Here comes the rising sun HeadlineThree hours is all it takes to fly to Japan. But it’s taken Japanese pop culture more than three decades to get to Korea.
Physically close but psychologically distant, Korea and Japan have for centuries tiptoed on a fine line between friendship and enmity. Even after diplomatic relations were normalized in 1965, Korea continued to use force of law to keep Japanese popular culture off its shores.
It was only in 1998 that the Korean government began gradually lifting this ban, followed by further openings in 1999 and 2000. Diplomatic and political disputes have slowed the process; in 2001, responding to a controversy over history textbooks in Japan that glossed over the country’s past atrocities, the Korean government announced there would be no further openings to Japanese pop culture anytime soon.
But on Jan. 1, in a deal reached at last June’s summit between President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, major restrictions were dropped. Though some significant aspects of Japanese pop culture remain forbidden, Lee Jin-sik, deputy director of cultural policy at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, characterizes this as a virtual abolition of the ban.
The move has gotten a hearty welcome from Japanese expatriates, as well as Korean fans with Japanese tastes. “To enjoy the latest pop culture from home, Japanese expats here used the Internet or even paid visits home,” said Arata Nakae, a secretary of cultural affairs at the Japanese Embassy.
Mr. Nakae stressed that the remaining barriers must come down in the foreseeable future. But at least he no longer has to fly home to buy Japanese CDs. Here’s what’s changed:
Japanese music CDs ― previously obtainable only on the black market ― can now be sold legally in Korea. Lee Do-hyun, better known as “DJ Jack,” who hosts a weekly segment called “Tune In Japan” for the program “Ghost Station” on MBC Radio, estimates that more than half a million Koreans have enjoyed black-market Japanese music, through pirated CDs or Internet downloads. “It could not be more ridiculous to ban high-quality music just because it’s Japanese,” Mr. Lee said. Before 1999, Japanese musicians couldn’t perform live in Korea; from 1999 until 2000, they could only do so in indoor halls that seated fewer than 2,000.
Restrictions on Japanese film have been abolished. There was a partial lift of the ban in 1998, but it applied only to movies that had won awards from the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscars), or from the Berlin, Cannes or Venice film festivals.
Restrictions on Japanese computer games and comic books have been lifted.
But two major media remain partially or totally restricted: broadcasting and, arguably, Japan’s most distinctive area of pop culture: animated films.
“Considering the possible effects on teenagers and the local animation industry, the opening of Japanese animation films is on hold,” said Mr. Lee.
Japanese animation, which is immensely popular around the world (accounting for more than 60 percent of the global market, according to Mr. Lee), would almost certainly deal a fatal blow to the domestic industry if it were allowed to flourish here, said Lee Sang-gil, director of the animation team at the Korea Culture and Content Agency.
“The Korean animation industry is at the beginner’s stage, both in production and marketing, which does not make it a match to compete against Japan’s already strong animation industry,” he said. “That is why we need more time to develop the local market first.”
Television and radio broadcasters now have some freedom to use Japanese programming, but they’ll still have to pay attention to stay within the law.
The three major Korean TV stations still cannot air Japanese entertainment shows ― such as talk, comedy or pop music shows ― but they can now show documentaries, sports and news reports. TV dramas are allowed, if they are collaborations between Japanese and Korean producers.
And while Korean TV and radio can now invite Japanese artists to perform live on the air, broadcasting their recordings is still illegal ― except for instrumental tracks, or songs recorded in languages other than Japanese. “DJ Jack” of “Tune In Japan” still has to be content with playing such tracks, a fact he frequently complains about on the air.
Cable channels have more leeway. They can air Japanese TV dramas, if they’re rated as suitable for ages 12 and up. Music videos from Japan are banned completely, even on cable.
“We have to take extra care when it comes to major broadcasting networks, which have nationwide influence,” said Mr. Lee at the culture ministry.
There are a number of reasons why Japanese culture is often talked about as something Koreans need to be protected from. One is that some citizens, considering the two countries’ histories, might resent hearing Japanese over their airwaves.
But another reason is that Japan’s pop culture has long had a reputation in Korea for being obscene ― possibly because of the bizarre cartoon pornography that’s produced in some corners of Japan’s animation industry. Arrests of Koreans for smuggling in such videos are often scandalous national news.
Not everyone in the younger generation supports lifting the ban. “There must be those who do not want to listen to Japanese music on radio or on television,” said Lee Hyuk-seung, a 26-year-old graduate student. “I guess I’d possibly get annoyed if I happened to hear songs in Japanese on my favorite radio program. I’m pretty much happy with Korean and American pop music.”
“The ban was necessary to protect the local culture and industry,” he said. “I don’t think the ban made Korea look like a closed society. Well, Japan also banned Korean culture here during the colonial period.”
For other Koreans, however, the coming of Japanese music, movies and the rest is something to celebrate. They have been waiting too long.
At 9 a.m. on Jan. 12, staff at Kyobo Book Centre in central Seoul arrived at work to face a rare sight. More than 100 teenagers were waiting in a queue to buy the new album from a Japanese boy band, w-inds. These fan club members wanted to be the first to buy the band’s first legally distributed album in Korea.
The album, “Prime of Life,” came out in Japan last Dec. 17, when the ban on Japanese CDs was still in effect. On that day, the Embassy of Japan instead arranged a special screening of the band’s new video; by 6 a.m., 700 teenagers were lined up on the street in the piercing cold.
“Prime of Life” is No. 3 on the Korean pop CD chart this week. Korea’s top 10, in fact, is now half Japanese, with three CDs by Japan’s top singer-songwriter, Utada Hikaru, and one by the pop group Tube. For CD distributors, who have been suffering from slack business, the availability of Japanese pop ― also known as J-pop ― is a golden opportunity.
“The albums sold out on their first day of release, which we could never imagine before for a Japanese artist,” said Cho Ji-hyun, a publicist for Pony Canyon Korea, which is distributing “Prime of Life” here.
Lee Seung-jin of Sony Music Entertainment, which released eight J-pop albums last week, is also pleased. Sony sold more than 20,000 copies of an album by the group X (better known in Korea as X Japan) in its first week of release here, a respectable figure in the current frozen music market. “Japanese artists are also very encouraged by the lift of the embargo, coming up with special album editions only for Korean distribution,” Mr. Lee said.
Korean film distributors, on the other hand, are cool to the possibility of a new Japanese cultural wave. “Korean audiences have tended not to be very attracted to Japanese films so far,” said a local movie distributor.
When the movie ban was partially lifted in 1998, movie agencies vied to open a parade of Japanese films, only to find them icily received by Korean viewers.
The most successful Japanese film in Korea thus far has been the animated film “Spirited Away” by the acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki, which sold about two million tickets. (By comparison, “Silmido,” Korea’s current No. 1 movie, has sold about seven million tickets so far.)
Is this another Japanese invasion of Korea? Korean newspapers have splashed their front pages with news about the lifting of the ban and concerns about an onslaught of Japanese pop culture.
Mr. Lee of the culture ministry, however, says the opening is no threat. He sees benefits ― such as the likelihood that an open Korean market will encourage Japanese business to take more interest in Korean pop culture. “In the long run, a complete opening to Japanese pop culture would do Korea good as well as Japan,” he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lee Do-hyun, or “DJ Jack,” is not happy with the fall of the Japanese music ban, though it’s something he has craved for years. He says the J-pop distributed in Korea so far has been too commercial.
“The Korean music market has been suffering from too much of a slump,” Mr. Lee says, “and to make it big in the market, distributors are choosing (Japanese) albums that they know will sell, which will never help duly introduce Japanese music to Korea. After a few months of the ‘first time’ craze, the J-pop frenzy in Korea will easily die out.”
Kim Nam-won, an MBC-TV producer, is more optimistic. In recent months, he has been working with counterparts at Japan’s Fuji-TV to produce a TV drama, “Star’s Echo.” Having had this experience, Mr. Kim believes Korea can make the most of the opening by expanding its own markets. But that doesn’t mean he’s convinced Japanese culture will hit home here.
Mr. Kim said that working with Japanese producers gave him the sense that all of their programming is based on a sophisticated sense of what the Japanese audience wants. “It’s like the neat taste of sushi,” he said. “But this all-Japanese flavor is not necessarily guaranteed to please Korean tastes.”
by Chun Su-jin