Earlier this week, international phenomenon and Korean boyband BTS got in trouble. Japanese TV Asahi’s Music Station cancelled a planned live performance after old photos resurfaced of member Jimin wearing a shirt with photos of the Nagasaki atomic bomb overlaying the repeated fragment “PATRIOTISM OUR HISTORY LIBERATION KOREA.” Shortly thereafter, the Simon Wiesenthal Center released a public statement denouncing the group for featuring Nazi-like imagery on member RM’s cap in 2015, and during its concert in 2017. “Those designing and promoting this group’s career are too comfortable with denigrating the memory of the past,” the Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper said in a statement. Big Hit Entertainment, BTS’s management company, quickly apologized, citing the company’s mission to “heal and inspire all the people of the world through our music and artists” and its dedication to “diversity and tolerance.” BTS itself has yet to directly address the controversies.
It’s likely that BTS will emerge unscathed from the two scandals, not least because of their immense popularity and quick damage control. The scandal, however, speaks to the shifting expectations fandoms often have for their “idols,” how K-pop idols are construed as apolitical emissaries for South Korea, and the ways they unwittingly become collateral damage in a region simmering over geo-political disputes.
K-pop has been a sensation in East Asia since 2000, and not a single country in the region has managed to stake a claim in the global music industry as successfully as Korea. Starting with the runaway success of H.O.T. in 1997, the major Korean entertainment company SM Entertainment debuted boy-bands and girl-groups with the explicit intention of expanding into the East Asian market, with other companies soon following suit. Groups such as Dong Bang Shin Ki (DBSK), Super Junior, now defunct boy-band SS501, and Big Bang were sent to Japan and China for extensive promotions, paving the way for the continued success of newer K-pop bands. These days, groups featuring multinational singers are the norm, with Chinese, Japanese, and Thai aspiring idols helping to establish local support for their groups.
Part of their success can be attributed to the intensity with which the respective fandoms promote and support their chosen hallyu (translation: Korean wave) idol-groups. In Korea, it’s emphasized that fans’ continued emotional and financial investment is what makes for celebrities’ success; any infraction on part of the idols violates the symbiotic relationship between K-pop stars and their fans, and thus justifying fans’ immediate withdrawal of their support. The terms of this relationship are unspoken, but it involves fans viewing music videos as much as possible to bolster streaming numbers, as well as showing up at any and all promotional activities involving their idols. It’s also a perversely democratic system. Korean fans, for example, petitioned for Super Junior’s Lee Sung-min to be dismissed from the group for refusing to communicate with fans about his marriage and comeback plans after his mandated stint in the army, resulting in Lee’s withdrawal from Super Junior activities. Cross-fandom troll wars often happen, exacerbated by the youthful indiscretion of teenagers.
The conservative wisdom that celebrities have no business in politics, however, still prevails with regards to “entertainers” like K-pop idols. First- and second-wave hallyu stars rarely speak with regards to electoral politics or geopolitical quagmires in the Asia-Pacific region, certainly for fear of offending fans, but also because of expectations to keep the frivolous realm of celebrities separate from the serious stuff, lest it destabilize deeply entrenched social norms. This is especially true when it comes to criticism of the government. Last year, The New York Times reported that former president Park Geun-hye blacklisted more than 9000 celebrities for being “unfriendly” to Park’s administration, including Oldboy director Park Chan-wook and prize-winning author of The Vegetarian Han Kang. Any indication of perceived anti-Korean sentiment in a K-pop star translates into the complete destruction of their career. An infamous case is the singer Yoo Seung-Jun, who was accused of dodging his mandatory military service, causing him to be deported and permanently barred from entry to Korea to this day. In 2009, Korean-American Jay Park was ousted from boy band 2PM for comments he’d made about hating Korea and Koreans back in 2005.
That separation between celebrity culture and politics is part of the reason why BTS finally reached mainstream success in Korea. BTS’s full Korean name, Bangtan Sonyeondan (방탄소년단, or 防彈少年團 in Hanja), loosely translates to Bulletproof Youth Troopers, and is meant to reflect the group’s mission to “protect the youth” from bullet-like prejudices and criticisms. Their songs reflect their distaste for traditionalism, and the seven young men have carefully curated their image around being supportive peers for teenagers everywhere. Their perceived sincerity has been a massive factor in their rabid popularity. BTS is much more adept at social media than their older K-pop counterparts, happily sharing in the trials and tribulations of being a young adult. Their pro-mental health and pro-youth messaging coincided with the rise of socially-conscious stan culture on Tumblr and other Internet platforms.
With the growing popularity of K-pop stars across the globe, including its reliance on international fans to spread fandom like a virus, hallyu stars and the entertainment companies that fund them can easily become implicated in historical tensions between East Asian states and transnational finance capitalism. Liking K-pop if you’re not Korean oftentimes has become a political talking-point for hardcore conservatives across East Asia as a disavowal of one’s culture and subsequently one’s country. In the midst of resurgent nationalisms across the globe, restricting access to hallyu content is more often than not a pointed political and economic statement. K-pop has a documented tense relationship with Chinese investors, and Chinese authorities blocked music and video streaming sites featuring K-pop stars and cancelled concerts in retaliation to the U.S.’s 2017 deployment of two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense launchers (THAAD) in South Korea. In 2016, Chinese state newspaper Xinhua reported that more than eighty percent of the Chinese population would support a ban on South Korean celebrities appearing on TV, allegedly demonstrating the “Chinese placing love for their home country before popularity of entertainment stars.”
Moreover, South Korea and Japan have a strained history owning to the Japanese colonization of Korea in 1910 and wartime atrocities committed in World War II against Koreans. Tensions have resurfaced due to the South Korean Supreme Court’s Oct 30th ruling in favor of reparations for four victims of forced labor by the Japanese corporation Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal. Reuters reported that the ruling has legal implications for all other impending suits by individuals demanding compensation from Japanese corporations for wartime forced labor, and that the plaintiffs of the current lawsuit “could request a seizure of the company’s property in South Korea, which may result in an exit of some Japanese businesses, a cut in investment and a flare-up in anti-Japanese sentiment.”
What hasn’t been as reported in current discussions about the cancelled BTS performance, but which BTS stans across the internet have pointed out, is that that Makoto Sakurai, the founder of far-right extremist and ultra-nationalist hate group Zaitokukai, blogged about the offending T-shirt on November 5, calling BTS an “anti-Japanese” group. In the post, he encouraged his readership to put pressure on TV Asahi and its sponsors to drop the Korean boy-band, and the issue was quickly picked up by far-right Japanese Twitter. BTS’s gaffe, in other words, proved fertile ground for anti-Korean sentiment in Japan.
BTS’s Jimin, who wore the shirt, has said nothing about the T-shirt, instead asking for the continued support of BTS’s fans. The T-shirt’s designer Lee Kwang-jae said in an interview that he did not include the image of the atomic bomb to mock Japan, instead intending to “express the historic truth and timing that after the atomic bomb was detonated, Japan’s unconditional surrender led to independence.” If you take him at face value, you might reasonably conclude that he didn’t think very hard about this at all — a natural gaffe, opposed to the intentional slight it’s being taken as by BTS’ most ardent detractors. That everyone involved going to think about this much harder going forward is just the average stuff that comes with being a celebrity — even those as astronomically popular as BTS.