Is BTS’ use of violent imagery cultural commentary, or ignorant of the past?

We break down the puzzling dynamic of how far fans will go to ride for their faves, and what it means to cross a line.

November 13, 2018

Update:  BTS’ label, Big Hit Entertainment have issued a statement . You can read the English translation in full below.

Big Hit Entertainment’s Position on Issues Recently Raised Involving BTS

Recently, a number of issues have been raised involving BTS, the artist group of Big Hit Entertainment (hereby referred to as “Big Hit”). We would like to express our positions on these issues as follows.

Recently, a number of issues have been raised involving BTS, the artist group of Big Hit Entertainment (hereby referred to as “Big Hit”). We would like to express our positions on these issues as follows.

1. Among the issues recently raised involving BTS, Big Hit has reviewed the following issues:
-that a Big Hit artist has worn an outfit depicting an image of an atomic bomb,
– that a Big Hit artist was shown with headwear displaying a National Socialist (Nazi) symbol as part of a magazine photo shoot in the past,
– and that Big Hit artists took part in a performance during which flags depicting motifs reminiscent of Nazi symbols were featured and wielded.

2. Big Hit’s position on the issues outlined above are as follows.
– In all activities involving BTS and any other artists associated with our company, Big Hit does not condone any activities of war or the use of atomic weapons, is adamantly against them, had no intention of causing distress or pain to anyone affected by the dropping of atomic weapons, and we will continue to adhere to these principles.
– 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.

3. Regarding the issues recently raised, we would like to offer the following apologies.
– 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.
– Nevertheless, Big Hit 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 the complexities of on-site conditions, are in no way responsible for any of the issues outlined above.

4. 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.

5. Big Hit will do our utmost to address the issues recently raised.
– “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. 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.
– We 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.

6. Big Hit is taking the following steps to ensure that these issues are properly addressed.
– Big Hit has contacted associations in Japan and Korea representing those affected by the atomic bombings to provide explanations and apologies to anyone who may have been distressed or in any way affected.
– Big Hit has delivered a letter to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization that has brought some of these issues to attention, in order to offer explanations and apologies to anyone who may have been distressed or in any way affected.

BTS’ path to cultural takeover hit an obstacle last week when the K-Poppers were dropped from a major Japanese television appearance following photos surfacing of group member Jimin wearing a shirt making light of the Hiroshima attacks. The shirt has inspired condemnation of the group, along with the resurfacing of past evidence regarding the group’s alleged history of “mocking the past” – though with this discourse has emerged a strange phenomenon borne from the intense passion of BTS lovers and haters alike, where the line between fact and fiction, hysteria and history have collectively blurred; latently obscuring larger, more complex truths in the process.

Jimin’s shirt in question was worn in August to celebrate Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule, and featured the repetition of the line “Patriotism Our History Liberation Korea”—in addition to a picture of a mushroom cloud. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, speaking for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an organization for Jewish human rights, condemned the group for what he calls “the latest incident of this band mocking the past.” This “history” Cooper speaks in reference to includes a number of pictures from 2014-15 of the group posing t the holocaust memorial and, more damningly, group member RM allegedly donning a hat adorned with Nazi symbolism:

Though BTS attempted to atone for their holocaust memorial misstep by leaving the pictures out of the photo-book they were alleged to be published in, the swastika-hat incident appears to be harder to find solid details on: Though the pictures themselves are taken from the group’s appearance in a 2014 issue of CECI magazine (and in this incarnation clearly sport a Swastika), there are currently a number of BTS fans quick to decry the false nature of the photo, believing the Nazi symbol to have been manipulated onto the picture:

Making the truth behind RM’s hat even more confusing was the emergence of a third take, conceding that although the hat did, in fact, feature a swastika, it belonged to the stylist of the magazine it appeared in rather than RM, thus absolving BTS of all potentially anti-Semitic guilt:

An even-more ambiguous chapter of BTS’ history of cultural ignorance involves a Halloween costume that, depending on your love or hate of the group, is either an innocent jailbird outfit or a recreation of of the uniforms worn by those in an Auschwitz concentration camp:

It appears that in the case of BTS fans and haters alike, “truth” is a concept with a definition malleable in whatever direction one’s like or dislike seems to point. The sole idea we can approach as a certifiable fact between the group’s diehards and detractors is the carelessness in which hate symbols representing generations of trauma are reduced to accusatory labels that, depending on your position within or without the BTS Army, exist either to be shrugged off like rain on an umbrella or lobbed at them as rotting tomatoes.

It’s this eagerness to muddy facts in both directions—whether its pretending a swastika hat is photoshopped due to the cuteness of the person wearing it, or immediately condemning someone’s Halloween costume as a tasteless Auschwitz reference without proof of intention—that makes larger and more complex accusations even harder to parse as fact or fiction. Case in point: the theory that the cancellation of BTS’ television appearance had less to do with a problematic shirt, and more to do with initiatives of Korean erasure sanctioned by the Japanese government.

Circulating around the same quick-to-forgive side of BTS Army Twitter as the “he didn’t own the hat” and “it’s photoshopped” takes is a blurb subtitled ‘The Real Reason Why JPN TV cancelled BTS’ Appearance.” The text alleges that not only was Simin’s shirt more in reference to Korean Liberation from Japanese rule than any direct anti-Japan sentiment, but that their cancelled performance is largely the product of a growing anti-Korean sentiment in Japan under the country’s current Abe administration:

Although this tidbit may have originated in a reactionary sphere, Jeff Benjamin, in an article for Billboard, confirmed and expanded upon BTS’ cancelled appearance as having less to do with any outright problematic actions, and more coming from the increasingly tense and discriminatory relationship between Japan and South Korea.

Benjamin describes the trend of growing anti-Korean ideology that has been proliferating throughout Japan since the beginning of the decade, starting with mass protests in Tokyo during 2011 against the increasingly-influential “Korean wave” of popular culture, along with numerous “hostile demonstrations” against Koreans living in Japan beginning in 2013.

The article comes to a conclusion aligned with the Twitter blurb, with Benjamin framing BTS’ cancellation as “yet another slip in an ongoing awkwardly tense situation where culture and politics far outweigh a fashion item.” So why is this not the dominating narrative?

It all comes down to “The Stan Who Cried Wolf”: with fans proving their willingness to smudge the truth or rationalize details as to why someone would wear clothing with Nazi imagery. Normalizing that behaviour as “flaws” or an “accident,” however, means that when a truth does come around—such as, say, country-wide cultural discrimination against one of your favourite bands—it’s possible to land on the other side of the argument.

So, is it fair to claim that BTS have a history of mocking the past? Yes, though perhaps stemming more from ignorance than intention. As a fan, it’s the acceptance of this history—not the rationalization, normalization, or excusing of it—that the BTS Army owes themselves, in order to empower their voices when it comes getting larger issues heard.

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