SEOUL – A commercial by clothing brand Uniqlo has stirred a consumer backlash in South Korea amid accusations that it mocks victims of wartime labor and “comfort women,” reopening deep wounds from Japan’s colonial past.
A YouTube video created by a South Korean student parodying the ad has gone viral and protesters have targeted Uniqlo Co. stores, demanding an apology from the company.
In the Uniqlo commercial, Iris Apfel, a 97-year-old American style icon with more than 1.4 million Instagram followers, is in an animated conversation with 12-year-old fashion designer Kheris Rogers.
When Rogers asks how she used to dress as a teenager, Apfel says: “I can’t remember that far back!”
Instead of a literal translation of that line, the commercial that aired in South Korea carried subtitles saying: “Gosh! How can I remember something that goes back 80 years?”
Gaining more than 101,000 views in two days, the 19-second parody video posted on Saturday depicts a likeness of the Uniqlo TV commercial, which the company began airing this month in South Korea and other markets.
In the parody, South Korean college student Youn Dong-hyeun stands with Yang Geum-deok, a 90-year-old woman who had been a wartime laborer for Japan’s Mitsubishi during World War II.
Youn, a history major, asks how hard it was for Yang when she was young. “It is impossible to ever forget that awfully painful memory,” she replies. Youn has posted the video with subtitles in English and Japanese.
Uniqlo, owned by Japan’s Fast Retailing Co. Ltd., pulled the ad in South Korea on Saturday.
“There was no intention to touch on the issue of comfort women or the South Korea-Japan dispute,” a Uniqlo official in Seoul said, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The term “comfort women” is a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
Relations between the two countries are at their poorest in decades after a ruling by South Korea’s top court last year ordering Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate wartime forced laborers.
In July, Japan tightened controls on exports of three key high-tech materials to South Korea. Seoul accused Tokyo of taking the step in retaliation to the court ruling, prompting a wide-ranging boycott of Japanese products.
South Korea and Japan share a bitter history dating to the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon traveled to Japan on Tuesday to attend Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony on behalf of President Moon Jae-in.
Lee’s office said he planned to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday, which would be the highest-level contact between the two countries since July’s export curbs.
Uniqlo has already seen its South Korean sales hit and a sharp drop in customers at its stores as part of the boycott.
The translation for the ad’s subtitles, which was carried out in South Korea, was meant to help convey the message of the original commercial, the official said. She declined to identify who had performed the translation.
Student protesters took to the streets as the outcry against the commercial grew, demanding an official apology from Uniqlo.
Bang Seulkichan, 22, was among those picketing a Uniqlo store in Seoul, holding a sign that read: “Colonial rule 80 years ago — we remember!”
Park Young-sun, South Korea’s minister for small and medium enterprises, told a parliamentary committee Monday the ad controversy was “very upsetting.”