1. Introduction

In mid-October, an image of BTS member Jimin surfaced online.

Taken from the YouTube Premium series Burn the Stage, the screenshot showed Jimin wearing a T-shirt with a depiction of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, a rendering of Korean people celebrating their liberation from Japanese occupation at the end of World War II, and the words “Patriotism,” “Our History,” “Liberation,” and “Korea” in English. The T-shirt ignited debate about the intention and the consequences of Jimin’s wearing the garment. On November 8, TV Asahi canceled BTS’ scheduled appearance on Music Station, specifying the debate around the T-shirt as the reason for cancellation. Four days later, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) issued a statement, condemning Big Hit Entertainment and BTS for “mocking the history.” On November 13, Big Hit Entertainment published a statement, which seemed to bring the fire under control.

It is no surprise that BTS’ fans, officially known as ARMYs, tracked this series of events closely. We, the team of the White Paper Project, were some of them.

In fact, we came together due to the frustrations that we shared: we were all frustrated by the online conversation surrounding the T-shirt incident, by the one-sided coverage from the international media, and by the statement released by the SWC.

We wanted to show that there was more to the story than what was being reported. We wanted to show that the skewed reporting by the media and perceptions by some members of the public erased Korean experiences of history. We wanted to show that the SWC’s statement was problematic. We wanted more of the situation to be told. We all wanted to do something.

So because of this, and because we are all fans of BTS and care about how they are perceived, we decided to work together to write this paper.

For this reason, the White Paper Project is not an expansive study of this entire issue, but one that focuses on two particular concerns that we felt had not been given a voice in the general discussion surrounding it.  

The first is regarding the misinformation and disinformation about BTS that were circulated by the media and the SWC. To explain this, we outline the development of the online controversy in the media and in fandom circles; present the main narratives found in the Korean, Japanese, and international media coverage; summarize the key points of accusations made about BTS; and provide a thorough inspection into the validity of each.

The second is to do with the need for greater historical context to understand some of the Korean opinions regarding the T-shirt. Many international people looking in perceived a willful stubbornness and lack of sympathy for those who did not denounce the T-shirt outright. Often, those people were Koreans and other Asians who hail from nations occupied by the Japanese. Because of this, we wanted to help in explaining and clarifying these opinions. We do not ask you to change your opinion on the T-shirt. We simply hope that we can raise awareness of why others may have come to hold the opinion that they do. To do this, we give an overview of Korea under Japanese imperialism, as well as modern politics of memory in the region.

Once the concerns are drawn out, discussed, and evaluated, we leave you with a letter of encouragement and a call to learn more about the complexities that we have only begun to address. After all, we are more than fans or spectators 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 this environment, we owe it to ourselves, and to others, to be responsible with our words and educated in our discourse.

With increased fame comes increased scrutiny, and the crucible of scandal can either divide a fandom or unite it. Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to decide how to approach the issue and what to take away from it; for as much as the fire of controversy can burn, it can also serve as a guiding light.

We recognize that the first release of the paper was two full weeks after Big Hit’s statement. The second, another week later. However, the conversation about the shirt is still ongoing in Korea and Japan, and as the two nations battle in court over reparations decisions, the shirt is being referenced in international news articles,1 and opinion pieces2 about the garment continue to be published. Though the topic isn’t as loud as it once was, that does not mean that the controversy has or will disappear for good.  Certainly, the complex web of the historical and sociopolitical forces that influenced this controversy remains unresolved and continue to shape many aspects of life in the region.  There is value in taking the controversy as a learning opportunity and raising awareness on why and how the controversy spread.

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  1. It has been mentioned in articles by the Wall Street Journal article and The Washington Post published on November 30 (KST).
  2. An op-ed on this was published on December 2 in Ryuku Shimpo.