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Sunday, Dec. 11, 2005

Japan's new Wave

Staff writer

Japan and South Korea are like an old, bickering couple: Though they may want to part ways at times, their shared history and interdependency compel them to work things out. That, and they've got no place else to go.

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So maybe it's no surprise that the two countries' "Year of Friendship 2005," marking the 40th anniversary of their establishment of diplomatic relations, has oftentimes been more like a strained session with a marriage counselor than the delayed honeymoon that was intended. For every newspaper headline about warming cultural ties, there have been plenty of others focusing on yet another bilateral tiff.

However, despite spats over (among other things) disputed islets in the Sea of Japan and Japanese school textbooks that Seoul says skew World War II history, the countries have in some ways managed to strengthen ties this year -- particularly at the grassroots level. In large part that has been due to surging demand in Japan for South Korean films and television dramas in a boom known in Japanese as Hanryu, and in Korean as Hallyu -- but which translates in both languages as "Korean Wave."

Passionate performances

Having kicked off with Japan and South Korea's joint hosting of the 2002 Soccer World Cup finals, the trend snowballed into a social phenomenon. Said Arihiro Oba, an official at the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency in Tokyo: "Earlier this year, 'Hanryu' was the Japan-policy keyword across the South Korean government. Everybody wanted to talk about how to keep it going."

Any strategy would have to include South Korean actor Bae Yong Joon, whose passionate performances in the blockbuster TV drama "Winter Sonata," plus a chivalrous aura and a pair of luscious lips, have earned him the adoring nickname "Yon-sama" -- roughly, "His Majesty Yong" -- among his legions of middle-aged female Japanese fans. (This surprises some South Koreans, who find Yon-sama a tad too effeminate.)

"Winter Sonata," a 20-episode tale of a romance tossed into confusion when Yon-sama's character suffers amnesia, first aired in Japan on public broadcaster NHK's satellite channel in 2003, and quickly paved the way for other South Korean TV dramas and a slew of film releases. Nowadays, upward of 30 South Korean TV and film stars can boast loyal followings in Japan, with their number poised to rise as Japanese -- who until five years ago expressed little interest in their nearest neighbor -- flock to bookstores to learn more about South Korea.

Commentator Chikayo Tashiro, Japan's foremost authority on the cultural side of the Korean Wave (and a fan herself), attributes the boom in part to a feeling of nostalgia in Japan for the old-fashioned social values reflected in South Korean dramas. Add that to their actors' ability to "express love straightforwardly," with less reticence than their Japanese counterparts, and you've got a captive Japanese audience, she explained.

"Particularly women have described being changed by a single episode of 'Winter Sonata,' " said Tashiro. "As crazy as it may sound, sick people become well. Others rediscover the importance of kindness in human affairs. Women of a certain age remember what it was like to be a girl in love."

Women, for example, like housewife Kyoko Nakagawa. Seated at a Tokyo cafe one recent afternoon, the elegant 64-year-old recounted how "Winter Sonata" rescued her from an abyss of despair just after the death of her husband. "I encountered Bae Yong Joon, and my eyes went to him," recalled Nakagawa. "It's not that I forgot my husband. But it didn't make any sense to hole myself up at home and cry all day. Instead I went and visited Seoul, all the while thinking, 'Ah, this is the Seoul of Bae Yong Joon.' " Lately, she says, she "commutes" to South Korea on a monthly basis.

And though South Korea has failed to break out in similar fervor over Japanese cultural imports, visits by fans like Nakagawa to scenic South Korean locations featured in the dramas pumped an estimated 1.2 trillion won (140.2 billion yen) into that country's economy in fiscal 2004. Meanwhile, "Winter Sonata"-related sales alone in Japan generated about 122.5 billion yen in sales during the same period, according to BRICs Research Institute CEO Takashi Kadokura.

"There's never been anything like it," observed Kadokura, an economist. "It turned a new page."

Several pages, actually -- and not all of them bearing good tidings for the Korean Wave.

Vocal nationalists

In particular, the Korean Wave has annoyed some of Japan's increasingly vocal nationalists so badly that a 289-page cartoon book titled "Hating the Korean Wave" sold more than 300,000 copies soon after hitting the stands earlier this year. The table of contents of the book -- which comes wrapped in a band that reads, "This is why we hate South Korea" -- includes such headings as "Behind the Joint World Cup: The History of How Koreans Dirtied World Cup Soccer" and "The South Korea that Steals Japanese Culture." An entire chapter is also devoted to trashing the craze over "Winter Sonata."

But, hey, every long-term relationship has its flare-ups, and that between Japan and South Korea is no exception.

Commentator Tashiro, for her part, takes "Hating the Korean Wave" in stride. "Just because people like the dramas doesn't mean liking absolutely everything about South Korea," she says. "South Korea's got its good points and its bad points -- just like Japan. Aren't any two friends the same?"

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