3. Historical Context


3-2-1. Why BTS

3-2-2. Why Now

3.2. Why BTS and Why Now

3.2.1. Why BTS

While an argument can be made for the presence of Japanese Koreaphiles since the colonial rule of Korea, contemporary interest in Korean cultural imports can largely be traced back to the box office success of Kang Je-kyu’s 1999 film Shiri, paired with the subsequent popularity of NHK-aired Korean drama Winter Sonata (Atkins, 2010 [1]). With Shiri seen by 1.2 million Japanese theatergoers and Winter Sonata finding strong public support, particularly from older Japanese women (Shim, 2008 [7]; Michel, 2011 [4]), Hallyu (a neologism meaning “Korean wave,” which refers to the spread of Korean entertainment throughout the world) was born in Japan.

Increasing popularity of Korean cultural imports in Japan was the impetus for a 2011 demonstration, during which more than 2,000 people gathered in Tokyo’s Fuji TV headquarters to protest the network’s airing of Korean dramas. Espousing “anti-Hallyu sentiment” spurred by what Yoon called “a sense of crisis among certain Japanese entertainers who have been losing ground, coupled with interest from Japan’s ultra-nationalists who criticize Korea” (Yoon, 2011 [9]). This demonstration and others of its kind did impede Hallyu in Japan until the overwhelming popularity of third-generation idols, including BTS and girl group TWICE, reignited Hallyu interest. However, anti-Korean sentiments in Japan again flared over the Korean Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding compensation for forced labor victims of wartime Imperial Japan. (Min, 2018 [5]). With rising tension, the backlash came against the only Korean musicians to sell more than 500,000 albums in Japan the previous year: BTS.

Fig. 21. [Taken on Aug. 22, 2011, the top photo shows right-wing activists staging a rally to denounce Japan’s Fuji TV for airing Korean entertainment shows and dramas.]. (2011). Retrieved from http://koreatimes.co.kr

BTS is not the first group to become ensnared in scandals in Japan when diplomatic tensions are high, though most other notable scandals have involved entertainers who verbally expressed support for Korea’s territorial claims to the Liancourt Rocks.1 Korean actor Bae Yong-joon drew the ire of Japanese media outlets, who demanded the actor be banned from any money-making activities in Japan, after declaring the disputed islets Korean territory in 2005 (Park, 2013 [6]). Actress Kim Tae-hee voiced support for Korea on this issue in 2012, then suffered the loss of a commercial appearance for a Japanese cosmetics company (Lee, 2012 [3]). Similarly, a 2012 Independence Day swim from mainland Korea to the Liancourt Rocks by singer Kim Jang-hoon and actor Song Il-gook to show support for Korea’s territorial claims spurred Japanese broadcasters to put off airing dramas in which Song played a leading role. Choi Si-won of Korean idol group Super Junior encountered controversy after being accused of retweeting a message from Korea’s presidential office that read, “Dokdo is our true territory and it is a place of value that must be protected with our lives. Let’s protect it with pride – at Dokdo” (Kim, 2012 [2]). In each of these cases, controversies could be directly attributed to a public assertion of support for Korea’s claim, either verbally or via social media.

3-2-2. Why Now

To many fans, the backlash against Jimin and his wearing of the shirt in question (and the subsequent resurfacing of other various issues) appeared at first to have come out of nowhere. However, the timing of this issue and its spread across various media outlets in Japan, Korea, and the world, was not a coincidence.

Prior to the first international news stories about BTS and the shirt, the Korean Supreme Court passed an important ruling on October 30 that set a domino effect in motion. The court ruled that Japanese company Nippon Steel and Sumimoto Metal Corp must pay 100 million won to each of the four South Korean men who were forced laborers during WWII. However, due to the Japanese government’s penchant for censoring its imperial history, the response from Japanese officials was indignant.

Fig. 22. Young-joon, A. (2018). [People forced to work on behalf of Japan’s World War II efforts rallied outside the Supreme Court in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday.]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com

In 1965, Japan paid a settlement of $300 million in grants and $200 million in loans to repair South Korea’s economy, absolving them of any further restitution for damage done during colonial rule (United Nations Treaty Collection, 1996 [8]). However, up until 1991, when Kim Hak-soon (a former comfort woman) demanded restitution for her suffering, even Japan’s government had acknowledged that the settlement did not prevent any individual citizens from making settlement claims (Lee and Lee, 2016 [5]). When Kim came forward with her story, Japan refused to compensate her, citing the 1965 agreement (Memory Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific [6]). With Korea’s most recent Supreme Court decision, the ruling was upheld that the 1965 agreement did not absolve Japan of any illicit activities, and individuals can still make claims. Since the courts ruled in favor of the Korean forced labor victims, the door is wide open for similar cases to be made against the Japanese government (Kim, 2018 [3]).

But what does this have to do with BTS? As it happens, Jimin wore the shirt in the YouTube Premium series Burn the Stage, which ran from March 28, 2018 to May 9, 2018. The footage was shot as BTS embarked on their “2017 BTS Live Trilogy Episode III: The Wings Tour,” which took place in cities across the globe from February to December 2017. Despite the episode in which Jimin wears the shirt airing in early 2018, the media did not pick up the issue until October 2018 – six months after the episode aired and approximately a year and a half after Jimin wore the shirt. This large gap between the actual incident and the media coverage is suspect given that the scale the story reached caused some to dig up past points of contention to exacerbate the situation even further. 

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling in South Korea, a Japanese newspaper published a piece titled “A spark from the forced labor problem! From NHK’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen to Hallyu expulsion… TWICE and BTS are out?,” feeding in to far-right wing anxiety over Korean cultural influences in Japan (Tokyo Sports, 2018 [7]). The import of Korean culture into Japan has been a point of contention for years (Gibson, 2018 [2]), and the photos of Jimin wearing the shirt made their way across forums in Japan, causing outrage and action. Japanese right-wing threats, protests, and pressure on the media coupled with the government’s desire to erase imperial history and war crimes contributed to the cancellation of BTS’ performance on Music Station during this turbulent time.

Following Korea’s Supreme Court ruling, on October 31, a district of Daegu that was set to create sister city ties with the Gifu prefecture in Japan was notified that the plan had been canceled due to the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling. The Suseong-gu office in Daegu noted that the “decision is of both the local and central government” of Japan. Additionally, Japanese Prime Minister Abe did not send a congratulatory message to the Shitennoji-Wasso Festival, an annual cultural event that celebrates the close ties of Osaka and Korea since the sixth century and highlights how Korean culture was brought to Japan. This festival had received congratulatory messages from Japan’s Prime Minister and Korea’s President each year since 2004, but this year, only South Korean President Moon sent a message (Cho, 2018 [1]; Lee, 2018 [4]).

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  1. The Liancourt Rocks are a group of small islands in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and are in dispute between South Korea – with North Korea also claiming the islands – and Japan. These islands are referred as “Dokdo” in Korean and “Takeshima” in Japanese. Whilst referred as a “colonial name” used “by various Western explorers and colonial writers”, “Liancourt Rocks” is still the most neutral term used in the issue and the one chosen for this paper’s purpose (Van Dyke, 2007 [8])