[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Riding the ‘Korea wave’The wave of Korean pop culture, or “hanyu,” has finally made its way to Japan. Compared with the rest of Asia, the Korean wave arrived there late, making some wonder if the weight of history made it difficult for Korean pop culture to develop broad appeal in Japan.
The popularity of the TV drama “Winter Sonata” has stirred interest in Korean pop culture this year. At least four Korean films are playing in theaters simultaneously in Tokyo and the hit-film “Silmido,” which opened recently, is attracting large audiences. Major entertainment product outlets have begun to set up Korean wave sections in their CD displays.
The Korean wave is part of a long-building interest in Korean culture in Japan. The first Korea boom occurred in 1988, the year of the Olympics in Seoul. People wanted to learn more about the country that hosted the second Olympics in Asia after Tokyo. In the run-up to the Seoul Olympics, NHK, the semi-national broadcasting company, began Korean lessons on its educational TV outlet. The 1988 Korea boom focused mainly on books and information about Korea.
The next Korea boom started in the mid-1990s with the rise in the popularity of Korean food. kimchi, namul and bibimbap all gained popularity as hearty health foods. The late 1990s witnessed the opening of Korea to Japanese pop culture, such as films and pop music. This made it easier for Korean filmmakers and pop culture promoters to work in Japan.
Combined with the coming of the World Cup in 2002, the time was right to begin promoting Korean pop culture in Japan. The first success was the film “Shiri” in 2001, the first Korean film to attract a large audience, which took Korean films out of the art-house “foreign film” category and turned them into mainstream entertainment. The World Cup stimulated curiosity about the co-hosting nation, but it was the enthusiasm of Korean fans at the games and in the square in front of Seoul’s City Hall that impressed people most strongly. The image was one of energy, vitality and emotion. By contrast, World Cup events in Japan seemed excessively quiet, causing many Japanese to wonder where the Korean energy came from.
The Korean wave Web site on the popular portal goo.ne.jp contains information on film, TV dramas, movie and pop stars as well as non-Korean wave topics such as food, travel and the Korean language. The culinary Korean wave of the 1990s has merged with the recent pop-culture Korean wave to make Korean cultural products hot commodities.
The reasons for and strength of the Korean wave are more difficult to detect. Sophisticated marketing by Korean producers and Japanese distributors is no doubt one explanation. As late as the mid-1990s, Korean producers would not have had the confidence or skill to market their products in Japan, and Japanese distributors would not have taken a risk on Korean films and TV dramas.
The history of marketing is littered with failures, so confidence and risk-taking alone do not explain the Korean wave. For cultural products to travel to another culture successfully, they must fill a need in the other culture. This is what distinguishes film and music from generic forms of industrial production. The Korean wave is washing over Japan because the products fill some sort of aesthetic or emotional need in those who buy them. What could this be?
Ask people about “Winter Sonata,” and the overwhelming response is that it reminds them of what Japan “used to be like.” Korean food is described as “gutsy”; Korean pop music is popular because the singers are “energetic.” The actors in films and TV dramas, of course, are also “cool,” as is evident in the popularity of Bae Yong-joon. Together, these strands of feeling that support the Korean wave suggest a nostalgia for a time when people could feel passion and excitement in life.
The duration of the Korean wave in Japan is hard to predict. Pop culture in Japan is ever trendy; it feeds off the new. The Korean wave could easily go back to sea quickly if people start to view it as yesterday’s trend. Yet the attraction to cultural products that fill a need for passion and excitement in life will remain strong as long as people feel they are lacking these qualities in their own lives.
If the Korean wave can fill this need with new and attractive products, then it stands a chance of lasting; and if it lasts, it will no longer be a wave, but a part of everyday Japanese pop culture. Sustaining the Korean wave thus depends on the creativity of the producers as well as the needs of Japanese consumers.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser