Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

How a t-shirt worn by a boy band member might make the bad relations between South Korea and Japan even worse. Pictured: Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan, which was erected as a request for peace, and a reminder for us not to repeat the mistakes of the past. (Picture: gandhi / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Killer Tee: How a South Korean Boy Band Sparked Outrage in Japan

Essay   Posted on November 10, 2018 in war, nuclear weapons, hiroshima, nagasaki, politics, culture, south korea • By Jay Andrew Allen • Read Related Articles

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.

The t-shirt conjoining the bombing of Japan with Korean patriotism
The controversial t-shirt worn by Jimin of the Korean band BTS, which welds Korean patriotism with the atomic bombing of Japan.

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

>原爆Tシャツ デザイナーが謝罪|BIGLOBEニュース

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.

Scene from Red Velvet's 'Happiness'
A scene from Red Velvet's video "Happiness". Newspapers in the background discuss the atomic bombing of Japan.

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
韓国の新人アイドル歌手グループのミュージックビデオの一場面に、第2次世界大戦中に広島に原爆が投下されたことを報じる英字新聞などが使われていたとして、場面が一部差し替えられた。韓国の歌手が原爆をイメージする画像で論議を呼んだことは過去にもあった。分かっていれば最初から使わなければよさそうなものだが、なぜ起きるのか。背景を考察した。 今回問題になったのは、「少女時代」などの人気グループを抱える芸能事務...

The Fallout - in Both Korea and Japan

Hiroshima Memorial to the Korea Dead
A memorial in Hiroshima to the Koreans who died as a result of the atomic bomb. (Picture: skipinof / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

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:

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."

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.


You May Also Enjoy Reading...

Prince Akishinonomiya and his wife, Kiko, at a press conference.

The 2 Billion Yen Ascension: Japan's Budget-Busting Royal Ritual

Essay   By Jay Andrew Allen  ·  December 10, 2018 • Tagged with religion, shinto, politics, culture, emperor, royal family, daijousai

When the new Emperor takes his throne in 2019, Japan’s taxpayers will spend billions on a Shinto religious rite. Some - including a Prince - say that’s unconstitutional.

Doctor holding stethoscope

"Three Women Equal One Man": Tokyo Medical University Rejects Women Because They Get Married, Sparks Online Outcry

News   By Jay Andrew Allen  ·  August 07, 2018 • Tagged with news, feminism, government, politics, society, culture

An investigation by Tokyo Medical University into its admission practices led to a startling discovery that has Japanese women up in arms.

Go board

9-Year-Old Japanese Go Player Will Become Country's Youngest Pro Ever

News   By Jay Andrew Allen  ·  January 31, 2019 • Tagged with games, entertainment, culture, south korea

A young girl who can't even turn pro until April is already giving some of the world's top Go players a run for their money.

Samurai on horses

The Fall of Ezo, Japan's "Samurai Democracy"

Essay   By Noah Oskow  ·  March 04, 2019 • Tagged with history, hokkaido, tokugawa, samurai, meiji, meiji restoration, war

How Japan's samurai resistance fell to the pressure of history - and how its founder went from hatred traitor to respected leader.

Samurai on a horse

The Last Samurai: Enomoto Takeaki and the Warrior Democracy of Ezo

Essay   By Noah Oskow  ·  February 20, 2019 • Tagged with history, hokkaido, tokugawa, samurai, meiji, meiji restoration, war

The story of the samurai who fought the rise of modern Japan to the end - and who, when all else failed, founded his own nation-state.