Mo’ Korea: Making Sense Of BTS’ Troubles

There’s too much going on with BTS and I need help!

Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff going on, isn’t it? It’s time we all sat down for a little heart-to-heart fireside chat. In fact, you might want to play this video as you’re reading the post to help you feel comfy cozy, since we’re going to be going through some heavy topics.

Are you comfy? Good. Let’s talk about BTS.

I’m scared.

So am I. I wish the scandals were about anything other than the hardcore things they’re about. But we gotta talk about what’s been going down with the group.

As of late, I’ve been happily writing about the good things BTS has been doing, such as inspiring young people at the UN, giving a record $1.4 million to charity from album sales via their Love Myself campaign with UNICEF, or repping pan-Africanism in their “IDOL” music video. So much about 2018 has been not just positive for the pioneering K-pop group; it’s been historic.

But BTS is also paving the path for other K-pop groups in a different way–through pain. BTS is the biggest group in Korea, to the point that they are now honorary tourism ambassadors for South Korea’s metropolis, Seoul. But with the highs come the lows, and its these lows that are also important for other K-pop groups to take note of. BTS has recently come under fire for some insensitive actions from their past, and while the actions themselves are a sour note in their otherwise stellar year of progress, the backlash serves as a much-needed lesson to the group and to other groups coming after them.

So first things first–I’m not here to excuse BTS from any of their wrongdoings. In fact, the group and Big Hit Entertainment must hold themselves accountable for their actions. I offer no apology for their mistakes.

But, what I hope I can provide is some context for those out there who are concerned and confused about how all of this could have happened. The information might help you with your decision-making as to whether you want to continue supporting BTS in the future.

With that said, let me answer some questions you might have as members of the ARMY.

Okay. So first question–Did BTS do wrong and if so, what did they do?

First answer: Unequivocally, BTS did wrong. Whether you’re an ARMY or not, you have to admit that the accusations leveled against them are horrible. Those accusations include several instances that have happened between 2014 and 2017, such as wearing a hat with a Nazi insignia on it, posing in a Holocaust museum, using questionable banners that seem to resemble Nazi imagery, and wearing a shirt with an atomic bomb image on it. You can read more about their transgressions here.

I don’t understand why BTS would do this. Didn’t they just speak at the UN? Where did they go wrong? How could they do this?

Let me answer the last question first. It seems inconceivable that a group that has been outspoken about their dedication to inspiring others that they would commit missteps as major as these. But unfortunately, the Holocaust isn’t taught as rigorously as it should be in Korea. In fact, limited knowledge about the Holocaust is a problem throughout Asia. That brings me to the first question. Where BTS and their management went wrong was because, by their own admission, ignorance. I know that is hard to believe and isn’t very satisfying to think about, but let me paint the scene for you.

A few years ago, when I was still learning more about Japanese culture, I learned to my horror that there’s a fashion craze called “Nazi chic.” This isn’t just prevalent in Japan, but throughout Asia. In fact, many Western folks would consider the amount of Nazi symbolism in Asia, from restaurants to clothes, appalling. According to Quartz:

Examples abound. Last December a school in Taiwan staged a Hitler-themed parade for its anniversary celebration, leading to the principal’s resignation. A few weeks earlier, Sony Music apologized after one of its girl bands performed in Nazi-looking outfits. Two years before that a girl group in South Korea showed up in similar fashion. Thailand, India, and Indonesia have had their share of Nazi-themed bars, parades, and performances. The list is long and repetitive–and disconcerting.

Of course, it’s appalling with good reason: the Holocaust is one of the deadliest forms of genocide the world has ever seen, killing Jewish people and other ethnic and religious minorities, sexual minorities, the disabled, and others. Many people were affected by this assault on humanity, and it’s no wonder that its symbolism has become a marker of evil for many around the world. The only question a lot of us in the West have is why hasn’t this knowledge, which is commonplace in countries like the U.S., Britain and Germany (for obvious reasons), infiltrated other countries?

As a person in the West, it’s hard to know how someone else, or a group of people, could be ignorant of one of the biggest atrocities the world has ever seen. But just because it’s hard to believe doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The co-founder of the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre, April Kaminsky, said something similar when speaking to Quartz.

“The optimist in me wants to think that this happens just out of ignorance, and that comparison with something more familiar helps,” she said. The article states that with that idea in mind, “the center also teaches about regional tragedies like the Nanjing Massacre in China during World War II and the ‘killing fields’ in Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot. ‘That,’ [Kaminsky said], ‘makes the topic quite relevant to the region.’”

It’s this method of comparing the Holocaust to regional tragedies that highlights another issue with pan-Asian knowledge about the Holocaust; the Holocaust is rarely taught with the same depth as it is here in the West.

“Generally speaking, World War II history is present in school curricula in the region, but it concentrates on what happened locally–when Japanese troops conquered most of East and Southeast Asia, committing countless atrocities that still scar diplomatic relations between Tokyo and its neighbors,” states the article. In comparison, the way Nazi Germany “industrialized the mass murder” of Jewish people, other minorities like the Roma, and communists, “it’s touched upon only vaguely, if at all.”

This point is backed up by a 2015 study by the Georg Eckert Institute and UNESCO that found that “In total, 57 curricula [worldwide] clearly stipulate the Holocaust with a direct reference to words such as ‘Holocaust’ or ‘Shoah’ while 28 do not,” according to The Conversation. “The countries which make no reference to the Holocaust in their curricula…include Egypt, Palestine, New Zealand, Iraq and Thailand.”

The article goes on to say that in eight countries where the Holocaust is addressed partially, it’s only mentioned “to achieve a learning aim that is not specifically related to the Holocaust.”

The article also states that the Holocaust is “domesticated, or conceptualized in new idiosyncratic or local ways,” citing how Chinese textbooks don’t mention the Holocaust by name, but rather as “genocide” or “kinds of crimes.”

“The Chinese textbooks render the event understandable for local readers in a language which is familiar to them, yet which does not convey the historical specificity ascribed to the Holocaust by western scholars and teachers,” according to the article.

The Korean curriculum follows the trend of Asian curricula about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is mentioned, but it is mentioned only for context regarding World War II. Much of what Korea focuses on with regard to World War II is how fascism extended from Europe to Japan, keeping in line with Korea’s historical animosity towards Japan for its colonization and practice of “comfort women.” Again, contextualizing and localizing is utilized. While contextualizing is not a horrible approach by itself, the practice of disregarding the Holocaust as nothing more than a backdrop for local atrocities blocks a chance for students to learn more about how fascist thought affected people all over the world, not just in Asia. It blocks an opportunity to develop empathy for others and their struggles.

Don’t misunderstand me: saying BTS and Big Hit were ignorant of the Holocaust doesn’t erase the pain they have caused or where they have ruined some ARMYs trust in them. In fact, as one commenter wrote to black K-pop star Alexandra Reid when she tried to explain some of the cross-cultural ignorance she faced when she moved to Korea, “ignorance” becomes annoying when you keep hearing it over and over again when. It also doesn’t rule out the actual racism that is in Korea and across Asia. Not every person is being ignorant when they use hurtful words.

In BTS and Big Hit’s case, it seems more like a case of actual–but alarming–ignorance and not purposeful hate. But regardless of the context, the fact remains that BTS hurt many of their fans. Since they are in the public eye, it would have made sense for the group to take a crash course in some world history so they would have at least a basic working knowledge of what symbolism is offensive. If anything, this incident shows how ignorance can be dangerous. The things you don’t know can hurt you and others.

Well, what about the atomic bomb shirt? What are your feelings on that?

I feel that Jimin’s decision to wear the shirt is wrong, especially since BTS, like all K-pop groups, do business in Japan and have Japanese fans. However, the historical politics the shirt represents are complicated. There is a lot to unpack, some of which I don’t know if I’m qualified to talk about at length. But the general idea that’s important right now is the fact that the shirt is a long conversation Korea and Japan have been having about Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, which ended with VJ Day, the final end of World War II, which unfortunately resulted in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings made an already complicated relationship between the two countries became even more worse. There is no easy way to talk about any of this, and since I’m not a professor in Japanese-Korean relations, I’m not going to try.

So instead, I will leave two bits of information for you to ponder. First, there have been some recent political tensions between the two nations that harken back to World War II animosity. It’s been argued that even though the shirt is certainly no help, the overall reason Japan cancelled BTS’ performance was because of the resurgence in political tensions. As Billboard’s resident K-pop expert Jeff Benjamin wrote:

“Earlier this week, rumors swirled in Asian media that BTS and TWICE (who have three members of Japanese descent) would not be invited to Japan’s prestigious and highly rated year-end music festival Kohaku Uta Gassen despite their success in the market…Still the issue was mainly chalked up to the recent tensions over a South Korean supreme court ruling that Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. needs to compensate four Koreans for forced labor during World War II, a decision Japan denounced, according to Reuters, as “unthinkable.”

BTS’ T-shirt incident certainly didn’t help matters, but it’s hardly the sole reason for this cancellation among issues that are largely rooted in long-standing political and cultural stances between countries. In fact, if it was the only issue, BTS’ previous Japanese television appearances (including a December 2017 performance on Japan Music Station Super Live) would have been logically cancelled too. To those watching the situation for longer than BTS’ rise to prominence, it is yet another slip in an ongoing awkwardly tense situation where culture and politics far outweigh a fashion item.

Bloomberg wrote more about the ruling, saying that it “has aggravated old wounds between the neighbors and U.S. allies, who were already sparring over compensation for South Korean women trafficked to Japanese army brothels and Seoul’s refusal to let the ‘Rising Sun’ flag fly at naval review.”

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“There are 15 similar cases pending brought by South Koreans who say they worked for 69 companies during the Japanese occupation from 1910-45, according to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

The second, and arguably more important, bit of information comes from the Korean Atomic Bomb Victims Association, who released a lengthy statement accepting Big Hit Entertainment’s apology for all of their transgressions.

Wait–Big Hit apologized?

Yes, but I’m getting to that later. Let me tell you what the the Association said first.

Okay. What did they say?

To quote them (as translated by Reddit user subsequently_today):

For a moment we would like to set aside the perspective that the atomic bombs liberated Korea from Japanese colonialism, and instead wish for everyone to reflect on the inhumanity of dropping nuclear weapons on Japan, at that time already a nation on the verge of defeat, for the purposes of experimentation which indiscriminately killed not only humans but all life forms in its path.

From now on, we hope that both the Japanese government and Japanese media will no longer mislead public opinion or distort information, and allow BTS to perform without further disruption. We especially wish to emphasize that BigHit’s apology statement should not be manipulated or used for political maneuvering against Korea or BTS.

I think what the Association had to say is much more important than anything I, an American, would have to say about this. They are the ones whose lives have been put in the crosshairs between Korea and Japan’s politically adversarial relationship, and it is their opinions that should set the standard for how both nations address the controversy and try to come together.

I think it is important for us to remember that beyond the politics and machinations, there remains the fact that the U.S. bombed Japan with weapons that should be wiped off the face of the earth. No matter how much animosity Japan and Korea have against each other, America might also want to watch this entire scenario and remember our country’s role in making tensions worse between the two countries.

To repeat what the Association said, the bombs were “for the purposes of experimentation which indiscriminately killed not only humans but all life forms in its path.” Japan was essentially the last man standing in the war at the time the U.S. decided to drop the bombs, and it can be argued that America only needed to use conventional warfare to end the war. Certainly, weapons capable of unimaginable destruction didn’t need to be used. Not only were the immediate effects horrendous, but the long-term effects set the stage for Japan to lose part of its original cultural identity, leaving the country in what seems to be a long-term identity crisis as it struggles to rebuild itself within its own collective mind. That kind of crisis has effects on all parts of Japanese life. Not only that, but the bombs ushered the world into the atomic age, in which every country feels like they need to have an atomic bomb to be able to compete with America as a world power.

America’s hand is present in much of the remaining wartime tensions, and while President Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima in 2016, his speech of sympathy still offered no full apology. According to USA Today, while polls taken in Japan at the time showed that most felt like an American apology was no longer necessary, there have still been other atomic bomb survivor groups in the past who felt an apology is overdue. it remains unclear to me just how much America is willing to cop to its role in Japan and Korea’s lingering animosity.

I think the only concrete takeaway from this situation is that Japan should have never committed atrocities against Koreans. But by the same token, the bombs shouldn’t have ever been dropped on Japan. Both situations still negatively affect the two countries and the world today.

Well, now what? Even with all of this background information, I still feel so disappointed in BTS and the scandals they’re involved in. I don’t know what to do.

I feel you. I feel disappointed, too. Even though I wrote that article for Reappropriate about BTS’ failures and successes when it comes to respecting black American culture, I had come to like BTS for their ability to learn from mistakes and try to make amends.

I have expected the group to make mistakes. I also knew those mistakes would be big the more popular the group would become. But I also wrote that it was up to the group to figure out how to manage those mistakes.

If you’re an ARMY and you feel like you’re a bad fan for feeling disappointed in BTS, please know that love for others includes feeling disappointed with them and angry at them sometimes. I haven’t gone through life without being disappointed by, angry with, or sad because of a family member or a friend. But I still love those people dearly. I’m sure you are disappointed by people you love in your life as well.

But, if you’re disappointed with someone or get angry because of someone you love, that actually means that you care a lot about them. It means that you want them to be better and that you expect more from them. And as BTS fans, it’s right that you express your disappointment, anger and sadness. Something I’ve noticed in various fandoms, including the ARMY fandom, is the idea some have that to be a good fan of someone or something, you can’t criticize them. That’s a false idea.

The main reason positive criticism exists is to make someone or something you love even better. That’s why this site is dedicated towards pop culture criticism. It’s not because I hate pop culture; pop culture has been a huge, important part of my life. I love pop culture to the point that I’m working in the industry. But even as a lifelong fan of television, movies, and music, I still find things that I wish could be done better or more efficiently. I wish there was more representation of people, cultures and religions. I wish there was more tolerance shown in the media. I wish actors of color didn’t have to struggle to find meaningful work. Because I have these issues with pop culture, I voice my displeasure, but not from a place of negativity. I give voice to my annoyances because I want pop culture to change into a better, more perfect industry.

In fact, to take it back to world history, America’s democracy runs on criticism. The goal of making the country “a more perfect union” means that people who love the country, people who consider themselves patriots to the country, constantly critique and debate the nature of America. These critiques have garnered us important things such as women’s right to vote, the civil rights movement, the Affordable Care Act, etc. In fact, all of progress in any sector, in any country, comes from critique and debate.

So in short, you are not wrong for feeling upset. You feeling upset means that you are in touch with that part of yourself that wants to see the world become a better place. You want to see those you love live up to their potential.

So, I have power as a fan? I can help BTS become better?

Sure. One thing I’ve learned from the BTS fanbase is that the group wants an open dialogue with their fans. Since that’s the case, why not utilize that open dialogue and convey how you feel about the situation? And I mean how you truly feel. Tell them online how upset you are, how you hope they have learned from this situation and won’t make these same mistakes again. Tell them that you want them to double down on using their influence for good.

In fact, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the global human rights organization who called out the group for the insensitivity toward the Holocaust, wrote something similar when they accepted Big Hit’s apology.

Oh yeah, you said that they apologized! What did Big Hit say?

The apology came Nov. 13 and posted to the management’s Facebook page in Korean, English and Japanese. The apology included everything BTS has been criticized for and the management took full responsibility.

You can read the full apology yourself, but here are some snippets from the post:

In all activities involving BTS and any other artists associated with our company, Big Hit does not support any organizations or groups oriented towards political extremism and totalitarian beliefs including Nazism, is against all such entities and activities, had no intention of causing distress or pain to anyone affected by historical events and incidents by being inadvertently associated with such organizations or groups, and we will continue to adhere to these principles…

– Regarding the wearing of the outfit containing image of atomic bombing, as previously explained the incident was in no way intentional, and although it has been verified that the outfit had not been designed originally to injure or make light of those affected by the use of atomic weapons, we would like to offer our sincere apologies not only for failing to take the precautions that could have prevented the wearing of such clothing by our artist that inadvertently inflicted pain on anyone affected by the use of atomic weapons, but to anyone who may have experienced distress and discomfort by witnessing the association of our artists with imagery related to atomic bombings.

– Regarding the wearing of a hat displaying a logo reminiscent of Nazi symbolism, again as previously explained the incident was in no way intentional, and although all apparel and accessories used during the photoshoot had been provided by the publication conducting the shoot, we would like to offer our sincere apologies for inadvertently inflicting pain and distress to anyone affected by totalitarian regimes in the past by failing to strictly review the clothing and accessories that our members were made to wear, as well as to anyone who may have experienced distress and discomfort by witnessing an association of our artists with imagery reminiscent of political extremism.

…Regarding the issue of the performance of which concerns have been raised, we would like to provide the following explanation.

– The images being cited in recent discussions are part of a performance commemorating the legendary Korean artist Seo Taiji in 2017 in which Big Hit artists took part, and specifically from the part of the performance of “Gyosil Idea” (classroom ideology) that levies social criticism against rigidly standardized education.

– The flags and images were creative elements completely unrelated to national socialism, and the core message of the performance itself was criticism against restrictively uniform and authoritarian educational systems.

– The performance is in no way associated with National Socialism as some observers have alleged, and in fact it should be noted that the performance includes creative elements that are designed to direct criticism against these very elements of totalitarianism.

Big Hit wrote in the apology that the management “bears all responsibilities for not providing the necessary and careful support to our artist that may have prevented these issues, and we would like to make clear that our artists, especially due to their extensive schedules and complexities of on-site conditions, are in no way responsible for any of the issues outlined above.” They said they would “do their utmost” to address the wrongs done and to continue with their motto of creating music that will heal fans.

“To heal and inspire all the people of the world through our music and artists” is the core reason for the existence of Big Hit Entertainment,” wrote the company. “It is our challenge as well as responsibility to carefully take all the necessary considerations that reflect our increasingly diverse and inclusive world, and we are doing our utmost to do our part in ensuring that this diversity and tolerance takes firm root in our community and among everyone around us.”

The company also said they will “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.”

“We would like to again offer our sincerest apologies to anyone who has suffered pain, distress and discomfort due to our shortcomings and oversight in ensuring that these matters receive our most careful attention,” they wrote.

Big Hit also recently met with both Japanese and Korean atomic bombing victims to officially apologize to them.

Even Jimin himself broke his silence over the controversies. According to MBC, Jimin said during BTS’ recent concert at the Tokyo Dome, “I believe many people around the world are surprised and concerned due to many circumstances. It breaks my heart.” (For what it’s worth, The Google Translate version of this statement in the original article ends with Jimin saying, “I feel sick.”)

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Wow. Well, what did the Simon Wiesenthal Center say?

The Center issued their own recognition of the apology, writing that they welcomed the statements of contrition from Big Hit.

“The outrageous incidents reveal a basic lack of knowledge of history’s darkest chapters that endangers the future of younger generations,” said the center’s Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action, Rabbi Abraham Cooper. “We are reaching out to BTS and their management to urge that they harness their international fame to celebrate the good, not serve the forces of evil.”

Indeed, both Big Hit and the Wiesenthal Center’s statements reflect each other in regard to the management’s lack of education over world history. The Center also posted an image of an email Big Hit sent them, which states:

Big Hit Entertainment is deeply conscious of our responsibility, as it is no excuse that we failed to screen the matter and regret that it happened. We will continue to educate ourselves, be more sensitive to such matters, and protect our artist from such incidents and the implications they may carry…It is worth noting that the artist has shared a message recently at the UN, which demonstrated their consistent beliefs that loving yourself and love for others are of primary importance in the world now, and that [has] been a global message for the artist. Both Big Hit and the artists hope to continue spreading that message and share love for all humankind.

There’s also an apology from the maker of the atomic bomb shirt.

Really? What did they have to say?

The designer of the shirt, LJ Company CEO Lee Kwang Jae, issued an apology to Big Hit, BTS and fans. “When I first started the brand, street fashion was the trend. At the time, I was personally quite interested in history. So I made the t-shirts, thinking that if I put a sense of history into the fashion that young people wore, they might become interested in history,” he said according to Soompi.

“I did not include that part to mock Japan. I did it to express the historic truth and timing that after the atomic bomb was detonated, Japan’s unconditional surrender led to independence…After I found out, I was very flustered and apologetic. I had no intention to promote anti-Japanese sentiment, and so I’m very sorry towards BTS.”

With so many apologies, maybe there can be some resolution with this after all.

Maybe. An interesting turn of events in all of this is that because of the shirt controversy, ARMY members sent in donations to the House of Healing, an organization that helps comfort women. The donations totaled ₩3.5 million KRW ($3,100). Between June and September, fans raised over ₩10 million. I’m not sure if that ₩10 million was in response to the controversy before it blew up to the international stage, but regardless, donations have been made to bring something good out of the controversy.

So, what now? Where does BTS go from here?

That’s up to BTS and Big Hit. Seeing how Big Hit has gone to such lengths to apologize and take full responsibility, it would seem that the company and the group will be able to weather the storm.

But weathering the storm isn’t the same as changing course. Big Hit has already stated that they plan on making amends, and the Wiesenthal Center has also reached out to BTS and Big Hit to work together to make sure “they harness their international fame to celebrate the good, not serve the forces of evil.” But time will tell how BTS and Big Hit incorporate their new knowledge.

There are some things that I wish would come to pass that are bigger than BTS and Big Hit. Better education of the Holocaust and other world events are needed if we are to become better world neighbors. The UN study, for instance, recommends, “calling for greater historical accuracy and more systematic comparisons of genocides.” The Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Center, unfortunately the only organization of its kind in Asia, is doing its best to educate citizens by going “beyond history lessons” to teach “the importance of simply being tolerant of people’s differences.” It involves, said Kaminsky, “telling them the why behind things, in order to teach [them] to be more understanding and accepting of others. It starts at the basic level of kids bullying each other. It can end in catastrophes.”

There need to be more centers like the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Center throughout Asia. There needs to be more education on others’ differences. There also needs to be a way for people to have the tough conversations regarding symbolism, imagery, hurt feelings and political tensions.

If anything positive can come from this, maybe it’s that BTS inadvertently brought up an opportunity to facilitate these tough conversations. There is an opportunity for growth here, and hopefully that opportunity is seized upon, even if it is just to teach BTS how to be better at being artists who want to heal the world.