Nazi-themed Japanese host bar quickly closes after social media outcry

A worker at the ‘Unfair’ bar dressed in a Nazi uniform.
PHOTO: Instagram

A host bar in Japan that dressed its male staff in Nazi uniforms and used the swastika symbol as its motif, down to the labels on champagne bottles handsome young men poured for their female clients, recently closed less than 48 hours after it opened due to an outcry on social media.

And while the closure of the Osaka bar – named “Unfair” – and the removal of its website from the internet has been applauded, questions are being asked as to how the venue’s owners thought mimicking one of the most murderous regimes in history would be a selling point.

This is not, after all, the first time that the architects of World War II and the masterminds of the Holocaust have been used as props for Japanese businesses.

“It’s simply a matter of ignorance,” said Akio Yoshida, director of the Holocaust Education Centre, near the city of Hiroshima. “Far too many people in Japan simply do not know what happened in Europe in the last war, they don’t know that millions of people were persecuted and murdered.”

“I imagine they thought the uniforms would just catch the attention of potential clients and that it would be different or unusual. The hosts in the pictures, I am sure, were simply doing as they were told and didn’t know any better about wearing a Nazi uniform, but the people who set the bar up.”

In a statement, the operator issued an apology for a lack of “awareness” among its staff.

“We caused discomfort for a lot of people,” the statement added. “We will take your comments seriously and will work to make sure this sort of thing never happens again.”

For Abraham Cooper, associate dean of The Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles, the apology is formulaic and too easy – and he has heard it countless times over the more than three decades he has been fighting anti-Semitism in Japan.

“There is absolutely no excusing it, again,” he said. “There has to be an expiry on the excuse that I keep hearing that ‘we don’t know anything about that part of history’ in Japan,” Cooper said. “That sort of excuse should have been thrown on the junk heap long ago.”

The incident is even more disappointing given that Japan has only recently hosted the Olympic Games, billed as an opportunity for the world’s athletes to come together, Cooper said, adding that such demonstrations of intolerance could be seized upon by the country’s regional rivals to embarrass it.

There have been a number of other cases in which Japanese people have displayed paraphernalia that could be considered as glorifying Nazism and are outlawed in other parts of the world.

A Japanese man who declines to give his name attends the annual memorial ceremony at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine to mark Japan’s 1945 surrender wearing the uniform of a German soldier and with placards lionising some of Nazi Germany’s top commanders.

In 2017, businessman Keiichi Morishita presided over a party for his employees on a beach in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo. Photos were printed in a magazine showing banners and flags depicting the swastika and dozens of young women in skimpy uniforms that included peaked caps and long leather boots.

Morishita is founder and chairman of the Morishita Group, which operates bars and hostess clubs in Tokyo’s Kabukicho red-light district. Company insiders told the magazine that a papier-mache tank and a replica of a German bomber were also constructed as part of the decorations.

At a Halloween event in 2016, an all-girl pop group called Keyakizaka46 made headlines around the world after they took to the stage in uniforms reminiscent of those worn by SS troops. Sony Music, the label behind the band, issued an apology, saying, “We express our heartfelt apology for causing offence … because of our lack of understanding.”

Members of Japanese pop group Keyakizaka46, in ‘SS’ outfits in 2016. Photo: Handout

In 2008, a member of another Japanese pop group nominated Adolf Hitler as a “great person” on a television programme and described him as “Uncle Hitler.”

Academics suggest the problem is more of a general lack of comprehension of history, and specifically the atrocities of the Nazi era in Europe, than bias against Jews.

“It’s simply a question of bad education,” said Yakov Zinberg, a Jewish man who left his native Russia for New York and is now a professor of East Asian studies at Tokyo’s Kokushikan University.

The fundamental problem, Zinberg believes, is that most 1930s and 1940s European history is ignored in Japanese schools as examining it would inevitably force the nation to examine its own actions during the same period.

“Japan wants to distance itself from what was happening in Nazi Germany and the atrocities and chooses not to talk about them because Japan was itself carrying out similar activities in China, Korea and elsewhere,” he said.

“And because young people in Japan are not taught what really happened in the past, I expect we are going to get more situations like the Osaka host club.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.