‘crimes’ of BTS and the hidden issues behind reparations”
November 24, 2018
The November tour of Japan planned for
rising Korean boy band BTS displayed the potential to become a massive
commercial and economic success that would go beyond even Psy’s “Gangnam
Style” in Japan, and around the world.
The popularity of BTS with young Japanese
also had the potential to move relations between the two countries beyond the
obsession with history issues and to create a new cultural circulation between
After all, BTS had been featured on the
cover of Time Magazine’s international edition on October 11 with the
provocative headline “How BTS Is Taking Over the World.” That widely
read article included a moving video relating how BTS emphasized ethical
issues, as seen in their talk at the United Nations in September.
Band member Kim Nam-joon talked at the
U.N. about the alienation felt by young people, suggesting they could move
forward if they loved themselves and embraced a positive attitude toward the
world. This reference to the song and video by BTS “Love Yourself”
suggested a way out of the passivity and alienation that overshadows youth.
The Time Magazine article also included
a comparison with The Beatles, noting BTS was the first Korean band to sell out
a whole stadium in the United States and that they did not need to redo all
their songs in English.
BTS had managed to weave together a deep
sympathy for the plight of young people in an increasingly ruthless and
uncaring economic system together with the dance moves and tear-jerking lyrics
that young people can relate to. Others had made such arguments to youth. But
their messages were lost on youth who are accustomed to responding to YouTube
performances, not lectures and sermons.
Suddenly, on November 8, TV Asahi
announced that the live performance of BTS on its popular program “Music
Station” the following day had been cancelled. The Japanese media was
filled with reports of other cancelations and for a few days it appeared as if
Japan had been swept by an anti-Korean wave that endangered the entire tour.
The newspapers in Japan and Korea were
full of superficial reports that described cultural and diplomatic
“spats” between the peoples of the two countries. The actions of TV
Asahi, a for-profit media corporation that obviously took a big financial risk
by canceling the broadcast the day before, suggest that something bigger was
Before looking at the mainstream
explanation for the cancelations, let us consider the critical events that
proceeded TV Asahi’s decision and their implications.
First and foremost, TV Asahi’s decision
suddenly to cancel the performance was a violation of contract law. A formal
contract for the performance had been signed. But TV Asahi felt free to renege
on it, even though BTS honored its side. The only excuse given was that one
member of the band had worn a T-shirt a year ago that was judged by TV Asahi to
Such actions by a corporation are
egregious, but they have much in common with the blatant violations of the rule
of law we are witnessing in Trumpian America.
The position of TV Asahi that it could
decide on its own that BTS’s actions were offensive and that it could violate a
legal contract with impunity is best understood in the context of the new
interpretation of economic sanctions advanced by the Trump administration as a
means to advance the interests of corporations through economic warfare.
The campaigns against Iran, Russia,
Turkey and North Korea under Trump have made such economic sanctions into a
weapon for sale to multinational corporations to pursue their own interests.
This use of economic sanctions makes a complete mockery of not only
international law and contract law, but also of the World Trade Organization
(WTO) and trade agreements.
In the case of North Korea and Iran,
“economic sanctions” have nothing to do with stopping the spread of
nuclear weapons through international agreements (the Trump administration
shows deep contempt for non-proliferation treaties) or about ending human
rights violations (something that the Trump administration encourages at home
and abroad). Rather, economic sanctions serve two critical purposes. They
increase pressure on the country targeted so that in negotiations that country
will be forced to accept a raw deal to avoid the pain created by economic
Economic sanctions also give certain
corporations with close ties to the government to have the right to engage in
the secret negotiations about economic relations with the country that is
subject to sanctions, while NGOs, experts and smaller businesses are completely
The Abe administration finds the
abandonment of international law, and of diplomacy, by the Trump administration
intriguing. Economic sanctions could be a new tool for Japan to use to get what
it wants without going through pesky processes like the WTO, which require transparency
The cancellation of the BTS appearance
can be interpreted as a trial balloon for a new kind of mini-economic sanctions
that could be applied even against economic rivals like South Korea that are
not branded as threats by the United States. The Abe administration was trying
out this suspension of due process to see if it could create an environment in
which powerful political figures dictate economic or trade relations without
any means of appeal. Perhaps this action was a trial balloon for a new approach
to economics better suited to the super-rich who are frustrated by the
regulations made by bureaucrats and other little people.
So what was it that prompted the Abe
administration to pursue this strategy against South Korea, and specifically
The answer is not hard to find.
The South Korean Supreme Court issued a
ruling on Oct. 30 ordering Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation to pay
100 million won ($88,000) to four Koreans who were forcibly made to work under
hazardous conditions in its factories during the Second World War. Several
other similar cases are pending that could result in even larger demands for
reparations. If the flood gates are opened, thousands of Koreans may seek
billions of dollars in compensation from Japanese corporations over the months
and years ahead.
This ruling is the first concrete award
of damages since the Supreme Court recognized in 2012 the rights of victims to
file for compensation against Japanese companies during wartime.
The granting of such compensation may
not seem that remarkable. After all, the crimes of the Japanese government
during the Pacific War have been extensively documented. But this ruling
represents a historic shift in how the suffering of Koreans before 1945 is
treated and a breakdown of the consensus that has been in place for the past 60
years that limited how the issue could be discussed and addressed.
The Japanese government claims that all
reparations from Japan to South Korea have been paid in full, in accord with
the 1965 normalization treaty (Treaty on Basic Relations). That treaty, signed
by Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and South Korean President Park
Chong-hee, stipulated that $300 million in economic aid, $500 million in
favorable loans and some technology transfer from Japan would settle all claims
of Koreans against the Japanese government, against Japanese corporations and
against Japanese individuals, forever.
The recent ruling is a major risk to the
conservatives around Abe, particularly those who have large holdings of stock
in conglomerates. They worry that the future debate on compensation will cease
to be presented as the fuzzy resentment of the Japanese people by the Koreans.
Such vague ideas of Korean emotions
about Japan have aided corporations by keeping public attention focused on
intangible bad feelings between the peoples that can never be resolved.
But this ruling is not vague at all, and
it is not anti-Japanese. It focuses on the specific actions of two
corporations, corporations that have deep pockets and which were liable by
international standards for damages. The discussion is no longer about Korean
pride now, but rather about corporate liability.
The risks of this ruling for wealthy
stockholders in Japan are immense. It is not an issue that matters so much for
ordinary Japanese. But powerful forces want the man in the street in Japan to
think that somehow the ruling is an affront to all Japanese.
Aso Taro, finance minister in the Abe
cabinet and arch-conservative, is outspoken on the issue of reparations. Aso
comes from a family that made a fortune from mining in Manchuria that was
undertaken by Koreans (and other peoples) ― many forced laborers ― none of them
provided with appropriate safety equipment in the dangerous mines. Aso Taro’s
father, Aso Takakichi, was the owner of the Aso Cement Company that profited
from the exploitation of forced labor and low-wage labor.
Aso and his friends have been counting
on the basic treaty of 1965 to block all demands for compensation. The Japanese
government, and Japanese corporations that influence it, have consistently
responded to demands for compensation by stating that all compensation issues for
the government and for corporations alike were settled by the treaty.
The treaty also dictates that no
compensation for damages from before the 1911 annexation will be allowed
either, blocking the way for claims concerning the manner by which Japanese corporations
illegally seized land and resources in Korea at the end of the Joseon Dynasty
and illegally (by Joseon Dynasty law) set up banks and railroads, and bribed
Korean government officials.
Of course all that was a very long time
ago. But let us not kid ourselves here. There are plenty of precedents for
successful lawsuits for compensation for wrongs from 100 years ago. What has
altered is the consensus held over the past 60 years that these topics are off
limits for demands. I personally think that the irrational assumption that the
1965 treaty ended all possibilities for claims against Japanese companies for
damages during the Second World War derives from a series of post-war
U.S.-Japan-Korea agreements that remain classified to this date.
But there is more to the story. Although
the media presents the court ruling as one favorable to Koreans and unfavorable
to Japanese, such an interpretation is dishonest. First and foremost, Koreans,
that is to say the people who inhabited the region previously controlled by the
Joseon Dynasty, were designated as citizens of the Japanese empire by the
Japanese government. They were not legally Koreans during the period in
question. Although the status of their citizenship was not the same as citizens
of Japan in terms of their ability to advance in government and to own property
and businesses (with some important exceptions), they were considered to be
Japanese until the Japanese government unilaterally declared them to be Koreans
in 1945 without any legal process.
In a sense, when the Japanese government
stripped Koreans of their citizenship and refused to give them any pensions or
medical or legal aid, it was acting on behalf of Japanese corporations that
wanted to cut their liabilities for their actions.
But if the demands for compensation
increase, the process will quickly become an issue within Japan itself. After
all, there are many Koreans living in Japan who were also stripped of their
citizenship in the Japanese Empire in 1945 and who have not had the right to
For that matter, the Japanese government
has blocked efforts of Japanese to seek compensation for damages from Japanese
corporations for their actions during the Pacific War. If Koreans start getting
compensation, there is a risk that Japanese also will start to make such
demands. The expert on colonial-era forced labor William Underwood told me that
it has been impossible so far for Japanese nationals to sue Japanese companies
for conscription either because all Japanese were subject to national
conscription from 1939. All that could change and that the myth that
reparations are an emotional dispute between the Korean and Japanese peoples
But why was the ruling on compensation
made at this particular moment? After all, the forced labor issue has not drawn
much attention in the Korean mainstream media. The overwhelming focus in the
Korean media has been on a handful of surviving “comfort women,”
women forced to perform sexual services for the Japanese military during the
Second World War.
Perhaps there is something else going on
behind the scenes concerning reparations.
We know from various leaks in the media
that the Japanese government and Japanese corporations are engaged in
negotiations with North Korea behind the scenes concerning the normalization of
relations and future economic relations. Most likely those negotiations concern
future contracts for the building of infrastructure, the rights to mine and
exploit minerals in North Korea and permission for Japanese corporations to
build and run factories in North Korea. All of these fields of activity are
potentially extremely profitable for Japanese corporations, if destructive for
One topic that certainly came up in
those secret negotiations is reparations for the war-time sufferings of Koreans
who live in North Korea. The Japanese government never recognized the
government of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea after the war, and it
has never paid any reparations similar to the deal that the Republic of Korea
received in 1965. North Korean negotiators know history well and they
understand how Japanese politics works. They are probably demanding top dollar
for compensation for sufferings and making it the condition for access to the
North Korean economy.
The Abe administration most likely wants
to make an agreement with North Korea in secret that is similar to the 1965
treaty and that offers a lump sum to be paid to Kim Jong-un and others, along
with some technology transfer and some investment opportunities. Considering
that North Korea has consistently demanded reparations for damages caused by
colonialism, whereas South Korea accepted a less confrontational “economic
cooperation” paradigm, North Korea may reach a far more comprehensive
agreement for reparations with Japan that South Korea made in 1965 ― even if
the details are kept secret.
If North Korea gets a better deal than
South Korea on reparations, the entire can of worms that Japanese conservatives
thought they had sealed away forever in 1965 could be opened up again. The
negotiations about reparations taking place Pyongyang may have forced Seoul to
open the way for individual claims against Japanese corporations, and that move
could lead to numerous demands from North Korea, South Korea, China, and even
within Japan itself.
T-shirts and hats with skulls
Now let us look at the sudden
cancelation of BTS’s performance on TV Asahi and how that tale was related in
the media in South Korea and in Japan.
The cancelation was presented as an
expression of Japanese anger against the cultural insensitivity of Koreans for
Japanese suffering in the Second World War.
On October 26, the newspaper Tokyo
Sports condemned BTS member Jimin for an “anti-Japanese act” because
he was filmed in a YouTube documentary a year ago wearing a T-shirt on Korean
Independence Day that featured a photograph of a mushroom cloud in the upper
right-hand corner. This shirt was assumed to be anti-Japanese and this
offensive behavior by a Korean boy band was quickly picked up by Zaitokukai, an
anti-Korean group that then wrote multiple posts about BTS and staged an
anti-Korean demonstration dedicated to this T-shirt. A series of other popular
entertainment figures subsequently made comments about the T-shirt in question.
It was then that Asahi suddenly
cancelled BTS’s performance on its show “Music Station.” NHK and Fuji
TV also stated that they would cancel broadcasts of BTS.
The T-shirt, worn on liberation day,
features the words “Patriotism, our history, liberation, Korea”
repeatedly and shows the atomic bomb to the right. Personally, I think it is
inappropriate to link the image of the atomic bomb dropped by the United States
on Japan with the fight for liberation in Korea, but among T-shirts related to
Korean liberation that I have seen, this one is relatively tame. I doubt anyone
would have found the shirt offensive unless they were told to see it as such.
Perhaps Jimin did not think all that
seriously about what the mushroom cloud on the T-shirt signified. But the
criticisms in the Japanese media said nothing about the need to increase the
understanding of history of young people ― a problem that is at least as
serious in Japan as it is in Korea.
Perhaps the T-shirt suggests that the
actions of Japan in the Second World War were sufficiently evil as to warrant
the use of atomic weapons. Such an opinion is deeply problematic in my opinion,
but it is widespread in the older generation in South Korea and the United
States. But it is far from clear that the T-shirt had that significance for
Jimin. If we want to know what young Koreans think the significance of the use
of nuclear weapons by the U.S. was, we should ask them directly. TV Asahi never
Other interpretations of the T-shirt are
quite possible. Perhaps it was intended to be ambiguous. The T-shirt can be
interpreted as a condemnation of the Pacific War as a whole, or even as a
tribute to the large number of Koreans who were also killed by the atomic bombs
dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima ― many of whom were there because they were
brought as forced labor.
The other offense of BTS that was raised
in the Japanese and international press was the photograph of a one of its
members posing with a military hat that features the skull insignia of the SS
in one of a series of photographs.
This photograph was also condemned in
the media almost immediately after the “controversy” about the atomic
bomb. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action
at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles condemned BTS for “mocking
the past” and went on to say that: “It goes without saying that this
group, which was invited to speak at the U.N., owes the people of Japan and the
victims of Nazism an apology.” Rabbi Cooper had nothing to say about the
praise of finance minister Aso Taro for Hitler, or the popularity of Nazi
images in Japanese popular culture, or the broad reception of anti-Semitic
writings in Japan that go far beyond anything to be found in South Korea.
There is absolutely no evidence that BTS
has an anti-Semitic agenda. But the members were clearly, and offensively,
ignorant of the Holocaust and insensitive to the feelings of those who
Their actions were wrong and they
apologized. But such use of images of Nazi origin in Japan, or elsewhere, are
extremely common. And many so-called conservatives in the United States and
Europe have displayed a deep fascination with the Nazi movement.
I played cowboys and Indians as a little
boy in the Mid West. One team played the Caucasian “cowboys” who
chased the native American “Indians.” I did not know that I was
indulging in a celebration of the genocide of the native Americans in the 19th
century ― although that interpretation is not inaccurate.
The show must go on
BTS made an extensive apology for the
various offenses and the tour went forward as planned. Although threats of
violence and online criticisms continued in Japan, including a bomb threat in
Nagoya, the BTS concert at Tokyo Dome brought in over 50,000 fans, and an
anti-Korean demonstration of two people.
BTS is not made up of professors of
history. I wish that there was not such a strong anti-intellectual trend in
contemporary society, but we cannot blame that on BTS. Nevertheless, the band’s
songs suggest a sophisticated sensitivity to the condition of youth that might
still help Koreans and Japanese to love themselves, and each other.