3-1. Media Coverage: Misinformation & Disinformation1
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.
3-1-1. Korean Media Coverage2
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 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.3
TWICE was the next target by Japanese right-wing members on November 16, after Dahyun wore a Marymond4 T-shirt. JoongAng Ilbo said 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.
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.5 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.
3-1-2. Japanese Media Coverage
In the first half of October, matome sites, blog sites that summarize daily posts of 5ch, the biggest Japanese online community, and other social media, began to spread the issue. One of the earliest Japanese articles covering the incident was published on October 18 by Myjitsu and shared on Nifty, a Japanese portal site. The article has since been taken down, but according to an archived post on Shared News Japan, an online news forum, it talked about the T-shirt controversy and a rumor that BTS is almost certainly to appear on this year’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen, an annual New Year’s Eve television special produced by Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
On October 20, the same news forum posted a translation of a Korean article published on October 16, “A nation that forgets its past has no future – BTS, 6 years of solid historical awareness despite its Japanese antis.” The translated portion of the article describes different reactions of Korean and Japanese fans of the group to the controversial T-shirt and continues to talk about BTS’ past actions indicative of their solid historical awareness. Examples mentioned were V and J-Hope’s use of Marymond merchandise and RM and Jin’s tweets on National Liberation Day of Korea, celebrating the liberation and soliciting their readers to take a moment to remember those who fought and died for their independence. The comment section was filled with people suggesting to ban BTS’ appearance on Kōhaku, its concerts in Japan, and even its entry to Japan. Tokyo Sports, citing the same Korean article, argued that BTS continue to show “anti-Japanese” behavior after the group allegedly had been confirmed to appear on Kōhaku.
A number of internet users came together to demand cancellation of BTS’ appearance on Kōhaku (although nothing had been officially announced regarding the group’s appearance). The movement, which also included refusal of subscription fee payment6, was immediately picked up and reported by Asagei Plus. On November 1, two days after the Supreme Court of South Korea’s ruling that a Japanese steel firm must compensate living victims of forced labor, Tokyo Sports published an article on the possibility of NHK’s elimination of BTS and TWICE from the performer list of this year’s Kōhaku.
On November 8, the day before BTS’ scheduled appearance on Music Station, TV Asahi announced its decision to cancel the appearance due to the controversy surrounding the T-shirt. Multiple news outlets, including Sponichi, reported on the cancellation, and added their prediction of the shutdown of “the third Hallyu boom” in Japan. They revisited the case of Fuji TV, which faced a huge backlash for “favoring” Korean artists and pointed to the increasing tension between the two countries. On the other hand, an article posted on LITERA offered a different angle, suggesting the true reason behind the cancellation was Netouyo7’s anti-Korean sentiment and hypothesizing that the T-shirt was simply used as a scapegoat. The article also revealed that Sakurai Makoto, the former president of Zaitokukai and an ultranationalist and far-right extremist, encouraged his blog readers to “spam call” Music Station‘s sponsor companies three days before the announcement of the cancellation.
On November 9, during the opening remarks at a press conference on the Korean Supreme Court’s decision on forced labor, Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tarō Kōno, said, “Thus, despite these incidents, I would like people-to-people exchanges, exchanges between municipalities, and sports and cultural exchanges to firmly continue.”
However, more rumors started to surface online, and some media outlets consequently reported them. Two of the major rumors spread by BuzzPlus are: (1) fans of BTS manipulated the system by creating and distributing multiple streaming accounts to maintain a high position on Billboard charts, and (2) the miniature airships BTS held during their launching event of LOVE MYSELF, a part of UNICEF’s END VIOLENCE campaign, resemble nuclear bombs – specifically those that were used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the same day, Buzzfeed Japan published an article to rebut rumor (2) and argue that misinformation is spread by online media. BuzzPlus later issued an apology and admitted that rumor (1) is not true, but the initial article still remains active.
In the morning of November 14, after the release of Big Hit’s statement on November 13, NHK published an article with the title “An apology by the agency of BTS on wearing a mushroom cloud T-shirt.” However, later in the afternoon on the same day, Sankei reported that BTS was not included in the list of performers for Kōhaku. Further, major news outlets such as Tokyo Sports and Weekly Asahi predicted in articles published on November 17 that BTS’ future Japanese activities would be negatively affected by the recent events and that they would not be able to appear on Japanese TV this year.
On November 18, “Leave it to Atko,” an entertainment show broadcasted on TBS, narrated, “on the 13th, during the BTS Tokyo Dome Concert, Jimin apologized over the controversial T-shirt issue,” then showed a clip of Jimin along with a Japanese dubbing that stated “I’m aware that I worried not only Japanese fans, but also fans all over the world,” and “I’m sorry, everyone in Japan (ごめんなさい、日本の皆さん).8” J-Cast published an article on TBS’ fabrication on November 20, reporting that it had inquired TBS for clarification but was told that TBS has no comment on the issue. On November 23, TBS aired a correction and apology on N Star, a Kantō region local news program.
3-1-3. International Media Coverage
Though it took weeks for the rest of the world to become involved in the debate Korea and Japan were having over an idol’s T-shirt, once they did, the conversation about the wardrobe blunder quickly escalated, and the mainstream narrative took an emotionally heightened turn marked by a considerable level of disinformation, as well as cultural and historical insensitivity. In this section, we carefully track international media coverage over the course of the controversy and identify its shortcomings as well as their implications.
The Article Read Around the World
The sudden onslaught of global coverage began on November 9 when news agency9 Associated Press (AP) published an article about TV Asahi’s cancelation of BTS’ Music Station performance over a T-shirt. Other news agencies10 also put out similar stories on the same day, ensuring that coverage would be international as outlets who subscribe to news agencies – which range from newspapers with global readership to those that cater to small towns – ran the newswire stories, reprinting them verbatim.
The problem with this word-for-word transmission is that news agency articles offer basic facts and little context. For this particular story, context about Japan’s 20th century occupation of Korea and how the lingering effects of that oppression impact the present-day diplomatic relationship between Japan and South Korea is crucial for a balanced reading.
Unfortunately, thorough context was not provided by news agencies despite the fact that the stories were already biased because of their place of origin. The international media picked up the story from a statement released by Music Station, which was reported by journalists based in Tokyo. Since the story within Japan came from conversation percolating online11 and the cancelation occurred because of the intensity of the debate, the story was already objectively compromised, even when the facts as they were presented by Music Station were reported accurately.
Thus, the articles propagated the idea that the shirt was controversial because it seemed to be celebrating the bombing of Nagasaki, which in Western society is widely considered an atrocity. However, it can be argued that this view of the event is an opinion that ignores the Korean – and wider Asian-Pacific – WWII narrative, and that frames Japan as a victim of war, rather than as an aggressor. In summary, the majority of articles discussed the Japanese reaction to the shirt from a Western point of view, but did not include how the garment was being interpreted by people in Korea and of the Korean diaspora.
But even if each of the more than 100 articles had all been thoroughly researched and carefully reported with a full representation of the complex topic, there is no guarantee that the general public would have read them – and that very much has to do with the headlines that were crafted for these articles
Getting the All-Important Click
Since the advent of newspapers, headlines have been used to grab the reader’s attention, appeal to their curiosity, and entice them to pay to read the story. Though journalism has evolved significantly from the era of newsboys barking headlines, the same basic principle is still at play when it comes to headline writing.
But in this era of online publications and social media, headlines are often the only part of an article that people read. In fact, a 2016 study conducted by HAL-Inria found that 59% of people who shared articles via social media did not read past the headline. So copy editors creating headlines have a very important job, because they aren’t just working to command attention in order to make their publication money anymore; they are shaping the landscape of online discourse.
In this case, the very nature of the story – the cancelation of a beloved Korean music group’s much-anticipated performance on a Japanese music show because of a T-shirt with an image of an atomic bomb – provided a perfect storm of words that lead to headlines that were textbook attention grabbers:
“Japanese TV cancels BTS show over band member’s A-bomb shirt”
– The Associated Press
“Pop Band BTS Is Dropped From Japanese TV Show Over T-Shirt”
– New York Times
“BTS performance axed by Japanese TV show over atomic bomb T-shirt”
– The Guardian
These examples are indicative of how the majority of news outlets fashioned their headlines, which include enough vague information to pique interest, while also ensuring solid search engine optimization.13 These factors made it possible for people to feel as if they knew what was happening, even if they did not actually read the article.
And thus the story – or, at least, the one told by the headlines – spread.
However, these articles came out on the Friday before a public holiday in the United States, and throughout the three-day weekend, the story seemed to be losing momentum outside of Korea and Japan.
But then, an unexpected statement changed the course of the conversation and spurred a whole new wave of disinformation-laden international news coverage.
SWC Intervenes, and the Narrative Takes a Turn
On Monday, November 12 (KST), Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) released a statement that denounced BTS, insinuating that the group had an established pattern of promoting Nazism. Furthermore, they demanded the members of the group apologize to Japan and to victims of the atomic bombings.14
With this rebuke, SWC pivoted the international conversation15 from a young man’s ill-advised wardrobe choice to an internationally renowned Korean music group repeatedly and flagrantly displaying WWII imagery.
The statement was particularly newsworthy because it introduced “new” evidence: a 2014 photograph of RM wearing a hat emblazoned with the Nazi Death’s Head Unit logo, and concert footage16 of BTS carrying flags with a design SWC deemed similar to a swastika. Despite the fact that the claim about the flags was not just misleading, but incorrect, and that the statement based its claims on a Twitter thread with Japanese captions posted by an account that had been created just weeks before the controversy caught international attention, news outlets ran stories quoting a rabbi spouting scurrilous allegations without fully investigating the validity of these claims. This in turn lead to a news cycle filled with the disinformation the SWC introduced.
Unsurprisingly, ARMYs were outraged that credible news outlets were spreading these accusations. Many contacted publications to educate them about the topic and requested corrections. The majority wondered if Big Hit Entertainment would stay silent on the issues.17
Big Hit Attempts to Reclaim the Narrative, With Limited Success
Indeed, Big Hit released a statement addressing the allegations on Tuesday, November 13 (KST). This set off another round of international media coverage, including more articles from news agencies.18 In addition to the statement, Big Hit also sent a private letter to SWC.
Between the statement and the letter, Big Hit thoroughly debunked SWC’s claim about the flags and explained why it was inappropriate to allege Nazi association given the different social and lyrical contexts. Even so, the Jewish organization still did not acknowledge that their claim was inaccurate. Their public response to both Big Hit’s statement and the separate letter stated:
“The Simon Wiesenthal Center today welcomed an apology from Korean pop group BTS’ management for incidents – a band member wearing a hat emblazoned with the Nazi SS “Totenkopf” emblem, another member wearing a t-shirt with pictures of the WWII atomic bombs, and the band performing in costumes resembling SS uniforms and flying Nazi-like flags…”
As such, the SWC conclusively lumped all allegations together and released a final statement void of the same type of reflection and apology they demanded from BTS. Many ARMYs and people following the story found the response to be arrogant and purposefully misleading, especially considering SWC’s reputation as a well-known humanitarian organization that international journalists regard as a newsworthy source.
In another example of a reputable organization refusing to admit their factual errors, The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor, Paul Chadwick, responded to ARMYs’19 request for a factual clarification regarding the flag accusation, which was included in Justin McCurry’s November 12 article:
“Thank you for writing to outline your concerns.
Since your email was received in this office the management of BTS has made a public explanation and apology.
It appears to have been accepted.
This I take to mean that the management of BTS recognises that there was validity in criticisms that the Guardian reported, or at least that an explanation was necessary.
The matter appears to be at an end.
Gauardian Readers’ editor’s office
Chadwick provided no link to Big Hit’s official statement of clarification in his email and instead cited the SWC’s purposefully misleading response, one which failed to acknowledge its own factual inaccuracies regarding the flag accusation, as reason not to correct the article.The editor’s overall response is even more confounding given that the second link provided by him – an article by The Korea Times – actually quotes Big Hit’s explanation on the inappropriateness of the flag accusation:
“Regarding the controversial stage performance, the company explained it was during a 2017 concert commemorating the legendary Korean musician Seo Taiji where the band performed ‘Gyosil Idea’ (classroom ideology). The flags and images were created to carry the message of criticism against restrictively uniform and authoritarian educational systems, but had no relation with Nazism, said the agency. ‘In fact the performance includes creative elements that are designed to direct criticism against these very elements of totalitarianism,’ read the statement.”
Whether Big Hit’s clarification on the matter bypassed Chadwick or if it was not considered significant enough to warrant a factual correction in The Guardian is still unclear. Whatever the case, both the SWC and a number of international news outlets20 have yet to publicly acknowledge the factual inaccuracy of their misinformed accusation and reporting regarding the flag. The underlying insinuation behind their silent refusal to take corrective action is loud and clear: they have little to no regard for matters requiring cultural sensitivity on their own part of interpretation in traversing unfamiliar grounds.
Context Too Late
The first article21 covering Big Hit’s statement and SWC’s response was released by the Associated Press on November 15, accompanied by the headline “BTS’s agency apologizes for atom-bomb shirt, Nazi-emblem hat,” and the majority of the headlines were framed in a similar fashion. There were harsher ones, such as “BTS: Korean band’s managers apologise over Nazi photos,” as well as more diplomatic headlines, such as, “BTS’s management issue apology for band’s controversial clothes” – but, ultimately, the story was the Big Hit had apologized for their wrongdoings.
Interestingly, AP updated their article on this topic: the first version included one of the harshest quotes from SWC’s response, but shortly after it went live, the article was updated to remove the quote, add information about how Korean politicians were responding to the matter, and provide details of the Japanese leg of BTS’ tour.
Indeed, this round of coverage saw much more historical and political context woven into articles, addressing at least some of the political reasons why the image of Jimin wearing the shirt – which was worn by Jimin over a year prior to becoming a topic of controversy – had been unearthed and spread at the time that it was. But, the headlines undermined the contextual background provided in the full text and contributed to the spread of a reductive narrative. The opportunity to educate readers about the truly complex, nuanced story playing out in real time was ultimately lost.
The Last Word
But the global release of Burn the Stage: the Movie, a documentary about BTS, on November 15 and the debut of the music video for Steve Aoki and BTS’ “Waste It On Me,” on November 20 brought coverage of the box office results and the response to the music video. By November 21, the conversation had moved away from a T-shirt and on to other topics.
That said, as news surrounding the reparations decisions the Supreme Court of South Korea has made are discussed, it is likely that the T-shirt will be referenced as evidence of the two countries’ fraught relations. Indeed, it has already been mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article that was published on November 30 (KST).
Time will tell if this scandal is one that BTS are truly able to put behind them – but it seems as if perhaps most of the world, at least, already has.
3-2. Big Hit’s Statement
Big Hit Entertainment released a statement (Big Hit Entertainment, 2018 ) on their official Facebook and Twitter at 9:15 PM KST on November 1322 to address the T-shirt Jimin wore and the hat and flags mentioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (Simon Wiesenthal Center, 2018a ). In addition to explaining its fundamental position on the issues arisen,23 the company clearly communicated (1) what it believes in, (2) what it apologizes for, (3) who it apologized to, (4) what it will do in the future, and (5) what it has done to properly address the issues. In the following, we break down the statement into the 5 categories and add our own interpretations as well as some follow-up information.
(1) What Big Hit believes in
The company states that in all activities involving any artists associated with it, it is adamantly against any activities of war or the use of atomic weapons and any organizations or groups oriented towards political extremism and totalitarian beliefs. It also mentions that it has, and will continue to have, no intention of causing distress or pain to anyone affected by those activities.
(2) What Big Hit apologizes for
Big Hit admits all responsibilities for not providing the necessary and careful support by failing to take the precautions (T-shirt) and to strictly review the outfit (hat). It also acknowledges that the wearing of such clothing items has inadvertently inflicted pain and distress to those affected by atomic weapons or totalitarian regimes and by allowing its artists to be associated with imagery related to atomic bombings or reminiscent of political extremism.
(3) Who Big Hit apologizes to
Big Hit makes it clear that its apology is dedicated to those who are hurt, not those who hurt. The apology addresses those who were distressed either because they had been directly affected by the use of atomic weapons or totalitarian regimes or because they felt uncomfortable by witnessing an association of its artists with such imageries. It it not towards those who made accusations, any specific institution, or any country.
(4) What Big Hit will do in the future
Big Hit promises to carefully examine all activities involving Big Hit and its artists based on a firm understanding of diverse social, historical and cultural considerations to ensure that it will not cause any injury, pain or distress to anyone. The statement highlights that the company’s apology and future actions are rooted in its ideals and recognition of current world context; it is an innate responsibility that it holds, not just a damage control of the recent issues. Its apology, first and foremost, is an apology for not upholding its own vision due to lack of vigilance.
(5) What Big Hit has done to properly address the issues
Big Hit has contacted associations in Japan and Korea representing those affected by the atomic bombings to provide explanations and apologies. The fact that Korean victims are included really indicates that Big Hit cares for and apologizes to anyone and everyone who suffered, regardless of nationality, by the atomic bombings. Representatives of the company visited the Japanese victim association on November 14 (Hong, 2018 ) and the Korean victim association on November 16 (Kim, 2018 ). Both associations expressed their understanding of the situation and suggested taking this opportunity to reflect on the meaning of atomic weapons. The company also sent a letter to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which published a statement (Simon Wiesenthal Center, 2018b ) that it welcomes the apology on November 14 (KST).
3-3. Claims and Rebuttals
The Simon Wiesenthal Center
On the afternoon of November 11 (EST), the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) released a press statement which expanded the scale of the controversy considerably. (Simon Wiesenthal Center, 2018 ). In the statement titled “Popular Korean Band Whose Japan Performance Was Cancelled For T-Shirt Mocking A-Bomb Victims, Once Posed With Nazi SS Death Head Symbols, Flew Nazi-Like Flags At Concert,” the associate dean of the center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, stated, “…wearing a T-shirt in Japan mocking the victims of the Nagasaki A-bomb, is just the latest incident of this band mocking the past.” Referencing a hat with a historically Nazi-linked symbol a BTS member was seen wearing during a 2014 photoshoot, he stated that “the result [from wearing the hat] is that… young generations in Korea and around the world are more likely to identify bigotry and intolerance as being ‘cool’ and help erase the lessons of history… those designing and promoting this group’s career are too comfortable with denigrating the memory of the past” (SWC, 2018 ).
The Center further claimed that the group waved flags at a concert that “were eerily similar to the Nazi swastika” and demanded that they owed “the people of Japan and the victims of the Nazism an apology,” directly citing a video thread with Japanese captions found on Twitter (SWC, 2018 ). This video thread had been uploaded by a Japanese Twitter account by the name of “TAro”, which was created in November 2018 and deactivated soon after the scandal faded from the international media landscape. Before it disappeared, “TAro” was following a total of nine other Twitter accounts, one of which belonged to Katsuya Takasu – a plastic surgeon, Nazi sympathizer, and denier of the Nanjing Massacre who SWC made it their mission to see removed from the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgeons in 2017 (Simon Wiesenthal Center, 2017 ).
After the Simon Wiesenthal Center released this statement, many international media outlets, including ABS-CBN (ABS-CBN, 2018 ), The Sun (du Cann, 2018 ), The Korea Times (Lee, 2018 ), and The Guardian (McCurry, 2018 ), picked up the story and circulated the SWC’s list of accusations against BTS. However, these accusations were circulated without regard for their factual accuracy and in the absence of a more nuanced understanding of contemporary Korean-Japanese relations, a central contextual ground on which this controversy developed. In the following, we examine the factual accuracies of each of the accusations that have been made against the group over the course of this scandal and reflect on how these accusations have been received and reported on by the general media. Both BTS’ past choices and the media’s faulty reporting practices that we observe in detail below reveal how critical cultural sensitivity is important for anyone that strives to successfully navigate global interactions today. We reflect on these lessons about cultural awareness at the end of this section.
The T-shirt itself was a gift from a fan and was worn by Jimin while filming the Youtube Premium series Burn the Stage in the summer of 2017. According to the designer Lee Kwang-jae, the shirt’s purpose was “to inform the younger generation [in Korea] of their history by incorporating it in streetwear…the inclusion of the atomic bomb image was never meant to mock victims, but rather to show the timing of the independence of Korea” (Lew, 2018 ). The group’s agency, Big Hit Entertainment, released an official statement after the media storm, stating that “the outfit had not been designed originally to injure [hurt] or make light of those affected by the use of nuclear weapons,” and that the wearing of the T-shirt was “in no way intentional.” The company went on to apologize for “failing to take the precautions that could have prevented the wearing of such clothing by our artist” (Big Hit, 2018 ). Representatives of the agency also visited the Korea Atomic Bomb Victim Association at Hapcheon, South Korea, as well as the Japanese Atomic Bomb Victims Association (Nihon Hibakusha) in Japan to personally deliver an apology and hear the victims’ voices and perspective on the matter of moving forward together (Shin, 2018 ).
Contrary to the SWC’s claim, the problematized performance with the flags was not at a BTS concert; it was at Seo Taiji’s 25th anniversary concert in September 2017. Just like BTS is well known for their socially conscious music, Seo Taiji is widely acclaimed to be the pioneer of producing music that criticizes governmental and social issues (Chang, 2017 ). At the concert, BTS performed the 1995 megahit “Gyosil Idea (Classroom Idea),” dressed in school uniforms, and waved red flags as Seo Taiji sang behind a lectern with a logo.24 Many creative elements of this stage were utilized to create a strikingly dark and oppressive atmosphere on stage with a clear stated purpose to effectively deliver the overall message of the song (Herman, 2017 ). “Classroom Idea” is a harsh and explicit criticism of South Korea’s hierarchical and oppressive education system of the 1990s that exposes the society’s pressure placed on youth to perform well academically through its lyrics (Mitchell, 2002 ). The original 1995 stage – the blueprint performance that became the basis of the 2017 performance featuring BTS – resonated deeply with millions of Korean youth in the 1990s as it utilized effective visual and creative elements on stage to deliver a powerful satire and commentary on the suppression of students’ freedom in school (Mendez, 2017 ).
The symbol on the red flag that was identified as “eerily similar to the Nazi swastika” requires a closer examination, as there are no similarities between the two images besides the common use of the colors red, black, and white. The problematized symbol bears compounded images of a clock, a school and school uniforms, like the ones BTS and Seo wore, in a white circular logo with a red background. Comparing this symbol to a Swastika would be akin to accusing any circular red, black, and white logo – like that of the Chicago Bulls – of resembling the swastika. Far from glorifying Nazism, Seo’s message in the song and performance is clear: to expose all systems that suppress human freedom and fight for liberation.
It should also be noted that falsely comparing any red, black, and white logo to the swastika without sufficient evidence does great disservice to the important goal of preserving the history of the Holocaust. Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has explicitly stated that “misplaced comparisons trivialize this unique tragedy in human history” (Malloy, 2017 ).
In October 2014, the Korean magazine CeCí published photos of BTS under the title “Boy, Turn Up the Music” as part of the magazine’s 20th anniversary celebration issue. It was in this project that BTS’ leader, RM, was photographed with a hat with a German Schutzstaffel (SS) symbol. The hat faced criticisms among international fans of the group; yet, CeCí has not issued any statement to this day.
The exact statement from SWC regarding the hat was as follows: “members of the band posed for a photo shoot wearing hats with the Nazi SS Death Head logo.” It should, however, be noted that only one member, RM, posed wearing the hat in a single photo out of many in the spread, and that the overall photo shoot was in no way themed around the hat or Nazism. As mentioned, the photo spread was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the magazine. All other photos of the band, including those with RM, do not feature the hat or any form of Nazi iconography.
Following the recent accusations, the photoshoot stylist Kim Wook, who is listed as the owner of the hat in the magazine, gave a phone interview in which he said, “It was not my own hat…nor was the hat one of their personal accessories. If I had to guess, I’d say that we just ended up using a product that happened to be in the studio at the time.” (Hong, 2018 ) While Big Hit’s official statement clarified these circumstances and their intentions, they fully accepted responsibility in “failing to strictly review the clothing and accessories [their] artists were made to wear,” and offered their “sincere apologies for inadvertently inflicting pain and distress to anyone affected by totalitarian regimes in the past… as well as to anyone who may have experienced distress and discomfort by witnessing an association of [BTS] with imagery reminiscent of political extremism” (Big Hit, 2018 ).
Though not directly included by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in its statement, older images of BTS have emerged from a photoshoot at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. These images were taken during the summer of 2014 and were planned to be released as part of a photobook in early 2015. After preview images of the shoot were released, fans quickly identified the location and contacted Big Hit to explain the significance of the memorial in question. In response, Big Hit took down all the related tweets and did not publish the photos in the photobook.
It is also worthwhile to note the contentious discourse surrounding the memorial itself, as there have been heavy criticisms that question the efficacy of the memorial in fulfilling its purpose to encourage solemn remembrance of Jewish victims. Amid criticisms that the site is too ambiguous and does not feature a sign that explains its intention of being a memorial (Brody, 2012 ), German artist Shahak Shapira has created art pieces that expose how the memorial site has commonly been relegated as a backdrop for tourist photography (Oltermann, 2017 ). In response to such wary criticisms, the memorial’s architect, Peter Eisenman, has commented that “[p]eople are going to picnic in the field. Children will play tag in the field. There will be fashion models modeling there and films will be shot there. I can easily imagine some spy shoot ’em ups ending in the field. What can I say? It’s not a sacred place” (Hawley, 2005 ). These criticisms, of course, do not make holding a photoshoot there acceptable, and Big Hit did remove all photos from that site on all of its social media.
Another controversial picture that accused BTS of cultural insensitivity surfaced over the course of the scandal’s development, showing a member of the group wearing a jacket with an image of a mushroom cloud. During BTS’ 2015 Hwa Yang Yeon Hwa concert, a VCR film showed RM dressed in a jacket with a mushroom cloud on the back. Due to the nature of VCRs (footage shown during concerts), the garment went unnoticed until this year. There was no apology from the group or Big Hit Entertainment regarding this specific item of clothing, and the scene is still included in the footage.
This jacket was from the 2015 Autumn/Fall collection of the Korean fashion brand ANTIMATTER, titled “SCARED.” The lookbook described the collection as “killing basic human instinctive fears such as the crushing defeat, the brutal war, the savage beast, the heartless god and the inevitable death” (Fox, 2015 ). The picture of RM in the jacket was used by some Japanese media outlets, mostly right-wing ones, as a way to show that BTS – and by extension Big Hit – had always been callous towards atomic bomb victims. However, it should be noted that the content of the VCR in no way mocked or mentioned Japanese victims. The brief clip only shows the top half of the jacket, not the bottom half that has the word “ANTI” written in big block letters. According to the description of the collection, the jacket is meant to portray an anti-fear of war sentiment. Though it is fair to question the decision of the designer of the jacket to include the image, it would be unreasonable to accuse the group of malicious intent.
A Closing Note: Reflecting on the Importance of Cultural Awareness
The series of incidents we have examined above raise a heavy question about the importance of cultural sensitivity in our increasingly globalizing world. As past choices from BTS and Big Hit came under international scrutiny, Big Hit recognized its failure to make every decision with acute cultural awareness and apologized to those whom the management inadvertently hurt as a result.
On the other hand, we saw proliferation of misinformed accusations primarily rooted in cultural insensitivity, when the SWC and international media hastily labeled a wholly unique and unrelated stage performance “Nazi” without sufficient cultural and historical context. The unfortunate and disturbing blunders that we observed from all parties above raise a universal alarm and emphasize, again, the importance of cultural awareness for participants in a global world. It also shows that there is much space for everyone to learn and grow as we strive to become more aware of unfamiliar histories and cultures.
We should also take this moment to recognize that this gap in historical and cultural education is a general and widespread problem. Cultures and histories of distant geographic origins are often systematically not taught, as they ideally should be to local populations. Across many locations in East Asia, where the influence of the unique tragedy of the Holocaust has not had a strong impact on the region’s culture, there has been heavy criticism that the education system fails to properly address tragedies pertaining to the Holocaust with due and appropriate emphasis.
Compounded by a lack of education on the Holocaust and the lack of emphasis on its historical significance, there is a noticeable ambivalence in the memory of the Holocaust in some Asian countries. Fashion trends that appropriate Nazi-like uniforms referred to as “Nazi chic,” or “swastikawaii” in Japan, have swept through Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and other countries (Hay, 2015 ). Outlets like TIME have reported on the fascination with Nazi paraphernalia and Adolf Hitler in countries like South Korea, Japan, China, and especially Thailand, where there are pubs named after Hitler and teenagers dress in Nazi-inspired clothing (MacIntyre, 2000 ).
On the other hand, this distinct lack of cultural competency regarding the Holocaust in East Asia can be compared to the Western public’s considerable lack of awareness on the sheer scale and weight of Japanese imperialism in modern Asian history, as well as the level of wartime atrocities that occurred in the Pacific theater of the WWII.
Vastly unaware of this distant side of world history, many Western brands and the general public see no problem in fashioning the symbol of the Japanese rising sun flag, which, to many Asian countries that had once been colonized by Japan, represents a Japanese empire inseparable with the history of its brutal war crimes. Much like casual appropriation of the swastika, normalization of the rising sun flag symbol inflicts deep offense and pain to the victims of the Japanese imperial mission; but the general Western audience is usually unaware of that side of history, as Japanese imperialism had limited effects on their societies and cultures.
Moving forward, it would be productive to reflect on these realistic grounds and limitations that shape different region’s experience of cultural navigation. Squarely facing the reality and recognizing one’s mistake is the first step to improvement. Big Hit, for its part, has pledged to “carefully examine and review not only these issues but all activities involving Big Hit and our artists based on a firm understanding of diverse social, historical and cultural considerations to ensure that we never cause any injury pain or distress to anyone” (Big Hit, 2018 ). The SWC has yet to acknowledge or correct its misinformed accusation regarding the flag, which itself has revealed the center’s own lack of regard for cultural understanding about a unique artistic product.
- Due to the large number of articles we cite and for sake of space, in this section we do not follow the citation method we adopt in the rest of the essay. All articles we directly mention or base our argument on are still hyperlinked.
- A full, 7-page version of this section is available in Appendix.
- The House of Sharing is a shelter for comfort women. It also holds The Museum of Sexual Slavery by Japanese Military.
- Marymond is a company that designs its product based on inspirations from comfort women and donates at least half of its profits to comfort women.
- The equivalent of US $1,780
- All TV owners are legally required to sign up with NHK and pay a subscription fee.
- ネトウヨ; Japanese neo-nationalists who interact almost entirely within their own cyber community
- What Jimin said during the concert is, “It saddens me to think that not only you ARMY, but many people around the world must’ve been surprised recently because of the many circumstances.”
- AP is a news agency. News agencies have offices and reporters around the world, and provide international news coverage to their subscribers: other news sources.
- The other news agencies were Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and Bloomberg, to be specific.
- Though the shirt has been a topic of discussion online for months, it flared up in mid-October when it was posted to Pann – a Korean forum – and then spread to right-wing Japanese forums.
- Though this word is a relevant choice, it is hard to ignore its phonetic similarity to the German word “führer”.
- Search engine optimization is the practice of crafting headlines that are similar to how people search for information online in order to maximize website traffic
- It’s notable that SWC is located in California and that their statement was released on the Sunday (PST) ahead of a U.S. public holiday (read: slow news days).
- These images cited by SWC were being discussed together in Japan, though.
- The statement made it seem as if the flags were used at a BTS concert, but it was actually the Seo Taiji 25th Anniversary Concert BTS performed in in 2017.
- Big Hit was not completely silent after the news about the T-shirt went global. On November 9, shortly after the AP article broke, Big Hit did release a video specifically featuring Jimin and titled in English, “Today JIMIN has not done ‘JIMIN’”. They also continued posting Japanese tour updates, and the BT21 Twitter account posted an illustration of Chimmy – the character created by Jimin – “blowing his worries away.”
- AP, Agence France-Presse, and Bloomberg all published stories, while Reuters did not.
- Including @4oclock_bts, who worked on this project and provided a screenshot of the email, which can be found in the appendix.
- See, out of many, reports from ABS-CBN, The Sun (du Cann, 2018), The Korea Times (Lee, 2018), and The Guardian (McCurry, 2018) for international reports spreading SWC’s claims on Nazi flag accusation without due process of factual verification.
- AP does not cache previous versions of their articles, so it is impossible to link back to the original version. The link included here is to a source that published the first version of the AP story– link provided by @msbeatrice_81.
- BTS had two shows at Tokyo Dome on November 13 and 14. During the first show, Jimin himself addressed fans vaguely about the situation, “It saddens me to think that not only you ARMY, but many people around the world must’ve been surprised recently because of the many circumstances. I believe there will be many more opportunities for us to meet each other. I won’t be able to forget my first Tokyo Dome performance with you today. I’m so happy to be with you guys, ARMY. I hope you feel happy seeing us too.” (Herman, 2018 )
- Big Hit clearly states that the wearings of the outfit containing image of atomic bombing and a hat “displaying a logo reminiscent of Nazi” (direct translation of the original Korean statement is “that includes the Nazi logo”) were absolutely unintentional. The company, however, acknowledges and apologizes for the distress and pain caused by the actions. Regarding the flags, on the other hand, it offers explanations to clarify the misunderstanding. Refer to items 3 and 4 of the original statement for more details.
- The costumes were not military uniforms but a creative interpretation of school uniform. It is a specific rendition of がくらん (gakuran), Japanese school uniform, which many Korean students wore until the 70s.