Uniqlo ad sparks protest, parody when South Korea-Japan conflict ignites

SEOUL (Reuters) – An advertising film by Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo has stirred a backlash from consumers in South Korea, amid accusations that it mocks victims of war workers and brothel workers and reopens deep wounds from Japan's colonial past.

A college student Bang Seulkichan stands with banners as a protest against recently released Uniqlo commercials in front of a Uniqlo store in Seoul, South Korea, October 22, 2019. The banner reads "Colonial rule 80 years ago – we remember!" REUTERS / Heo Ran

A YouTube video made by a South Korean student parodying the ad has gone viral, and protesters have targeted Uniqlo stores and demanded an apology from the company.

In the Uniqlo commercial, Iris Apfel, a 97-year-old American style icon with more than 1.4 million Instagram followers, is in an animated conversation with 12-year-old fashion designer Kheris Rogers.

When Rogers asks how she used to dress as a teenager, Apfel says, "I can't remember that far back!"

Instead of a literal translation of that line, the advertisement aired in South Korea with subtitles and said, "My God! How can I remember something going back 80 years? ”

With more than 101,000 views in two days, the 19-second parody video posted on Saturday shows a similarity to the Uniqlo TV commercial that the company began broadcasting this month in South Korea and other markets.

In the parody stands South Korean college student Youn Dong-hyeun with Yang Geum-deok, a 90-year-old woman who had been a forced laborer for Japan's Mitsubishi during World War II.

Youn, a history major, asks how difficult it was for Yang when she was young. "It's impossible to forget that terribly painful memory," she replies. Youn has posted the video with subtitles in English and Japanese.

Uniqlo, owned by Japan's Fast Retailing Co Ltd, pulled the ad in South Korea on Saturday.

"There were no intentions of touching on the issue of consolation women or the conflict between South Korea and Japan," a Uniqlo official in Seoul told Reuters asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.

"Comfort women" is a euphemism for girls and women, many of them Korean, who were forced to work in Japan's brothels in wartime.

The relationship between the two countries is at its poorest in decades following a ruling by South Korea's Supreme Court last year that ordered Japan's Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate forced laborers during wartime.

In July, Japan tightened its control over exports of three key high-tech materials to South Korea. Seoul accused Tokyo of taking the step in retaliating the court decision and asking for a comprehensive boycott of Japanese products.


South Korea and Japan share a bitter history dating to the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, including the use of consolation women.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon traveled to Japan on Tuesday to attend Emperor Naruhito's sorcery ceremony on behalf of President Moon Jae-in.

Lee's office said he planned to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday, which will be the highest-level contact between the two countries since July's export margins.

Uniqlo has already seen its South Korean sales hit and a sharp drop in store customers as part of the boycott.

The translation of the ad subtitle, performed in South Korea, was intended to help convey the message of the original advertisement, the official said. She refused to identify who had performed the translation.

Slideshow (2 images)

Student protesters took to the streets as the outbreak against the commercial grew and demanded an official apology from Uniqlo.

Bang Seulkichan, 22, was among those picking a Uniqlo store in Seoul, holding a sign that read: "Colonial government 80 years ago – we remember!"

Park Young-sun, South Korea's minister for SMEs, told a parliamentary committee on Monday that the controversy over the ad was "very upsetting".

Reporting by Sangmi Cha; additional reporting from Ju-min Park; Editing by Jack Kim, Lincoln Feast and Dale Hudson

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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