How offensive is Harry Harris’ mustache, truly?

South Korea and Japan have long had their tensions, ever since the end of World War II. In very simple terms, the animosity comes from Japan’s forceful invasion of Korea in the early 20th century–and the numerous war crimes they committed in the process.

Though most South Koreans and Japanese have positive views of each other and freely enjoy each other’s cultures, there are select groups on either side who are vehemently anti-Japanese or anti-Korean, and who take every opportunity to criticize celebrities, companies, politicians, local governments, and even individuals for their choices and words.

Owing to their place in the public eye, as well as their role as official representatives, politicians generally get a lot of criticism on this front, and lately the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, has been the focal point of South Korean protesters’ ire. In particular, it’s Mr. Harris’ mustache that is most offensive, according to some news sources.

You might be wondering what the connection is between the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, his mustache, and Korea-Japan relations, but there is one: Mr. Harris’ ethnicity. Harry Harris was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father, and as for his mustache, many social media users in South Korea have apparently been saying that it’s a sour reminder of Japanese war generals, who sported similar mustaches as they tore their way through the Korean peninsula.

As such, Mr. Harris’ Japanese heritage and “imperialist mustache” may lead many to wonder if the imagery was deliberate or not, particularly if they’re already looking for fault in that area.

But other news sources say interest in Mr. Harris’ mustache was largely drummed up by western news sources, and there is a deeper meaning to the ire it has created among South Korean netizens. Though perhaps in some cases the image of the mustache may be a trigger for those who experienced crimes at the hands of the Imperial Japanese army, for many more the mustache is simply an outlet for South Koreans to express their growing frustrations with the U.S.’s policy towards South Korea.

According to The Korea Times, “The mustache has become associated with the latest U.S. image of being disrespectful and even coercive toward Korea. Mr. Harris often has been ridiculed for not being an ambassador, but a governor general.”

▼ Perhaps handing out mustache props at a press conference might have stoked the fire.

In essence, the South Korean protesters are less upset that he is sporting an “imperial”-like mustache, and more that the he is acting like an imperial Japanese governor-general in attempting to enforce the U.S.’s latest policies, which include asking Korea to contribute more money to the U.S.’s military presence in the country, as well as stressing the importance of South Korea conferring with the U.S. in regards to its tourism policy with North Korea. AP News wrote that “the U.S. desire to enforce tough sanctions on North Korea doesn’t fit with” South Korea’s desires, which is causing some friction between the two.

But Mr. Harris’ way of conveying those policies also appears to have ruffled some feathers. AP News reported that the chair of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee said that “the ambassador repeated about 20 times Trump’s calls for Seoul to drastically increase its financial contribution to U.S. troop deployment in the South.” Mr. Harris’ insistence on pushing through President Trump’s initiatives with Korea has clearly not been well-received, having been called “undiplomatic” by more than a few Korean Twitter users.

In the end what appears to be worrying South Korean protesters–and perhaps officials–is not a bushy mustache but rather that the U.S. is attempting to assert dominance over Korea. And while one way to complain about political affairs is to have rational and reasonable discussions and publish editorials on the matter, the easiest way is to criticize the disliked politician for their looks–much like anti-Trump protesters in the U.S. like to poke fun at President Trump’s tan, or how Chinese president Xi Jinping’s critics often compare him to Winnie the Pooh.

For his part in the controversy, Mr. Harris says that his mustache does not, in fact, have anything to do with his heritage or his role as the ambassador to Korea. Expressing a sentiment that any active duty military or military veteran will understand, Harris explained that he grew his mustache only as a result of the freedom gained from retiring from the military. “I wanted to make a break, I wanted to make a mental break and a physical break between my life as a military officer and my new life as a diplomat. So I tried to get taller but I couldn’t grow any taller, and so I tried to get younger but I couldn’t get younger. But I could grow a mustache so I did that.”

Mr. Harris’ ethnicity was also called out by Chinese media after he criticized China’s activity in the East and South China Seas, “But,” he says, “I am not the Japanese-American ambassador to Korea–I am the American ambassador to Korea.” A point which he likely hopes will put any further commentary on his ethnicity–and his mustache–to rest.

Source: Twitter/@hyunsuninseoul, AP News, The New York Times, The Korea Times, The Korea Times
Featured image: Twitter/@TheJihyeLee

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