Throngs of fans packed Tokyo Dome on Tuesday and Wednesday to watch K-pop group BTS perform songs from across its five-year career. The crowd cheered, bought merchandise and the two days offered the seven-member group some respite from a week of scandal.
Things kicked off when TV Asahi canceled a performance by the group on its “Music Station” program scheduled for Nov. 9 after a photo began spreading online of BTS member Park Ji-min, better known as Jimin, sporting a long-sleeved shirt celebrating South Korea’s independence from colonial Japanese rule on a Korean TV program in August last year. At issue was a photo on the shirt that depicted the atomic bomb that exploded over Nagasaki in 1945.
TV Asahi’s decision was reported worldwide and, like any controversial matter on the internet, the discourse got messier the deeper you looked into it. Though there were plenty of rational discussions that were filled with the kind of nuance and background knowledge only fans can bring, many more jumped to conclusions and spread misinformation. Japanese nationalists dug for further transgressions by the BTS members, while Korean ones used the opportunity to bash Japan. Some fans piled onto anyone believed to be critical of the group, while some played the “fake news” card. All in all, a pretty standard weekend on Twitter in 2018.
One narrative that developed was that TV Asahi’s decision was really about recent news relating to the strained relations between Tokyo and Seoul. There’s truth to this, but the way it is being presented isn’t quite right.
K-pop and other forms of Korean entertainment in Japan have long been dogged by geopolitical tension. If a Korean performer does something that could in any way be interpreted as anti-Japanese, the outrage will escalate quickly in Japan.
The list is long in this decade alone: girl group Red Velvet featuring newspapers with headlines about the Hiroshima bombing in a music video, TVXQ forgetting to put Japan on a world map, Korean actors swimming to a disputed island. The response? Protests against Korean pop culture, such as the ones at NHK’s year-end “Kohaku Uta Gassen” music show when K-pop acts performed.
It goes the other way, too. Japanese singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu landed in hot water for using Japan’s wartime Rising Sun flag in her promotional material, while other J-pop acts have mouthed off about the K-pop industry as a whole. Korean acts have also fallen victim to friendly fire: Girl group Kara was slammed for trying to demur on a question about disputed territory, and a track by Crayon Pop was banned from South Korean TV because it featured Japanese lyrics.
Trying to navigate this complex history is like walking a tightrope but if you take a step back and look more broadly you’ll see that K-pop’s move into Japan has brought a boost in attitudes toward South Korea. Both sides have learned more about the other and, like the fans at Tokyo Dome, a lot of people are really just into the music.
BTS has issued an official apology, and this probably won’t be the last historically centered scandal that happens in J-pop or K-pop. Personally, I remain optimistic. But if I were a pop star, I’d stick to solid colors when it comes to my wardrobe.