“It’s gotta be the shoes!” exclaimed director Spike Lee in the hit Air Jordan shoe commercial of the 1990s, images of which were soon branded into the minds of sports fans around the world.
Since then, basketball legend Michael Jordan’s sneakers have transcended sports gear to become symbols of pop culture and must-have items for anyone striving to “be like Mike.”
But the shoes have become a social hot potato in Korea, as the design of the recently released Air Jordan 12 retro The Master has stirred up controversy for using an image of Japan’s Rising Sun flag.
While the symbol is widely used in pop culture, clothing and footwear, it is still viewed as a symbol of Japanese imperialism by many Koreans, who are offended by its use.
Nike Korea removed the sneakers from its stores last month after the controversy.
“We understand the sensitivity of this issue and we apologize for any offense caused. The Air Jordan 12 will no longer be sold in Korea,” Nike Korea told The Korea Herald in a statement.
But Koreans are left wondering what the leading sportswear company’s position is on the contentious design.
Seo Kyoung-duk, professor of general education at Sungshin Women’s University, sent a letter of complaint to Nike and Michael Jordan about the matter but he has yet to receive a reply.
“Although Nike Korea issued an apology and stopped selling it in Korea, it is still being retailed all over the world. Imperial Japan inflicted pain upon many Asian countries; It is not just a matter between Seoul and Tokyo,” said Seo, adding he will continue raising the issue to Nike.
Retired basketballer Jordan remains one of the most popular sports icons in the world, as do his famous sneakers.
The original version of the Air Jordan 12 was worn by the NBA legend during the 1996-97 season after the Chicago Bulls achieved an all-time high of 72 wins, a record that still stands today.
But fans in Korea have expressed disappointment with their hero for remaining silent on the controversial sensitive issue.
“If Jordan knew about the Rising Sun flag and the historical relationship between Korea and Japan but chose to remain silent anyway, I am disappointed in him,” said 34-year-old basketball fan Jang Jae-ah. “The Japanese colonialism is long over, but its aftereffects are an ongoing issue in Korea.”
Scars of colonialism
Korea and Japan remain at odds over how to view Japan’s crimes during World War II, namely Japan’s sexual slavery of women from Korea and other parts of Asia for its soldiers. The Seoul government recently asked Tokyo to revise its history textbooks to clarify that the victims -- euphemistically called “comfort women” -- were forced into sexual slavery and that their human rights were infringed upon.
The 44 surviving comfort women are a testament to the lasting scars left by Japan’s 1910-45 colonialization of Korea, making any reminder of Japanese imperialism a taboo in Korean society.
Earlier in the year, Maison Kitsune stirred up controversy by using designs bearing images of the Rising Sun flag, after which the French fashion label issued an official apology. Some local celebrities have also came under fire for wearing clothes bearing the controversial design.
“Some people talk of freedom of expression in wearing such designs. But I think there’s a limit to such freedom, and a historically important matter should be an exception,” said 20-year-old Yoon Yeong-bin who attends Hansung University in Seoul.
“I think people wearing such designs lack a sense of history. There is no present without the past. Freedom of expression? It’s nonsense,” said Jang.
Depicting the sun and its rays, the Rising Sun flag dates back to the ancient Edo period (1603-1868) when it was used by Japanese warlords. In 1870, the Meiji government adopted it as the war flag of its army and subsequently as the symbol of its navy. The flag was used by the Japanese military during World War II when Japan invaded Asian countries in the 1940s.
It is now used by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, but it is more commonly used by the general public and in commercial products as it has traditionally meant good fortune and vigor.
Despite the widespread controversy, the retro Air Jordans were also a massive hit in Korea. A visit to a Nike store in Seoul in early March showed that nearly all the sneakers had been sold, except small sizes for children. As of Tuesday, it is being sold online at prices as high as 470,000 won ($406), more than double its retail price.
“Air Jordan collectors may find it hard to give up on their collection just because of the design. They may justify their choices by saying that it was probably not inspired by the Rising Sun flag because a U.S.-based company designed it,” said a 41-year-old basketball fan.
Nazi swastika and the Rising Sun
Many who oppose the use of the Rising Sun flag compare it to the Nazi swastika, which was a religious symbol until Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany adopted it as their emblem.
Since then, it has become highly stigmatized due to its association with Nazism.
Lee Jang-hie, professor emeritus of law at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said the difference in the two symbols lies in the differing attitudes and actions of Germany and Japan after the war.
“Most of the German war criminals were prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials, and Germany itself saw to it that punishments would be implemented. Also they worked hard to ensure that symbols, writings and propaganda linked to the Nazis would be taboo,” he said.
“But during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo, many of the (Japanese) war criminals were released to play prominent roles in Japan’s political, economic, academic circles as well as the media.”
Among those not prosecuted was Nobusuke Kishi, grandfather of incumbent Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“You can say that Japan has failed to fully part ways with its militaristic past,” Lee said.
He said that the new history textbooks in Japan that glorify “Kamikaze” suicide fighters and condone symbols like the Rising Sun flag is part of the country’s attempt to justify its past.
“Through their efforts to punish those related to Nazism, Germany managed to regain trust from the international society and is playing a crucial part in the EU. ... Japan, on the other hand, is trying to water down its imperial past,” he said.
Surveys indicate that neighboring countries in Northeast Asia remain discontented with one another.
Last year, Korea’s Foreign Ministry conducted a survey on 14 countries in Asia, Europe and North America. It showed that 77 percent of Japanese disliked China and 41.7 percent of Chinese had no affection for Japan. Another survey by Seoul Digital University last month showed that 86.1 percent of its students said that Korea and Japan have a bad relationship.
Professor Seo said that the biggest problem behind the use of the Rising Sun symbol is that foreigners do not think that it is an issue at all.
“The Japanese national team uniform in the 2014 FIFA World Cup had a design resembling a Rising Sun flag. The symbol is being used in fields that are most exposed to the general public, and most people do not recognize what it stood for. ... Many foreigners think that it is just a design that is often used in Japan,” he said.
“Japan’s intent may be to include imperialistic symbols into cultural content to promote them, so the general public will openly accept them,” said Seo.
Even some Koreans fail to recognize the meaning of the controversial design, pointed out Seo.
Hansung student Yoon said she did not know what exactly the Rising Sun flag represented until a controversy involving a local celebrity broke out.
“We (Korea) need to step up education not only on history, but also on how to address outside attempts to distort historical facts,” Seo said.
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com