HONG KONG — They have been called the world’s biggest boy band, and they were even recently enlisted to speak at the United Nations — the first K-pop group ever given such an honor.
But proving that even world-famous pop groups are not immune to political tensions, a Japanese television station abruptly canceled a live performance by the chart-topping South Korean band, BTS, on Thursday amid an uproar over a T-shirt once worn by one of the band’s members.
The T-shirt featured the well-known historical image of a billowing mushroom cloud rising over the Japanese city of Nagasaki, and some said it glorified the Americans’ use of atomic bombs against Japan at the end of World War II.
“After we talked to the band’s agency about the member’s intention in wearing the T-shirt, we have regrettably decided to call off their performance at this time,” read a statement posted on the website of Music Station, a program on the Japanese television network TV Asahi.
In a statement on its official website, BTS, also known as Bangtan Boys, apologized to fans for the cancellation, though they did not mention the T-shirt.
The article of clothing in question was said to have been worn by Jimin, 23, one of the band’s seven members, in a 2017 episode of the group’s reality television show, “BTS: Bon Voyage.” The T-shirt shows the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki just moments after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city on Aug. 9, 1945, instantly killing more than 70,000 civilians.
A block of repeating text printed on the T-shirt alongside the image reads: “PATRIOTISM OUR HISTORY LIBERATION KOREA.”
The incident tapped into the deep well of resentment that still roils relations between the two countries, more than seven decades after Imperial Japan’s defeat in World War II liberated the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonial rule (it was subsequently divided into North and South Korea). Aug. 15 is still commemorated annually by both North and South Korea as Victory Over Japan Day.
Those historical tensions flared up last month when a South Korean court ordered a leading Japanese steel maker to compensate Korean men who were slave laborers during World War II.
Relations between the two countries remain strained by other wartime legacies, like the Korean “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels. Many South Koreans say Japan’s apologies and reparations over that issue have not been sufficient.
The T-shirt incident was a small but embarrassing setback for BTS, which has seen overwhelming success in recent years with its ever-changing rotation of hair colors and musical influences. This year, the band was not only the first K-pop band to reach the top spot on the Billboard Artist 100 Chart, it did so twice in the span of a few months.
In August, BTS broke Taylor Swift’s record for biggest YouTube video debut, racking up 45 million views for their video “Idol” in just 24 hours. In October, they finished off the North American leg of their “Love Yourself” world tour with a sold-out performance to a crowd of about 40,000 at Citi Field in New York City.
The band has waded into potentially taboo topics before, and members have been particularly outspoken about their support for gay rights.
But back home, relations between their native country and Japan have been something of a political minefield. In September, Korean fans lashed out at the band’s management agency, Big Hit Entertainment, after reports emerged about BTS’s plans to release a Japanese-language single written by the prominent Japanese producer Yasushi Akimoto.
Known for creating the popular Japanese girl band AKB48, Mr. Akimoto had angered Korean fans in the past by featuring the rising sun flag — seen by many as a painful symbol of Japanese imperialism — in some of AKB48’s costumes. As a result of the backlash, BTS removed the single, titled “Bird,” from its latest Japanese album, which was released on Wednesday.
According to South Korean media, the designer of the T-shirt for the Korean street fashion brand Ourhistory has apologized, saying he did not intend for the design to be construed as anti-Japanese.
Despite the outcry in Japan, the group’s many die-hard fans, who are known as the Army, seemed undeterred. On Friday, the band’s newly released single “Fake Love/Airplane Pt. 2” remained at the top of the Japanese music singles chart, according to Oricon, a Japanese music statistics website.
Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo. Su-Hyun Lee contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.
Follow Amy Qin on Twitter: @amyyqin.
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