Japanese casual clothing chain Uniqlo appears to have become the latest casualty of a South Korean consumer boycott sparked by an escalating diplomatic dispute between Tokyo and Seoul.
The company plans to close one of its stores in central Seoul, reported Japanese newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun. The move comes amid a public backlash against Japan’s most visible products, including beer and cars, by South Koreans angered by Tokyo’s decision to impose restrictions on exports of key high-tech materials to its Asian neighbour.
Japan has cited security concerns for imposing the “export controls”, but the decision has been viewed in South Korea as retaliation for a court decision last year ordering Japanese companies to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for Japanese occupiers during World War Two.
Uniqlo is a high-profile Japanese brand within South Korea, with some 190 stores. On Friday, the company denied that the store closure was related to the boycott, saying the contract for the property had expired and it had decided not to renew. But Uniqlo acknowledged, however, that its sales had been suffering as a result of the row.
Japanese cars have also been a strong focus of public ire, and Koreans have been cancelling trips to Japan in their droves.
Last month a video of a South Korean man vandalising his own Lexus in Incheon, a satellite city of Seoul, went viral. He told onlookers he was “embarrassed” to be driving the Japanese vehicle, manufactured by Toyota, and urged them to join the boycott.
Other owners have posted letters of apologies on their vehicles, reported the South China Morning Post. While in a more sinister turn, one driver in Daegu, in the country’s southeast, said his car had been “terrorised by kimchi” after it was found covered with the traditional Korean fermented vegetables.
Korean celebrities have also encouraged their fans to follow their example of ditching Japanese goods, according to the All K-pop website.
Among them is Lee Si-young, an actress, who told her Instagram followers that she had swapped her Japanese table-tennis equipment with Korean products. “I think we can replace Japanese goods one by one,” she said.
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The boycott has not been reciprocated by Japanese consumers. A survey by the conservative Sankei newspaper and Fuji News Network published on Monday showed that two-thirds of respondents backed Tokyo’s move to strike South Korea from its fast-track export list. But nearly 60 per cent also worried about future ties.
The harder line pursued by the current government in Tokyo has been attributed in part to a younger generation of leaders, who are further removed from the atrocities of World War Two history and less inclined to be as apologetic as their predecessors.
“There is ‘Korea fatigue’,” William Underwood, an independent researcher who has done extensive work on the forced labour issue, told Reuters. But, he added, the general public was not as harsh in its attitudes as many in the ruling party.
“As for the younger generation, they have no knowledge base, but they have a sense the Koreans are intractable,” he said.