1. Preamble

In an age that sees information spread faster than wildfire, a word can be as dangerous as a spark on dry kindling. As one of the most popular music groups in Asia, BTS attracts the attention (and intentions) of people the world over. Their rise to international stardom has been swift, and the discourse surrounding them has been largely positive. Considering the intensity of the spotlight that shines on these seven young men, perhaps it can be argued in hindsight that they were due a scandal – after all, with global fame comes global scrutiny.

But the recent debate surrounding the group wasn’t the usual pop star controversy.

The Spark

In October 2018, an image of BTS member Jimin began to circulate once again. 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 understandably 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 won1 each to four Korean men in compensation for forced labor rendered during WWII.

The Fire

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 international news, gossip, and entertainment 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 considerably widened the audience for the discussion, with English-language searches on the topic quintupling in the period spanning October 28 – November 4.2

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 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 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. Moments 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 apology 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 formal apology by Big Hit marked its zenith. Media coverage and search popularity dropped precipitously in the following weeks.

The Smoke

For some, the controversy is proof BTS is paradoxically both fascist-leaning and anti-Japanese. For others, the clothing is an insensitive misstep for which Big Hit is to blame. For Korean nationalists, the shirt that started it all is an acceptable declaration of national pride; for Japanese nationalists, an unforgivable mockery of a war crime.

Throughout the controversy, it became increasingly difficult to find touchpoints of unbiased information as speculation ran wild, rumors were reported as facts, and videos and photographs were susceptible to digital manipulation or warped context.

For better or worse, we live in an age where things often become news simply because many people talk about them on the Internet. In this environment, a fandom the size of ARMY wields an outsized influence – in what is said about us as much as what we choose to say.

We are more than fans of a group that exists in this environment, but citizens of a world whose perspective often seesaws on the fulcrum of online discourse. As actors in its vicissitudes, we owe it to ourselves, and to others, to be responsible with our words. Knowledge is our best and only true compass. By knowledge we mean not only the knowledge of what is true and what is false, but also that of what is just and what is unjust. It is the values and beliefs we hold as citizens of a world that will keep us sane in the smoke, and it is the ability to judge which way is the actual way that will guide us through it.

With that guiding principle, a group of ARMYs from around the world with backgrounds in a variety of disciplines, including journalism, politics, history, and more, have collaborated to chronicle the events of this controversy and break down the discourse surrounding it. Historical context, political climate, and personal opinions from several international sources – ARMYs and otherwise – are also provided in an effort to show the bigger picture and the larger influences at play.

The true value of a compass is that it points north no matter who holds it or where they stand. Information in this article is presented, as much as possible, without bias. We hope that it will act as a compass for ARMYs and others interested in the controversy to wisely navigate its discourse and future discussions on the interplay between modern cultural touchstones like BTS and historical tensions between Korea and Japan.

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  1. The equivalent of US$87,680
  2. This is based on the Google Trends analysis with the search keywords “BTS,” “Jimin,” and “Shirt.”