In October 2018, an image of BTS member Jimin began to circulate. In the image, taken from the group’s 2018 YouTube Premium series Burn The Stage, Jimin wears a T-shirt featuring an aerial photo of the mushroom cloud from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The photo is accompanied by the words “Patriotism,” “Our History,” “Liberation,” and “Korea” in English, as well as a rendering of Korean people celebrating their liberation from Japanese occupation at the end of World War II. The T-shirt was controversial and ignited debate about the propriety of the design, as well as the impact of an idol wearing it.
BTS was due to release a new Japanese album on November 7 amid soaring popularity in the country. They were also gearing up for the Japanese leg of their 2018 world tour. Several appearances on Japanese TV programs were scheduled, and there was rumor of an almost unprecedented appearance on the hugely popular year-end television program Kōhaku Uta Gassen.
Meanwhile, an October 30 ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court stoked Korean-Japanese political tensions. In the ruling, Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation was ordered to pay 100 million won each to four Korean men in compensation for forced labor rendered during WWII.
As the image was circulated and debated, the thread of the discussion was picked up by several interested parties, including Japanese and Korean nationalists, music fans, and anyone with an interest in Korea-Japan relations. The volume grew until the topic attracted the attention of the media.
In late October, it gained greater traction as media outlets covered the issue with varying levels of quality and integrity, often as an addendum to the larger story on the Supreme Court ruling. The new media coverage widened the audience for the discussion considerably, with English-language searches on the topic quintupling in the period spanning October 28 – November 4.
While news of the controversy spread, a scheduled November 9 appearance on Japan’s popular Music Station program was canceled and the rumors of a Kōhaku Uta Gassen appearance were quashed. The controversy was ostensibly the cause for both.
Jimin’s intentions in wearing the shirt and his culpability versus that of his management company – Big Hit Entertainment – were as hotly debated on social media as the actions and words of fans and anti-fans during the controversy. But the discussion also quickly branched into a much wider one about the lingering wounds of WWII. As the public argued over the responsibility of government and individual actors in WWII and the consideration newer generations owe victims and survivors on both sides, other controversial images of BTS began to circulate.
One of these images showed BTS member RM wearing a hat with the logo of the Nazi SS-Totenkopfverbände, a picture taken during a 2014 photoshoot for CeCí Magazine. Others – tweeted by Big Hit in 2015 to promote a photobook – depicted members posing at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, colloquially known as the Holocaust Memorial, in Berlin. Recordings and pictures of BTS waving flags at Seo Taiji’s 25th anniversary concert in September last year were also brought forward, as some felt that the logos printed on the flags were “eerily similar to the Nazi Swastika.” With the controversy at the height of its popularity, these images spread even faster than the first.
On November 12, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement condemning Big Hit and BTS for “mocking the past,” and demanded a formal apology be issued to victims of the atomic bombings and Japan in general. Even though the statement was largely based on the images circulated on social media and contained many factual and misinformed assertions, it was widely reported by the media.
On November 13, Big Hit Entertainment issued a formal statement that strongly refuted any affiliation with, or support for, fascist or Nazi ideology. The company also apologized to victims of the atomic bombings, to those who suffered under “totalitarian regimes,” and to “anyone who may have experienced distress and discomfort by witnessing an association of our artists with imagery reminiscent of political extremism.”
The company took responsibility for its artists’ wardrobes and promised to “carefully examine and review” such items in the future. The statement also reported that Big Hit contacted the Simon Wiesenthal Center and reached out to atomic bomb victim/survivor associations in Japan and Korea to provide apologies and explanations.
While subsequent statements by involved parties contributed further addendums and context to the controversy, the statement by Big Hit marked its zenith. Media coverage and search popularity dropped precipitously in the following weeks. 1