Harry Harris, Washington’s envoy to South Korea, has been subjected to heated vitriol on social media and by anonymous netizens for his mustache.
That small piece of facial hair has, as Harris put it, “for some reason become a point of some fascination here in the media.”
“If you watch social media it’s all out there,” Harris, the former head of US Pacific Forces, told a group of foreign reporters Thursday.
On the surface, the critiques border on ridiculousness. It’s just a small patch of hair.
The 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.
Some of Japan’s most prominent wartime leaders — like Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister who was later executed by a postwar tribunal, and Emperor Hirohito — had mustaches.
Under Japanese rule, many Koreans were brutalized, murdered and enslaved. It’s still living memory for elderly Koreans and remains a highly emotive subject in both North and South Korea.
Harris was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and American father, who was a Navy officer, and some online commentators have pointed to Harris’ heritage along with the mustache in their criticisms.
But Harris isn’t Japanese, he’s a US citizen. And calling him out for his Japanese ancestry would almost assuredly be considered racist in the United States.
“I understand the historical animosity that exists between both of the countries but I’m not the Japanese American ambassador to Korea, I’m the American ambassador to Korea,” he said. “And to take that history and put it on me simply because of an accident of birth I think is a mistake.”
Harris said he believes the argument that he resembles Japanese wartime leaders “cherry picks” history. He cited two mustachioed Korean independence figures, Ahn Jung-geun and Ahn Chang-ho, as proof.
“I didn’t grow a mustache because of my Japanese heritage, because of the independence movement of Korea or even because of my dad. I grew it because I could and I thought I would and I did,” he said.
Harris explained that he grew the mustache to mark a new phase in his life, after he retired as commander of the US Pacific Fleet and began working as a diplomat.
“I couldn’t grow taller, I couldn’t grow hair on top of my head, but I could grow it on front of my head and so I did that. Nothing more nefarious than that, I wanted to have a change,” he said.
When asked whether he would shave the mustache to help smooth relations, Harris told the Korea Times that someone would have to convince him it would benefit the US-South Korea bilateral relationship.
“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,” he said Thursday.
CNN’s Paula Hancocks and Sophie Jeong contributed to this report.