'Barbenheimer' atomic bomb jokes hit a sour note in Japan

Hype in the United States over two blockbuster movie releases has taken a culturally insensitive turn in Japan. "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" opened in US theaters on the same day, July 21, prompting excited fans to combine the two on social media.

"Barbie" is a fantasy-comedy inspired by the popular toy doll. "Oppenheimer" is a biographical thriller about the physicist who developed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan during World War Two, killing hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Social media posts about so-called "Barbenheimer" linked the film's main character Barbie to atomic bomb-related imagery. The official "Barbie" movie account backed by Warner Bros. playfully interacted with the memes.

Backlash in Japan has prompted Warner Bros. to apologize.


In one instance, the official "Barbie" account replied to a fan art poster showing Barbie sitting atop of the shoulder of J. Robert Oppenheimer against the backdrop of an apparent nuclear explosion, saying "it's going to be a summer to remember" — with an emoji of a face blowing a kiss.

In another, the account responded to an image depicting Barbie with a mushroom cloud bouffant with the comment, "This Ken is a stylist," referring to the name of Barbie's boyfriend.

Warner Bros. comment on SNS
Warner Bros. apologized for its "insensitive" social media engagement.

Backlash in Japan

People in Japan also took to social media: to express outrage. "In the US, people never make fun of the 911 attack or what Nazis did, but they can joke about the atomic bombings. I cannot express how saddened I am. This is regrettable," wrote one respondent.

"Among those who died under the mushroom cloud were children who were at the age of those who play with Barbie dolls. The official account did not appreciate that at all. I despise this from the bottom of my heart," posted another.

The Japanese distributors of the "Barbie" film released a statement. Warner Bros. apologized and expressed its regret over how its US headquarters handled the social media posts.

Statement by Warner Bros. Japan
Warner Bros. Japan issued a statement on July 31.

Japanese actress Takahata Mitsuki, who voices Barbie in the dubbed version, posted on Instagram that the controversy was "really, really regrettable." She that added she considered dropping out of a promotional event for the film.

The "Barbie" movie is scheduled to be released in Japan this month, while the distributors of "Oppenheimer" have yet to list a date.

An ethicist explains

Professor Miyamoto Yuki, an ethicist at DePaul University in Chicago whose work centers on nuclear dialog, said the "Barbenheimer" memes "highlight the discrepancies in the understandings, narratives, and meanings of the representations of the atomic bombing in the US and Japanese discourses.

"In Japan, the mushroom clouds symbolize the hundreds of thousands of lives lost and the long-standing suffering. Conversely, the American public tends to view these depictions as symbols of triumph, power, and scientific achievement," she explained.

Warner Bros. will find out whether its apology satisfied Japanese audiences when "Barbie" hits screens during the summer vacation period on August 11.