Anti-Korean sentiment behind BTS backlash in Japan

Satoko Oka Norimatsu, Editor, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus


BTS (Bangtan Boys) is a seven-member hip-hop boys’ group that debuted in South Korea in 2013. Over the past two years, these top K-pop stars propelled themselves to worldwide stardom rapidly with their superb dancing, singing and visuals and their message that youth identify with, and SNS-based marketing.


Two of their albums earned a top Billboard spot just this year. Being Asian myself, I felt pride that Asian artists singing in their native language had achieved such remarkable success on a global scale.


Therefore, I was surprised when a friend told me this November that the internet was in an uproar over one of the BTS members having worn a T-shirt depicting an atomic bomb mushroom cloud.


Soon news hit that TV Asahi had decided to cancel a BTS performance scheduled for November 9 on their music program “Music Station” because of the T-shirt design in question.


Are Japanese people really so sensitive when it comes to the devastating effects of the atomic bomb?


If so, I wondered, why do they readily allow TV appearances by those government officials who support nuclear armament and refuse to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?


However, the real problem lies elsewhere.


This issue arose while the Japanese government and Japanese media were in the midst of a massive-scale anti-Korea bashing campaign in response to an October 30 ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court ordering the Japanese company Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay reparations to former draftees in their employment who were forced to work under an inhumane and unlawful conditions.


People associated with xenophobic groups engaging in hateful actions against Koreans living in Japan instigated protest against BTS as “anti-Japan” to television stations and program sponsors.


In fact, the T-shirt in question has the National Liberation Day of Korea–the day on which Korea was freed from 36 years of colonial rule by Japan–as its theme, and a photograph of the atomic bomb is shown in one corner.


Some might indeed find this problematic, but to many Asians, not just Koreans, the memory of the “liberation” that occurred on August 15 is inseparable from the memory of the atomic bombings that immediately preceded it.


The image of the atomic bombing is, for Koreans, understood in the context of the overarching event of “liberation” following a history of colonial rule, and for Japanese people to point to just one part of the image and call it an “atomic bomb T-shirt” is to erase the history of Japan’s infliction of harm leading up to the atomic bombing.


BTS were subsequently taken to task for another one of their members having once worn a hat depicting a Nazi symbol and for having carried flags evoking Nazi imagery at their concerts.


The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), an organization that monitors antisemitic activity, launched a protest, calling on BTS to apologize to Japanese people and those who suffered under the Nazis.


In response, on November 13, BTS’s agency issued an apology to SWC and to groups representing victims of the atomic bomb in Japan and South Korea.


I am in Hiroshima every year on August 6, and the aforementioned xenophobic group makes a point of assembling in Hiroshima on this day of mourning to blast their message advocating nuclear armament.


In fact, after the death of Keiji Nakazawa, author of the harrowing atomic bomb-themed manga “Barefoot Gen,” it was this group that launched a movement calling for the manga to be removed from public library shelves.


Regarding the Nazi issue, BTS issued an apology explaining that a proper check was not implemented on the design of the hat, which was worn at a magazine photoshoot.


Regarding the flags held at their concert, no Nazi symbol was used, and the band was singing a song expressing resistance to South Korea’s rigid educational system.


The band was putting on a performance to criticize totalitarianism, as in the case of an actor playing a Nazi in a war film wearing a Nazi uniform.


Those who alerted SWC to the performance without explaining the context were likely motivated more by anti-Korean sentiment than by concern for human rights.


While it’s true that there was carelessness on the part of BTS, the essence of the uproar can’t be grasped without an understanding of the existence of xenophobic people who even today hold a colonialist mentality and will exploit any means to bash Korea.


Groups like this one have been involved in hateful activities against Okinawa as well.


It must be remembered that the violent actions and words of such groups and individuals are escalating against a backdrop of the Japanese government itself engaging in discrimination against Korean schools, denial of the coercive nature of the Japanese military “comfort women” system, denial of the history of forced labor, and other “government-led hate.”


This is an English translation of Satoko Oka Norimatsu’s article series Norimatsu Satoko no me [Norimatsu Satoko’s Eyes] that appeared on Page 3 of Ryukyu Shimpo, November 19, 2018 edition.


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