Kishidan, a Japanese pop group, showed up on MTV wearing Nazi-style outfits late last month, drawing international criticism.
Kishidan typically dresses as high school thugs from the 1970s, wearing bosozoku (biker gang) style outfits. Kishidan is tongue-in-cheek look at Japanese gang culture from days gone by. Their music is poppy and fun and is known to Western gamers thanks their appearance in Nintendo DS music games Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan and the title's sequel.The group looks very similar to the characters in Ouendan, but the similar appearance might simply be a coincidence.
The group does wear a variety of goofy outfits because the retro schoolboy dudes. Kishidan's Nazi-inspired outfits didn't have swastikas or S.S. emblems, but did feature red arm-bands, skulls and iron crosses (the lead singer, however, always wears a red-arm band). Didn't anyone foresee a possible brouhaha? Probably not.
Why would they when this imagery does occasionally pop up in unexpected places, like role-playing games, Killzone 3 promotions and even accidentally in kids' shows, nobody in Japan really bats an eye. Take last fall when Pond's ran an ad campaign, featuring stars of the all-female theatrical troupe the Takarazuka Revue.
The campaign featured Takarazuka talent on stage, with the tagline "Behind the performance, there's Ponds." Images of the actresses "on stage" are contrasted with them images of them "off stage". Actress Rurika Miya's on-stage photo is of her as Gestapo colonel in Takarazuka's musical The Prisoners of Lilac Walls. The campaign print campaign featured posters all over the country's urban centers. Yet, I was the only one who stopped and stared. Nobody else cared.
One's background obviously shapes their perception of the world around them. From the time I was a kid, it was imparted that the Nazis were pure evil. And when studying World War II, special attention was paid to the genocide carried out by the Nazis. I remember the surprise I had in college when my German Studies professor starting talking about his time in the Hitler Youth as we poured over Hesse. All the students, mouths agape, asked, "You were in the Hitler Youth — what was that like?" His reply: "I dunno, I was seven."
In Japan, of course, the Nazis and the Holocaust are studied, but for obvious reasons much more attention is paid to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bombings. Perhaps, it's more tangible or "relevant"?
It's also important to remember that Japan fought on the same side as the Nazis during the war, and the country has a minuscule Jewish population. Neither of this excuses anything, but rather, they put things into context.
Moreover, the Nazi swastika looks similar to the Buddhist manji, a counterclockwise swastika that is used to mark Buddhist temples on maps. The ancient symbol has no relations to National Socialism, and when Japanese people see it, then think Buddhist temples. Because of the close appearance, unsettling associations are naturally lost. But Westerns might do a double-take if they see two large manji on cemetery gates. I know I sure did the first time.
After Jewish rights organization the Simon Wiesenthal Centre said the Kishidan outfits caused "shock and dismay", drawing international media attention. SWC Rabbi Abraham Cooper said, "Such garb like the uniform worn by Kishidan is never tolerated in the mainstream of any civilized country outside of Japan. As someone who has visited Japan over 30 times, I am fully aware that many young Japanese are woefully uneducated about the crimes against humanity committed during World War II by Imperial Japan in occupied-Asia, let alone about Nazi Germany's genocidal 'Final Solution' against the Jews in Europe... But global entities like MTV and Sony Music should know better."
Sony issued an apology, saying, "We deeply regret and apologize for the distress it has caused the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and all concerned." The group also apologized, adding it would dispose of the uniforms. MTV also deleted all images of the group. Out of sight, out of mind, no?
The reaction online in Japan has been interesting. Many seem annoyed that Japanese people in Japan cannot wear whatever they like without getting criticized by people who live in other countries. Others can't believe that wearing boots, a red arm and pendants can cause such a ruckus. While some were baffled that Kishidan was allowed on MTV wearing such get-ups. "If I'm going to be honest," wrote one Japanese netizen, "didn't anyone foresee this being a problem?" Like I said, probably not.
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