. Others - particularly fans of BTS - take the t-shirt artist's side, and are demanding that M-Ste apologize to the band:
BTS is KOREAN artist. This is not Jimin's fault that he wore a T shirt which is celeberating National Liberation Day. Jimin don't have to feel sorry. Music station MUST apologize to BTS and army in the world.— 솔 (@btsloversol) 2018年11月8日
Sorry for my bad English and please RT this tweet for foreign army. pic.twitter.com/glxWbqIA0k
The Japanese reaction is complex. Certainly, the most vociferous reaction to the t-shirt comes from Japan's right-wing media, which is using the incident to express frustration that, no matter how many times Japan apologizes and pays reparations, South Korea and its citizens not only continue to bash Nippon, but continue to demand more reparations and more apologies. But a lot of Japanese citizens are pissed off about the t-shirt - particularly residents of Hiroshima, who live in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by the attack.
Other Japanese commentators, however, expressed frustration at the cancellation. Computer researcher Mogi Kenichirou, in a widely-liked and retweeted missive, lamented: "Japan, a country with a tendency toward 'Galapagos-izing' [i.e., isolating itself like the Galapago Islands], could have seen a boost to its broadcasting from featuring this US Billboard number-one group...how disappointing. Japanese broadcasting companies should think about how this affects their positions in the world and on the Internet."
BTSのTシャツ問題についてはいろいろな考えがあるだろう。全米ビルボードで連続１位になったBTSがテレビ朝日の番組に出たら、ガラパゴス化しがちな日本の地上波テレビが力をもらえたのにと、残念に思う。日本のテレビ局は、世界やネットの中で変わりゆく自分たちの立ち位置を考えた方がいいと思う。— 茂木健一郎 (@kenichiromogi) 2018年11月8日
Whither South Korea - Japan Relations?
This situation is, to put it bluntly, a hot holy mess. With a single t-shirt, a pop star has managed to inflame tensions between two countries, and make the hard task of political reconciliation that much harder.
I have no concrete guidance, and, not being a citizen of either country, I don't get a vote anyway. But I can express some hopes.
First, I hope people in both countries realize this for what it is: a minor brouhaha being leveraged for political gain. It's not unlike what happens in the US when, say, everyone discovers that Taylor Swift wasn't a secret Republican, or that the Dixie Chicks hate George W. Bush: one or both sides use it as an opportunity, not to talk to each other, but to talk at each other, and bolster their own power. I hope that the Japanese populace, in particular, doesn't fall for the right wing's hardline stance against South Korea just because Jimin has poor taste in fashion.
Second, I hope that BTS and Jimin apologize, and that TV Asahi invites them back. Resolving this conflict would be a symbolic act - a signal that, despite their tangled past, the two countries can work things out.
Third, I hope that cultural interchange between the two nations continues to flow freely. As I've said before when reviewing the Netflix series Maniac, one of the beautiful things about the Internet is that we now have instant access to the culture of every country around the world. That's powerful, as it opens up the doors to an unprecedented level of international cooperation and cultural intermingling.
It may seem like a small thing that a Japanese working mother can rock out to BTS on the train home from work, or that a South Korean kid can stay up past midnight in a vain attempt to catch up on One Piece from the beginning. It's not. The more we're exposed to one another's ways of organizing the world, the more we understand each other's differences. And the more easily we can recognize what binds us together as human beings, regardless of borders or backstories.
If there's ever to be peace in the world, it has to start from that simple understanding.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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