Uniqlo Commercial Pulled In South Korea Due To Subtitle Translation

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Screenshot: KBS

In a recent Uniqlo commercial, 98-year-old fashion model Iris Apfel talks with 13-year-old fashion designer Kheris Rogers. The commercial is in English, and the Korean-language subtitles have caused the Japanese clothing company to pull the ad. Viewers are accusing the subtitled commercial of forgetting the horrors of Japan’s forced occupation.


Apfel speaks English in the ad and is asked how she used to dress when she was the 13-year-old’s age. She replies, “Oh my god, I can’t remember that far back.”

In the Japanese version of the ad, the line is translated into Japanese as “As for things in the past, I forgot em.”

Image for article titled Uniqlo Commercial Pulled In South Korea Due To Subtitle Translation

However, in the Korean version, the line is translated as her saying, “How can I remember when it was over 80 years ago?” Obviously, the original English differs.

This translation has caused controversy because in South Korea there are claims this is a reference to Japan’s imperial rule of South Korea and all that happened during that period (more here), such as forced labor and sexual slavery. The subtitle controversy has made its way to mainstream Korean news.

The implication is that old people cannot really remember what happened, which would be a pointed condemnation of the surviving comfort women, who are now in their 90s.


In 2015, the Japanese and South Korean government reached an agreement on the comfort women, establishing a $9 million fund to assist them. But former comfort women, like Kim Bok-dong who died earlier this year, want a formal apology from the Japanese government.

Against this backdrop, tensions between Japan and South Korea are currently running high with the South Korean Supreme Court ruling that Japanese companies need to pay for forced wartime factory and mining labor, Japan no longer considering South Korea a trusted trading partner, and Seoul abandoning intelligence sharing with Tokyo. Korean tourism is down in Japan, and in South Korea, there are boycotts on Japanese goods, hurting companies like Uniqlo. The two neighboring countries are not getting along.


At the center of contention is the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. The Japanese point of view is that the treaty states issues of compensation were settled “completely and finally” through Japan’s massive injection of economic aid, which included settlement money, into South Korea. As Lawfare points out, the South Korean government did not pay that money out as compensation to its citizens and instead used it to build up its infrastructure.


However, the Korean view is that the Japanese occupation was unlawful and thus, the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling is correct. Moreover, the ruling argued that Japan never agreed that colonialism was unjust and therefore the money could never have been intended for victims. You can read more on Lawfare about the ongoing legal wrangling between the two countries.

Tadashi Yanai, Uniqlo’s founder and CEO, has been critical of how the Japanese government has been recently acting toward South Korea, saying it has been “odd” and “hysterical” and that he understands why South Koreans have started boycotting Japanese products.


Uniqlo Korea has pulled the ad but believes this is a misunderstanding. “We can’t really comprehend why it’s controversial, but there might be a misunderstanding,” said Uniqlo Korea, according to SCMP. “We think [the Korean people] have overly interpreted it in that way.”

“The ad was not designed for a specific country. It’s a global advertisement,” Uniqlo Korea added. “The models are real designers 98-year-old Iris Apfel and 13-year-old Kheris Rogers. The subtitles are to highlight their age difference. There are no national or historic connotations.”



You know, normally I’d say that historical events have weight and that South Korean people are right in being very sensitive on this topic, but the more I read about it the more I see how fabricated this whole deal is. This subject has been unfortunately hijacked and currently being used for exploitation rather than it really being about historical problems.

First of all, to be clear, this isn’t a thing most South Koreans really care much about nowadays, by themselves. I’ve seen several interviews on the streets regarding the several incidents that happened recently against japanese businesses, people ranging from young to old. There is awareness on the whole thing thanks to huge media coverage, but the information people have is all spread out, and there are lots of people who don’t agree with boycotting campaigns and general anti-japanese sentiment.

Which isn’t really a surprise since in the past decade or so the relations between the two countries are very close together, tons of interchange programs, tons of cultural exchange, tons of admiration for both cultures going both ways.


I’m not trying to diminish the severity of comfort women and the brutality that imperial Japan treated Korea back at occupation times in no way. Reading about the history back at those times, it was extremely brutal subjulgation, enslavement and as close as you can be to complete ethnic cleansing and cultural destruction. It wasn’t only about the brutality against korean people, but also about a complete campaign to erase korean culture, language, religion and several other aspects of their identity. So yeah, it was as bad as it can be.

But the reality is, both Japan and South Korea are completely different from what they were back before WWII. Imperial Japan was defeated, it became a whole other nation. The country has a debt to pay for what they did back at those times, but most of the current japanese population wasn’t there to begin with, as most of the south korean population also wasn’t.

Now, about the constant thrown out ideas that Japan never gave any official apology, that there needs to be an official recognition, that the current prime minister never apologized, and that the country fails to recognize that such things happened - I dunno who came up with that bullshit, but let’s call it what it is - bullshit.

Here, you can see for yourself:


Basically, Japan has been officially and regularly apologizing for attrocities commited in WWII and pre-WWII every single administration, both in Japan and during official visits to victim countries, ever since they surrendered. It is properly documented, it happened multiple times, and the current administration is no exception. It’s almost part of becoming a representative in Japan - you will have to apologize in official capacity on almost every diplomatic visit you’ll make. And you know, these things do get press coverage and all that, so yes, there is awareness, and it does happen.

I think it’s quite telling when people say it never happened - it just either means the provocations are made in a malicious way, or that people have not been paying attention either way to the matter and just conveniently use it as a tool to provoke negative sentiments, whenever is needed. It’s easy for people to say japanese government does not apologize for anything if they don’t pay attention to anything the japanese government ever does, or just forget that it has already happened, probably because you couldn’t careless about it back when it did happen.

I have seen it happening over and over again even coming from people who are neither south korean nor japanese and have no idea what they are talking about. A cursory Internet search should be enough to tell you how many times the japanese government has both officially recognized what happened and officially apologized for it, going to the point of multiple times having paid the so called reparations for it.

Why the heck would people say the japanese government does not recognize the attrocities commited during occupation if all it takes is a cursory Internet search to find out more about it then? Well, of course, the exact same thing that has been happening in the west - firehosing and claiming everything is fake-news. Fabricated indignation, stoking the flames of nationalism, putting up shows of power so that people vote for you. Playing the victim also happens in national level, that’s the case.

Nationalism, populism and a strategy for certain political parties to exploit history in a way to boost votes. It became a political tool. Victims have the right to say the whole subject has been ignored, but not particularly from Japan, but by their own government. Because it’s not about repairing problems of the past with victims, it’s about exploiting history for personal gains.

This has long past been a subject that is about fairness and apologizing to victims for problems of the past - this is about using the anger, sorrow and sadness of the past to gather political support. It’s a subject that has been used and abused both by government, extremists, ideologues and even private businesses for their own selfish purposes.

Dig a bit deeper under the surface on this topic, and you start finding some pretty weird stuff that also happened during the imperial Japan occupation in Korea. For instance, as one would imagine, as brutal as the occupation was for a part of the korean population, of course there were also several korean individuals, companies and whatnot that not only helped but also actively profited from the entire situation. As it happens in cases like this.

One small company was investigated on this matter, one you might have heard of: Samsung. Because the founder, coming from a rich Korean family, studied in a japanese university before opening business, and yet he was absolved somehow. And you’ll never hear a single peep coming from nationalist groups against this decision, gotta wonder why.

Finally, let me just say a final thing about all of this. Uniqlo has been a huge target on this entire campaign. Why? Because it’s a big, very recognizable japanese brand. But the name is just a franchise, like so many others.
First of all, Uniqlo has no past history in matters of Korean occupation, not that I’ve read about at least. No connections to it, no reasons to specifically target the brand other than it being very visible and prominent. So, it’s an easy target due to it’s success, that’s how empty the whole thing is.

And then worse, south koreans boycotting korean subsidiaries of the brand only affects... south korean business owners. There are some 180 Uniqlo stores in South Korea, so it’s big business there, but obviously the stores are not owned nor ran by japanese people. Make things worse, a big part of the Uniqlo store business in South Korea is owned by Lotte, a South Korean company, some 49% of it:

So you see how this whole thing is. Not only the protests and boycotts have some pretty shady reasonings behind it all, it’s just making things worse for south korean business owners. Business owners that decided to move on from past grievances and realized that collaboration was a better route for the current generation.