BTS ‘T-shirt controversy’ prickles decadeslong Korea-Japan tensions

By Yim Hyun-su

From canceled TV performance in Japan over T-shirt to possible Pyongyang performance, boy band embroiled in politics

Published : Nov 11, 2018 - 15:30
Updated : Nov 13, 2018 - 10:00

BTS-related headlines had been mostly about breaking sales records or appearing on international TV programs; that was prior to Thursday, when Japanese broadcaster TV Asahi axed the group’s appearance last minute over a T-shirt worn by Jimin that was deemed too political.

“There has been controversy over the design of a T-shirt worn by a member (of the group) and we asked the intention behind wearing (the shirt) and worked together with the record label. Regretfully, however, we decided to postpone their appearance after discussing it,” the Japanese TV station said in a statement.

With people ranging from the act’s loyal “Army” fan base to Korean politicians having a bone to pick with the broadcaster’s decision, BTS appears to have been launched headfirst into a seemingly eternal international dispute rooted in bad blood between the neighboring countries.

BTS performs at the 2018 MGA show at Incheon’s Namdong Gymnasium on Tuesday. (Yonhap)


It all began after a picture recently circulated online of Jimin wearing a T-shirt celebrating Korea’s Liberation Day with words like “Patriotism,” “Our History” and “Liberation” alongside a picture of what appeared to be an atomic bomb mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan.

In Japan, the T-shirt design was widely condemned and branded as “anti-Japanese” by critics.

“I can never accept the (idea) that (a) BTS member wore the atomic bomb T-shirts humanely. The problem is not the relation between Japan and Korea. It’s just humanity,” one popular tweet critical of the group read.

Others came to the group’s defense, including one Twitter user who wrote, “A Korea’s Liberation Day T-shirt, not a Hiroshima bombing T-shirt. Yes it has an image of the bomb but that’s not what the shirt represents nor (what) Jimin was trying to promote. It represents celebration of Liberation Day from Japan after an oppressive, ruthless, inhumane colonization of 35 years.”

In a further sign of the seriousness of the friction, the issue also received attention from politicians.

“Did BTS spread false information? The picture on the T-shirt shows no hidden agenda but historical facts, “Kim Jeong-hwa, spokeswoman for the minor conservative Bareunmirae Party, wrote in a statement.

Emotions run deep between the two countries over the thorny history of Japan’s colonization of Korea.

Between 1910 and 1945, the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule. During the period, hundreds of thousands of Korean men were subjected to forced labor while similar numbers of Korean women became victims of sexual slavery euphemistically known as “comfort women.”

Imperial Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, just days after the US detonated atomic bombs over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing an end to World War II and liberating Korea.

Even over seven decades later, wartime issues have continued to stoke difficulties in the two countries’ relations.

The bandmates of BTS shake hands with President Moon Jae-in during a Korean cultural event in Paris, on Oct. 14. (AP-Yonhap)


As recently as last week, the relationship between South Korean and Japan was further fractured after South Korea’s top court ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to compensate Korean forced laborers.

The decision has been condemned by the Japanese government, and reports earlier this month revealed that Tokyo would advise the Japanese companies facing lawsuits over forced labor not to compensate or even settle with the plaintiffs.

Jimin’s T-shirt was not the only scandal BTS has recently been mired in. Lawmaker An Min-suk from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea came under fire for hinting the group could possibly perform in Pyongyang during a radio interview, a move that many fans have termed “political exploitation.”

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)

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The Korea Herald by Herald Corporation