After a photo of Jimin in the T-shirt surfaced online in mid-October, the debate around the T-shirt was quickly picked up and spread by Korean and Japanese Internet users and media. After TV Asahi canceled BTS’ appearance on Music Station over the T-shirt, international media joined the reporting race. Surprisingly (or, not so surprisingly) and interestingly, the focus of each – of Korean, Japanese, and international media – have been vastly different from each other. This inevitably made different consumers gather different understandings and interpretations of the same situation.
Do note that because of how the story was handled – and how it changed – when international media began reporting on the story, the section addressing international coverage provides both a summary of the news cycle and an analysis of it.
2-3-1. Korean Media Coverage
Due to the extensive coverage this topic received in Korea, we have compiled an overview of articles from November 8, 2018 to November 19, 2018 from major news outlets with different political leanings.
Liberal/left-wing: The Korea Times, JTBC, and Hankyoreh
Moderate/center: KBS, MBC, SBS, Yonhap News
Conservative/right-wing: Chosun Ilbo, DongA Ilbo, and JoongAng Ilbo
Entertainment news outlet Newsen was included for its important role in reporting breaking stories and updates throughout the 12-day affair.
On November 8, Newsen broke the story that BTS’ Japanese schedule was cancelled after questions were raised when they did not show up to board the KE711 plane from Gimpo Airport to Haneda Airport on November 8 at 7:30 pm for a scheduled appearance on TV Asahi ’s Music Station. TV Asahi and Big Hit released statements confirming the postponed appearance.
The Korea Times explained that the South Korean Supreme Court’s decision ordering a Japanese company to compensate workers for forced labor during wartime caused a spark that spread to popular culture and arts in “Amidst the Worsening of Korean-Japan Relations, BTS’ Japanese TV Appearance Suddenly Cancelled.”
The next day, JoongAng Ilbo expressed dismay at the situation, and Newsen asked why a photo of Jimin wearing a t-shirt two years ago was an issue now before sharing the t-shirt designer’s creative and patriotic intent. JTBC and KBS included this during their morning news segments. Newsen then asked if Japan was politically retaliating by using BTS and Hallyu, and DongA Ilbo revealed that 6,000 comments by Japanese netizens showed BTS’ immense popularity in Japan. DongA Ilbo and Hankyoreh said BTS’ global popularity caused extensive international media coverage which led to the world learning about Japan’s past war crimes. KBS, SBS, and MBC shared Japanese media (Yomiuri Shimbun, Kyodo News, and Asahi) reports while The Korea Times asserted that BTS proved their chart and ticket power through the Oricon chart and a sold-out dome tour.
As the situation continued to develop on November 10 (Day 3), DongA Ilbo published an article on the “strong aftermath” of the Supreme Court decision that was “hitting Hallyu.” MBC and KBS continued to inform viewers with a summary of events. Newsen revealed that Sponichi Annex said, “BTS were in talks to appear on NHK’s “Kōhaku Uta Gassen,” “FNS Music Festival,” “Music Station Super Live,” but they’re no longer happening” and named Jimin’s t-shirt as the reason for these plans falling through. According to JoongAng Ilbo on November 10, Japan’s past war crimes caught the attention of the international media thanks to the help of ARMYs on Twitter. Yonhap News emphasized that Billboard and CNN wrote that history played into the cancellation of BTS’ TV appearance. Korean lawmakers showed a united front in voicing their support for BTS and/or against Japan in the matter as reported by KBS, Yonhap News, and JoongAng Ilbo.
November 11 saw Japanese ARMYs showing support for BTS on social media despite far-right protests. On November 12 (day 5), Chosun Ilbo mentioned previously contentious times in Korean-Japan relations that led to the exclusion of Korean singers on NHK’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen. DongA Ilbo said a far-right group’s protest in front of Tokyo Dome on the first day of BTS’ concert was cancelled because of ARMYs. Hankyoreh gave insight on Japan’s new generation with the article, “Despite BTS’ T-shirt Controversy, Their Popularity in Japan Remains the Same. Why? Global YouTube Fans Are Different.”
On November 13, Korean media outlets reported on Simon Wiesenthal Center’s statement as well as ARMYs’ explanations. MBC, KBS, The Korea Times, and more touted BTS’ Oricon accomplishments despite ongoing controversies. The press extensively covered BTS’ successful first Tokyo Dome concert. Jimin’s statement during the concert was printed followed by Big Hit’s official statement.
On November 14, Chosun Ilbo wrote about pre-sale numbers for BTS’ documentary “Burn the Stage: the Movie” while the Japanese media continued to spread negative articles about K-pop. Korean singer Kim Jang-hoon also spoke up about the incident. DongA Ilbo reported on Simon Wiesenthal Center’s response to Big Hit’s statement. BTS was not included in the final lineup for NHK’s “Kōhaku Uta Gassen,” but TWICE was. A Big Hit employee also personally apologized to the Japanese Atomic Bombs Victim Association. The second day of BTS’ Tokyo Dome concert was a success without a protestor in sight.
By November 15, MBC said the “anti-Korean atmosphere” had calmed down. ARMYs continued to support BTS by making donations to the House of Sharing with a total of 10 million won ($8,875) in 2018. The following day, Big Hit’s operations representative Lee Jin-hyung personally apologized to the Korean Atomic Bombs Victim Association in Hapcheon, and the association accepted the apology.
TWICE became the next target by Japanese right-wing members on November 16, as Japanese politician Onodera Masaru brought to surface a picture of member Dahyun wearing a Marymond T-shirt from 2017. Marymond is a company that works to promote active remembering of the Korean victims of Japanese sex slavery, “colloquially known as ‘comfort women,” by making products in living memory of their lives and donating at least half of its profits to support surviving victims., colloquially known as ‘comfort women.’ The Japanese politician Onodera Masaru who problematized Dahyun’s Marymond shirt claimed that Marymond uses its funds inappropriately for “anti-Japanese” campaign purposes. and demanded that Dahyun and, by extension, TWICE, be removed from this year’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen performances.
On the same day, JoongAng Ilbo reported that a Japanese far-right wing member made a bomb threat to Sugiyama Women’s University in Nagoya to suspend a female college student who’s a BTS fan. Despite such incidents, they emphasized that BTS’ popularity is at an all-time high and that thee group will continue its sold-out dome tour after successfully completing two nights at Tokyo Dome.
JoongAng Ilbo also reported that a Japanese right-wing member made a bomb threat to Sugiyama Women’s University in Nagoya to suspend a female college student who’s a BTS fan. Despite such incidents, they emphasized that BTS’ popularity is at an all-time high and that the. The group will continue its sold-out dome tour after successfully completing two nights at Tokyo Dome.
According to The Korea Times, 100 ARMYs participated in donating to the House of Sharing. From November 16, amounts such as $5 and $10 amounted to a total of around 2 million won. News about donations for the comfort women victims spread through BTS’ Twitter community through November 17 and 18. A source from the House of Sharing said, “It means a lot that the movement of remembering Japan’s invasion and Japan’s ‘comfort women’ issue is expanding worldwide.”
SBS also reported that word about donations spread on Twitter. A fan stated, “The hearts of many fans abroad were hurt after they learned what the grandmas (victims) went through when they were teenagers. Let’s help the victims and correctly learn history.”
Korean media, as its name makes obvious, reports its news in Korean. This means that their reports are made for a Korean audience who are already well aware of, passionate about, and sensitive in regards to their own history and contemporary international relations.
After stating that BTS’ schedule in Japan had been canceled, Newsen wrote, “In the background of this is Jimin’s T-shirt. Jimin recently wore a Liberation Day T-shirt,” being the first to do so. The following articles by the Korean media also described it as “a Liberation Day T-shirt” or “a T-shirt that has a picture of Korean citizens celebrating liberation and a picture of an atomic bomb explosion.” They highlighted the words “patriotism,” “our history,” “liberation,” and “Korea” on the T-shirt. Some even presented it as “the T-shirt the Japanese media outlet has found a problem with,” suggesting that the T-shirt was not necessarily a problem until the Japanese media made it out to be one.
It also gave political context for the issue, immediately referencing the recent South Korean Supreme Court decision and growing anti-Korean sentiments by the far-right wing.
Some even began their articles by introducing BTS as global idols before reporting on the latest developments on the issue and concluding with mentions of BTS’ accomplishments, including a sold-out dome concert tour in Japan and Oricon chart achievements. Korean entertainment articles usually end with a summary of the artist’s upcoming schedule, but in such a scenario, it could also have been read as a pointed remark that BTS’ popularity is secure.
When the issue gained traction in Western and Japanese media, the Korean media welcomed the coverage as more proof of BTS’ global popularity. It celebrated the number of international fans who, as a result of this issue, became more conscious of Korean history and empathetic to its past – and it was perhaps too quiet on the outrage that a large number of fans felt in regards to the T-shirt.
Throughout this incident, it was clear that Korean media outlets viewed being pro-BTS to be synonymous with being pro-Korea; the two entities seemed to be indistinguishable in the reports. BTS was Korea personified, and the Korean media rose loudly to the occasion, as they took on the angle that their cultural diplomats had become tarnished by their past colonizer.