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Zhang Zhehan Suspended by Social Media over Japan War Shrine Photos

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Social media platforms have temporarily suspended the accounts of Zhang Zhehan after photos of him visiting a controversial Japanese shrine in 2018 resurfaced on Weibo. 

Zhang posed in front of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in the three-year-old pictures, which, upon rediscovery, provoked outrage among netizens. 

The Yasukuni Shrine commemorates soldiers who died in wars from 1868 through 1954, including the first and second Sino-Japanese wars. In the past, Chinese officials have called the shrine a glorification of Japanese imperialism and military aggression that dishonors victims of war. 

Zhang, 30, came into the spotlight after starring in the 2021 Chinese drama Word of Honor. While Zhang made his TV debut in 2010, this most recent role brought him an international fanbase and multiple brand sponsorships. 

Zhang Zhehan Japanese Shrine

Twenty-seven brands have cut their ties with Zhang in the wake of the controversy. Image via Weibo

In addition to visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, Zhang also attended a wedding in 2019 at the Nogi Shrine, which honors imperial Japanese army general Maresuke Nogi. A picture taken at the wedding shows Zhang and former Indonesian first lady Dewi Sukarno, herself a controversial figure in China.

Sukarno stirred controversy in China in 2017 after defending a Japanese hotel’s decision to showcase books denying the Nanjing Massacre.

Soon after his photos resurfaced, on Friday, August 13, Zhang wrote a public apology for his “past ignorance.” The actor emphasized that he is not pro-Japanese and has never defamed his home country in public. 

“I appreciate the public critique,” he wrote, “as a public figure, I should always remember the historical trauma.”

In response to Zhang’s apology, state media People’s Daily said that celebrities are obliged to understand the country’s history and the national hardships. Organizations such as the China Association of Performing Arts and the National Radio and Television Administration have issued statements in the past week condemning Zhang’s photos. 

Zhang Zhehan Dewi Sukarno

Zhang and former Indonesian first lady Dewi Sukarno at a wedding in 2019 at the Nogi Shrine in Tokyo. Image via Weibo

Twenty-seven brands have cut their ties with Zhang. Singapore-based outlet Today reported that companies such as Coca-Cola, Longines, Lanvin, Pandora, Nivea, and Clinique had terminated their contracts with the actor, resulting in an estimated loss of more than 50 million RMB. 

Beverage brand Wahaha, which was among the first companies to terminate its contract with Zhang, said in a statement on Weibo, “National dignity is something that can’t be disturbed.” 

On Sunday, multiple social media platforms, including Weibo and Douyin, temporarily suspended the accounts of Zhang and his studio. The Weibo tag for Zhang was also closed for discussions, and NetEase and QQ Music took Zhang’s music library offline. 

The cancellation of Zhang came following the news of pop star Kris Wu’s arrest. After a month of public discussions over rape allegations, a Beijing police announcement confirmed Wu’s arrest on August 16. Netizens reacted to the news with joy and jokes. 

On Twitter, Zhang’s international fans were in disbelief that Chinese social media had cancelled the celebrity. Many voiced their support for the actor and shared their hopes that he would rebound from the controversy.

An announcement from ZhangZheHanThailand, the actor’s fan organization in Thailand, asked international fans to “be respectful and patient while Zhang Zhehan is doing his best to show his sincerity of accepting the consequences of his past actions.”

Cover image via Depositphotos

Yiwen Lu
    Yiwen is a student journalist studying Economics and Political Science at the University of Chicago. She was born and raised in Shanghai.