Evaluating a T-shirt
K-pop fans in Korea have established a distinct culture over the past couple of decades, and an adaptation of such mindsets and customs has arisen among international fans with K-pop gaining global popularity. As one might imagine, the cultural disparity has resulted in the divergence of responses among Korean fans (“K-ARMYs”) and international fans (“I-ARMYs”) at each turn of events as the controversy unfolded.
The initial response of many Korean fans when the screenshots of the T-shirt surfaced again in October was nothing out of the ordinary: if people were not making a huge fuss over it, there was no need to bring attention to it. Doing so would only subject them to trolls and antis in an age of relentless online harassment and fandom politics. Some would merely say this is “ignoring a non-issue”; others, a case of “sweeping it under the rug.”
Indeed, international fans of K-pop are increasingly convinced that censorship of news material occurs at every stage: from Korean fans, from fan translators, and even from the most protective of international fans, who often ignore criticism or decry it as unfair, even when it is constructive or valid.
While there can certainly be selective bias at play in order for fans to focus on the positive aspects of their idols, such dismissive remarks reflect a lack of knowledge about the constant barrage of articles by Korean media and forum groups that fans sift through on a daily basis.
For example, while there are many well-established news sources that report on entertainment news, a vast array of “articles” are from forums on which fans primarily post and comment (Nate PANN, theqoo, instiz, etc.) or from “news” media (Insight, WikiTree, e.g.) that draw their unsubstantiated material from social media. Thus, articles translated by English online outlets such as Soompi or Allkpop, and by fans of varying language skill, are always selective in nature, whether it be by degree of circulation or what catches personal interest.
In this case, the T-shirt had not been worn recently, the news had not been picked up by many outlets – let alone reputable ones – and was unworthy of more than a few lines anyway when first being noticed. Korean fans recognized that if international fans caught wind of the coverage, the conversation would get ugly fast due to the political nature of it. So it was considered a non-issue – or at least by some who had the liberty of making a decision, better kept as a non-issue.
However, there were two additional elements that came into play with this story. First, it was covered by English online outlets that focus on Asian news such as Sang (2018) . giving it a wider viewership. Second, comments from Japanese forums that negatively referenced BTS and this shirt started being translated into English and posted to general K-Pop forums, which meant that the story gained greater traction internationally from outside of the BTS fandom first.
Because of this, the news spread in a skewed manner, and was rife with misinformation and disinformation. Much disgust was expressed in regards to what had already been deemed an “Atomic Bomb T-shirt.” I-ARMYs then began to rally in panic. Some encouraged one another to “clear Jimin’s searches,1” while others wrote passionate defenses on the shirt. Those who desired to place it in a wider political context were largely considered illogical or desperate in the vein of “oppa didn’t mean it,” a phrase commonly used to stereotype histrionic fans who prefer to perceive their favorite idol as a misunderstood paragon of virtue even when all evidence suggests otherwise.
Of course, whether the shirt and the wearing of it warranted the controversy was also a point of contention. The average international onlooker or fan who sought to understand the issue was particularly concerned by two points. First, why was there a seemingly stubborn sentiment from Korean fans that refused to be apologetic towards Japan, pressured Big Hit Entertainment not to cede in this matter, and made it an issue of nationalistic pride? Second, why did it seem like there was a lack of remorse about the T-shirt in some circles?
K-ARMYs Responses: To Clarify and Defend
When the news of Music Station’s abrupt cancelation of BTS’ appearance was released, it sparked outrage among K-ARMYs. Not only was the last-minute cancelation disrespectful to BTS and the Big Hit staff, but the show’s reason – Jimin’s wearing of a T-shirt with an image of an atomic bomb mushroom cloud – seemed to reflect that TV Asahi was making a political move directed by the Japanese government, and also legitimizing a campaign led by Japanese ultranationalists.
Many K-ARMYs wanted to clarify that the message of the shirt celebrates the liberation of Korea, not the atomic bomb itself, and that, in fact, the depiction of the atomic bomb was merely an image to convey the sequence of events that were instrumental in leading to liberation. Calling the shirt an “atomic bomb shirt” (“원폭티”) rather than “liberation shirt” (“광복티”) was a sticking point, as they believed the moniker framed the issue in such a way that the entire message of the shirt was twisted to be either celebrating the atomic bomb or mocking its victims.
To some fans – perhaps those with a strong sense of national pride – BTS had become martyrs standing up for their country, voicing themselves against Japan. In fact, the shirt in question was celebrated by many as an appropriately firm declaration of patriotism. The attention resulted in the shirt selling out, though much of the support for the label was retracted once they felt that the merchant was taking advantage of the situation.
Further, fans with this particular view did not think an apology from Big Hit or BTS was due in any sense, because 1) they believe that it is preposterous to say that the victims of decades of atrocities perpetrated by Japan cannot celebrate the demise of their aggressors in the war, and 2) they believe there is no reason to apologize for such a trivial matter when the Japanese government refuses to take an apologetic stance toward the victims of war crimes, will not provide adequate compensation for the rest of their remaining lives, and does not teach subsequent generations the crimes of their ancestors instead, thereby undermining the victims by denying their victimhood.
Even those fans who did believe that the design of the shirt was in poor taste were ambivalent about whether an apology was in order, as there was nothing desirable about giving the right-wing movement in Japan any validation, and because an apology toward victims had the very real chance of being misconstrued and misrepresented as a national apology from Korea to Japan.
Upon the issuance of Big Hit’s statement, fans appreciated that the apology portion specifically addressed victims of the atomic bomb, and not Japan as a whole. But there were those who had associated BTS with being the national symbol of South Korea2, who considered it somewhat of a betrayal. To them, addressing the issue with any trace of an apology was tantamount to “bowing down to Japan” and “chasing after Japanese capital” over their values as Korean nationals. Those fans congregated in closed online communities, where they joined hands and planned to flood social media with a leaflet stating their demand for a new statement from Big Hit and launching a campaign for large-scale boycotts.
These plans were foiled as other fans caught wind of it, for it turned out that they were small in number and the fans on Twitter reacted quickly to circulate another leaflet to preemptively counteract these campaigns, advising fans to be wary of propaganda designed to incite division in the fandom.
Having recent experience of a riled up fandom go full-force on a contentious online offensive to make a point to Big Hit, many fans, frustrated with such practices of aggression, wished to prevent repeating prior missteps.
Once the dust settled, some fans reflected on how things unfolded among Korean and international fans at each step of the way and what those responses signified. While there was some Korean press coverage proclaiming that these events were shedding light onto Japan’s horrific past acts to the international community, this was refuted by K-ARMYs who categorized such a claim as naive wishful thinking and said that, in fact, the international coverage had illuminated how insufficiently the history of Japanese occupation of Korea was documented and communicated to the Western world all this time, unlike how Japan has been successfully playing up its victimhood.
But K-ARMY make up only one part of the collective fandom – and the reactions from the international branches of ARMY bring other lessons.
I-ARMYs Responses: To Rally and Learn
The international fan response to the shirt was multi-layered due to the simple fact that the collective I-ARMY is massive. I-ARMYs hail from countries around the globe and, as such, hold different perceptions and impressions of not just the imagery of the atomic bombings, but the events themselves.
Additionally, many did not feel they had enough knowledge about the relationship between Korea and Japan, or about the Pacific theater of WWII, or about current politics to form an opinion of their own. More than that, though, was the popularity of the idea that fans who were not Korean or Japanese should not weigh in on the situation, which led many to keep their thoughts private.
However, that idea did not extend to everyone. Some initially reacted to the imagery of the shirt with shock; some were offended; some quickly identified the shirt as celebrating Korean liberation from Japanese imperialism and took to social media to explain the context of the shirt in order to destigmatize it. Despite the range of responses, overall, I-ARMYs wanted to see Big Hit issue an apology in order to quash the story.
When drama arises surrounding BTS, Big Hit often stays quiet and waits for the issue to play out in the news cycle before releasing positive news. In these instances, I-ARMYs looks to K-ARMYs for an explanation in order to understand the issue from the perspective of the nation where BTS is from, and this was the case here as well. But as happens when a diverse group comes together to discuss politics, there were wildly different ways of interpreting the message of not just the shirt, but the history referenced by the shirt.
Meanwhile, ARMYs wary of nationalist narratives urged people to refrain from justifying violence under any reason, and asked others to recognize humanity before accepting or justifying nationalist logics in order to defend or decry Jimin’s decision to wear a certain T-shirt.
To do this, the line of thinking was often to consider the motivations for why the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, to think about how the bombs affected not just Japan and the U.S., but also those countries Japan colonized, and to encourage people to question nationalist narratives of all stripes in order to come to a common understanding and reflect on deep-rooted conflicts created by all implicated agents of history in order move forward.
An encouraging, proactive action that was spurred by this conversation occurred when I-ARMYs recognized their knowledge gaps when it came to this issue from another cultural perspective, and voiced their need to educate themselves. This led to many ARMYs working together to share knowledge, recommend reading material, and work to expand their understanding of world history according to cultural narratives that were not their own.
While these discussions were occuring online, it became clear to many I-ARMYs that Big Hit was in between a rock and a hard place. If they made a statement, it would be seen as an apology, and many were no longer certain there was anything to apologize for; but if the company didn’t make a statement, the media would potentially keep the story alive.
That said, Big Hit wasn’t entirely silent – they were simply silent on the news surrounding Jimin and the divisive shirt. Though none of the company’s official accounts posted on November 8, on November 9 – the day the international news agencies broke the stories – Big Hit3 and official BTS-adjacent accounts posted the following:
Friday, November 9
- 9.25AM, @BigHitEnt: Article that recorded BTS’ LOVE YOURSELF 結 ‘ANSWER’ reaching a new record of 2.03 million copies since its release.
- 4PM, @bts_bighit: Simultaneous release of Jimin-related content – a series of photos titled, “#BTS Try It Like Jimin!” that was posted on on fancafe, and a video titled in English, “Today JIMIN has not done ‘JIMIN’,” which was released on YouTube.
- 6PM, @BT21_: The account for the BTS-curated line of cartoon characters for LINE released a drawing that included Chimmy – the character created by Jimin – and Shooky, Suga’s creation, with a caption that read:
#Harmonica of mine 😔
Whistle of yours 😚
Blow all worries away~ 😌🎵
#CHIMMY #SHOOKY #BT214
Saturday, November 10
- 5:47PM, @BTS_twt: “ #JinHyungsHand’. A picture of Jin making a heart with his hands, this was the first tweet posted by a BTS member since the news of the shirt broke worldwide.
- 7:11PM, @BTS_twt: “We’ll be back ✈️.” Two selfies of RM before flying, this is a common occurrence from BTS to signal to fans that they are leaving in good spirits.
- 7:37PM, @BTS_twt: #JIMIN #Hobi. An additional selfie of the two members on the plane posted by Jimin.
Sunday, November 11
- 4:28PM, @BTS_twt: “가을아 가지마” (Autumn, don’t leave) 😭🍂. Two selfies of RM walking along an autumn path, the images and caption seemed both innocuous and par for the course for the famously autumn-loving BTS member. But then ARMYs identified the location of the photos: Yun Dong-ju’s Museum. A Korean resistance poet who died in a Japanese prison in February 1945, Yun Dong-ju is a figure who looms large in Korean memory and literature. RM’s subtle delivery of this pointed message was masterful in how it quietly, poignantly spoke volumes.
But then came the SWC statement on November 12, which changed the media conversation to one filled with disinformation. ARMYs, unsurprisingly, went on the defensive.
Those with a strong grasp of the claims and the correct information commented on news publications’ social media posts in long, earnest threads that explained how the information being reported was incorrect; some simply commented “delete this.”
Some emailed editors, appealing to their senses of journalistic integrity in hopes of winning a correction to the stories, and encouraged other ARMYs to do the same; some claimed that all of the news outlets were publishing stories because they wanted the traffic ARMY would bring to their sites, and that the best course of action was to engage only with news stories sympathetic to BTS and to ignore or seek out screenshots of the less-than-sympathetic articles.
Some panicked, concerned that BTS might lose their UNICEF ambassadorship, a point of particular pride; some were angry; some maintained that unless you were Korean, Japanese, or Jewish, you shouldn’t speak your opinion on the matter.
But overall for I-ARMY, the change in discourse further cemented the idea that an authoritative statement from Big Hit that defended BTS and clarified why the allegations were incorrect was needed.
When Big Hit did, indeed, release a lengthy statement on November 13, I-ARMYs at large felt a sense of relief. The entertainment company was able to find a way to apologize to bomb victims and anyone distressed by the imagery without making a political statement, and they defended the BTS members. There was also immense appreciation throughout the fandom for the fact that Big Hit also used the statement to reiterate their company motto – music and artists for healing.
The aftermath of the statement saw more headlines abound, as well as the emergence of projects spearheaded by ARMY. While K-ARMYs began donating to House of Sharing, an organization that supports former comfort women, I-ARMYs began #ProjectBuy23.
In contrast to the divisive nature of opinions on the T-shirt and whether or not Jimin should have worn it, these projects managed to unite much of the fandom. The success lay in the recognition that there are basic values that all ARMYs are proud to stand by.
Almost as soon as TV Asahi announced the cancellation of BTS’ appearance on Music Station, K-ARMYs started donating to House of Sharing. Some of them chose to make direct donation to the facility, and some decided to raise funds to make in-kind donations to purchase winter jackets and subsidize court fees for the survivors. K-ARMYs’ large scale donation was soon picked up by Korean media. Yonhap News reported on November 15 that 130 separate donations had been deposited to the account of the House of Sharing since November 8.5 I-ARMYs joined the donation on November 16, earning its due spotlight by Korean media.
#ProjectBuy23 urged ARMYs to buy and stream the song “2! 3” from BTS’ 2016 album Wings. The first official ‘fan-song’ written by BTS for their fans, it relays the promise that “there will be many good days ahead” and “that there will be more good days than bad.” It asks ARMYs to respond in affirmation by counting “1, 2, 3.” Having this meaningful song have a 17,610 percent increase in sales, which lead to it debuting at #1 on the Billboard World Album Music Chart and hit #47 on the Digital Sales Chart for the week ending November 15 (Benjamin, 2018 ), was a loud declaration of ARMYs’ continuing to show their trust in the song’s promise and support for BTS
J-ARMYs Response: To Support and Love
Though there is less available documentation on how J-ARMYs responded to the news of the shirt and the baggage it brought with it due to several factors such as fewer translators and the fact that fewer J-ARMYs voiced their opinions, there was much curiosity from the fandom on how they were thinking and feeling about the issue. It seems appropriate to hear it from a J-ARMY point of view, and so we respectfully leave a link to a post that gives an overview of the responses here.
Although we don’t have the same kinds of robust answers on the J-ARMY response as we do for K-ARMYs and I-ARMYs, we were able to see their continued support for BTS through a few actions that were reported via social media:
- Unlike other factions of the fandom, J-ARMYs usually do not wait for BTS to arrive at the airport. But this time, J-ARMYs made their way to Haneda Airport to show their support for BTS and welcome them to Japan.
- The Japanese album release for Fake Love/Airplane Pt 2 broke Oricon records.
- J-ARMYs who stayed in the hotel near Tokyo Dome hung posters displaying the names of BTS members as well as hearts in the windows of their rooms.
- Despite the cultural custom of remaining quiet during concerts to show respect and convey that the audience is listening, J-ARMYs attending the Tokyo Dome shows cheered loudly for BTS.
Even though these examples only show overwhelmingly positive responses and are likely a small glimpse into the full picture of how J-ARMYs were thinking and feeling about this incredibly complex situation, the love and support that J-ARMYs showed BTS during what must have been a frustrating time has been overwhelming, and we’re extremely grateful for the unwavering support and encouragement they communicated.
- A process where fans search positive words along with “Jimin” in order to try and change the automated suggestions that pop up when someones types “Jimin” into a search bar.
- This is not based solely on their global popularity: BTS are ambassadors for Seoul Tourism; were the recipients of a congratulatory letter from President Moon Jae-in when their album debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart in May; spoke at the UN Headquarters in New York, an event attended by First lady Kim Jung-sook, who gifted each member a bespoke presidential watch; were invited to perform at the 2018 Korea-France Friendship Concert where the members met President Moon; and also in 2018 were awarded the Presidential Order of Cultural Merit Award.
- Do note that news regarding announcements and logistics of the Tokyo Dome concerts and other Japan-based events continued on the @BTS_jp account.
The BT21 account had been posting artwork of every day from November 5–November 9, and this particular Chimmy and Shooky piece was the second in a series begun on November 8 that showcased Chimmy learning to play the harmonica. Though the timing was likely coincidental, the November 9 post felt particularly poignant. After posting on November 9, BT21 paused releasing new artwork until November 12.
- See Appendix 7-2 for details and reference.