The Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo has pulled an ad from South Korean TV after it was accused of mocking victims of wartime sexual slavery.
The company said it had stopped airing the 15-second ad after critics pointed out that the Korean-language subtitles appeared to question the testimony of women who said they were forced to work in Japanese military brothels across Asia before and during the second world war.
The decision comes after months of diplomatic wrangling between Tokyo and Seoul over the countries’ bitter wartime legacy. The dispute began after a South Korean supreme court ruling last year ordering Japanese companies to compensate Koreans forced to work in Japanese mines and factories when the Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony. But Japan insists that all compensation claims were settled by a postwar peace treaty.
The decision triggered a trade spat that has since spread to the tourism sector, and even preparations for next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
In the ad, the 97-year-old model Iris Apfel is asked by the 13-year-old designer Kheris Rogers how she dressed when she was her age. Apfel replies: “I can’t remember that far back.” But the version with Korean subtitles gave Apfel’s reply as: “Oh my God, how can I remember what happened more than 80 years ago?”
The Korea Herald said some viewers interpreted the time reference as an attempt to ridicule former sex slaves and forced labourers, whose recollections of abuses have been questioned by rightwing politicians and academics in Japan.
In response, Uniqlo pulled the ad in South Korea and from its YouTube account days after it first appeared, but said it had not intended to cause offence.
“The advertisement in question is a part of a global advertisement series to mark the 25th anniversary of fleece and it has no links to any political or religious agendas, belief or organisations, but we decided to stop airing the ad as we take it seriously that many people felt uncomfortable,” Uniqlo said.
It said the Korean-language subtitles had been worded that way to highlight the age gap between Apfel and Rogers.
Some historians say the Japanese imperial army coerced or tricked as many as 200,000 women and girls – most of them from Korea – to serve in frontline brothels.
Uniqlo, which has 186 stores in South Korea, was already among several high-profile targets of a South Korean boycott of Japanese goods.