American Ambassador’s Facial Hair Sparks Controversy in South Korea

Dare we dub this “mustachegate”?

Harry Harris
U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris has drawn controversy in South Korea for his mustache, which critics say recalls Japan's occupation of Korea.
U.S. Department of State

Harry Harris is the American ambassador to South Korea. Harry Harris is a normal-looking guy with a normal-looking mustache. And yet, Harry Harris’s mustache has sparked controversy in South Korea. On the surface, it might seem bizarre, owing to the seemingly innocuous nature of Harris’s facial hair. But a deeper look into the issue reveals a more unsettling situation — and the way decades-old traumas can continue to haunt a nation.

As Joshua Berlinger reports for CNN, “[t]he gist of the criticism is that with the mustache, Harris resembles the reviled Japanese leaders who ruled the Korean Peninsula with an iron fist during the Japanese occupation.” 

Perhaps the most notable example here is former Japanese Prime Minster Hideki Tojo, who was later tried for, and found guilty of, war crimes. Korea was ruled by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945, and the effects of that period are still discernible — both in South Korea and in Japan

Harris’s mother is Japanese, which is what sparked the controversy. “I can’t deny my ethnic background,” he said in a recent interview with The Korea Times. “I can’t hide from it. I am who I am. All I can say is that every decision I make is based on the fact that I’m American ambassador to Korea, not the Japanese American ambassador to Korea.”

Prior to his time as an ambassador, Harris was a career Naval officer, including stints as commander of the US Pacific Fleet and US Pacific Command. Prior to that, he spent a year as commander of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, a stint which was controversial for reasons that did not involve facial hair

Despite the headlines Harris’s facial hair has inspired, the most famous mustache in geopolitics is unlikely to go away any time soon. In the interview with The Korea Times, Harris said that he had no plans to shave his mustache.

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