BTS Jimins T-shirt controversy isnt the first K-pop-related historical blunder

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BTS have caused controversy over the past week (Picture: Twitter)

BTS arent the first K-pop act to cause a controversy linked to Japan and Koreas difficult shared history, and they likely wont be the last.

Last week, a Japanese TV station halted a planned appearance by K-pop band BTS over a controversial T-shirt worn by member Jimin. Since then, the situation has escalated such that their label, Big Hit Entertainment, has issued a formal apology over the matter, making it clear that no offence was intended by them or the boys.

The offending T-shirt depicts the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and features the English words Patriotism OurHistory Liberation Korea. The choice of words and images are a clear reference to National Liberation Day, a deeply important historical date for Koreans, as it marks the countrys freedom from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule.

Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and Koreans recall it as a time of brutal cultural oppression, when one could be punished for simply speaking in Korean. The occupation ended when Japan surrendered to the Allies, after atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in an instant.

What is National Liberation Day?

-Celebrated annually on 15 August
-Marks the end of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945)
-A public holiday in both North and South Korea
-Koreans usually display the national flag
-Parades and special events take place in Seoul
-Also known as Restoration of Light day

Both the Japanese occupation of Korea and the atomic bombing of Japan are highly emotive events that linger in the memories of older generations, so any casual reference made to them by young celebrities is likely to offend people from either, or more likely both, nations.

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This isnt the first time a K-pop act has been at the centre of a controversy involving this difficult shared Korean-Japanese history and National Liberation Day in particular. Girl group Red Velvet and Tiffany from Girls Generation have also been caught up in similar incidents.

Red Velvet are a five-member girl group under the SM Entertainment label, and their debut song, Happiness, was a light pop tune released in August 2014. The music video caused anger in Japan immediately upon on its release, as one scene featured a background photo of American newspapers reporting on the A-bombs.

References to the bombing were in the background of the original cut (Picture: YouTube)

The headlines Japs Hit By Atomic Bomb Equal To 20,000 Tons, and Allies Tell Japs Hirohito Must Obey Our Command, and the words Atom Bomb were clearly visible in the scene. The same video also featured an image of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. As the music video racked up around two million views, fans around the world complained to SM about both of the offensive images.

SM Entertainment responded quickly by pulling the video, and uploading a new edit of the video without the offending images. A label representative explained that no offence was intended, stating: After questioning the director, we found that he simply used a collage source for the images, and there was no intention behind it. We will make sure not to let this kind of thing happen in the future.

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This production blunder doesnt seem to have harmed the popularity of the group, as Red Velvet have performed regularly in Japan since their debut, and will be holding their first arena tour in Japan next year.

In August 2016, another SM Entertainment artist caused a controversy after posting two seemingly pro-Japan social media updates on National Liberation Day. Korean-American idol Tiffany Young was part of the girl group Girls Generation at the time. She was performing in Japan with them, and posted a photo of herself on Instagram with two other members, Sooyoung and Yuri. Her caption said Babes and included a Japanese flag sticker and a heart. On her Snapchat, she posted a photo of a bag on her lap, and used a Snapchat geofilter to tell fans she was in Tokyo, Japan.

Tiffany used a Japanese flag emoji on her social media updates (Picture: Instagram)

Perhaps on any other day, these posts would have been overlooked – putting a flag sticker on a picture to show which country youre in is hardly controversial. However, Tiffany posted both pics on National Liberation Day, 15 August. Adding extra fuel to the fire, the Snapchat geofilters design is a clear nod to the Rising Sun flag, a flag that was used during Japans Imperialist rule of Korea and for many Koreans, still symbolises the countrys wartime aggression.

After receiving backlash from the Korean media, Tiffany edited her original Instagram caption, and then posted two handwritten notes on her personal Instagram, stating her regret over the posts.

One of her notes read: Hello, This is Tiffany. I apologise for upsetting so many with my mistake on this important day. Im ashamed for disappointing everyone with this kind of mistake, and I deeply regret my actions. In the future, Ill make sure to keep in mind that my actions and my words have a wide audience. Ill work toward becoming someone who thinks carefully about my actions, and make sure something like this doesnt happen again. Again, I sincerely apologise for disappointing everyone as a result of my shortcomings.


The controversy led her to withdraw from a variety show she was filming at the time. A press release from the TV network stated: After thoroughly discussing the latest controversy with SM Entertainment and [the shows] production crew, we decided that it would be the best for Tiffany to step down, considering the negative emotions that her actions have aroused in people.

Tiffany also took a seven-week break from Instagram, and made very few public appearances while the news died down. These days, shes still active on social media, and is working on her solo career, promoting in both America and Asia.

Aside from these specific events, K-pop entertainers are well aware that their actions while promoting in Japan are under constant scrutiny by media and netizens from both countries. Due to their difficult shared history and unresolved issues even to this day, long-held tensions remain between Japan and Korea in political and cultural arenas, and this can spill out into the media and entertainment worlds too.

Despite the odd cultural or historical blunder by young idols, K-pop is undeniably popular in Japan and shows little sign of waning. Boy bands like TVXQ!, SHINee, EXO, BTS, and iKON, and girl group TWICE have all hit number one on Japans Oricon Albums Chart this year.

Twice are one of the most popular girlbands in K-pop (Picture: Instagram)

TWICE are one of K-pops newer generation groups, and they have three Japanese members – Momo, Sana, and Mina – that were voted into the band partially through the audience vote on a Korean TV show. Their popularity in both countries surely offers a glimmer of hope that although the dreadful past between them cannot be changed, future Korean-Japanese relations could become easier – as long as they steer well clear of any historical gaffes.


MORE: BigHit Entertainment takes responsibility after BTS appearance cancelled by Japanese station

MORE: Jimin says his heart hurts as BTS face controversy for wearing Nazi and atomic bomb imagery

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