A ‘Korean wave’ in JapanKorean actor Bae Yong-joon did what some of his countrymen have dreamed of for decades: He conquered Japan.
All he had to do, it seems, was smile his trademark killing-me-softly smile in the TV drama “Winter Sonata.” Originally aired in Korea in 2001, the 20-episode drama is currently in the midst of its third broadcast in Japan, and is still scoring huge ratings.
Referred to throughout Japan as “Yon-sama” ― incorporating the high honorific originally reserved for royalty and aristocrats ― Bae Yong-joon drew more than 5,000 fans to Haneda Airport when he visited in April, a bigger crowd than turned out for David Beckham. Not even Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi merits a “sama.” (“Yon-sama is more popular than me,” Koizumi joked earlier this month. “...I’ll take Yon-sama as my model.”)
Bae’s fans don’t seem to care overmuch about the deep scars in Korea’s and Japan’s relationship, like Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, or the war of nerves over Tokto. They just want to see Yon-sama. When the NHK network pre-empted a scheduled episode of “Winter Sonata” late last month in favor of a special program on Koizumi’s visit to North Korea, the network got more than 3,700 calls complaining about it.
Japanese pop culture magazines with Yon-sama on the cover are everywhere, with articles titled “What Bae Yong-joon Gave Us” and “The Reason Why [We] Love Bae Yong-joon.” “Winter Sonata” has even sparked a boom in enrollment in Korean language classes. A Japanese business newspaper, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, recently named Yon-sama as the second-biggest “hot item” in Japan in the first half of 2004, right behind DVD recorders.
But while Yon-sama may be this craze’s most visible face, some Japanese close to the workings of the country’s pop culture say it’s not just about him ― it’s about Korea.
“This is not a passing fad,” said Segawa Shigeko, a reporter for the influential weekly magazine AERA. “Other Korean movies and dramas have also become popular in Japan. The Japanese want to know more about Korea. The drama is just [the beginning], and Japan’s interest is getting bigger and bigger.”
“Winter Sonata,” in which Bae stars as sweet, gentle Jun-sang, who loves only Yu-jin (Choi Ji-woo), first aired in Japan on cable last year. For its third broadcast run, it’s on NHK, one of the country’s biggest networks.
Its ratings average over 10 percent, and recently reached 14 percent, remarkable numbers for a TV drama in Japan. Particularly successful among women in their 30s and 40s, “Winter Sonata” recently surpassed the network’s hottest homegrown drama in the ratings.
Nicknamed “Fuyusona” after its full Japanese title, “Fuyuno Sonata,” the Korean drama reaped more than $40 million in Japan from a novelization, travel guides to the shooting locations in Korea, DVDs and other merchandise, according to Korea’s KBS, which owns the rights to “Winter Sonata.”
“We got a lot of letters from readers whose range of age is so wide, from the 20s to the 80s,” Ms. Shigeko, the reporter for AERA, said of a special 65-page edition the magazine devoted to Yon-sama (followed by an issue in May that used him for a cover story).
The special edition was titled “Getting to Know Korea by Bae Yong-joon,” and had a Korean flag on the cover along with Bae’s picture. It’s one of many examples of how the “Yon-sama” boom has translated into a general interest in Korea itself ― or, as it’s been called in other Asian countries such as China and Vietnam, hanryu (pronounced “kanryu” in Japanese), meaning “Korean wave” in Chinese characters.
Magazines that specialize in Korean pop culture have been appearing in Japan, like “Korean Drama Now,” whose coverage has included Korean language tips based on lines from “Winter Sonata.” More than 20 similar magazines have sprung up this year; their sales vary according to how many pictures of the Korean stars the issue carries, according to Yoon Tae-jin, a professor at the Graduate School of Communications and Arts at Yonsei University who studies TV dramas.
Yu Min-jung, a public relations staffer at Korea’s KBS, said there’s been a dramatic increase in inquiries from Japanese publishers and TV networks about Korean TV dramas. “Nowadays when I turn on the television, there’s always a Korean TV drama airing,” said Tashiro Chikayo, who’s written three books on Korean pop culture.
The trend has spurred interest in learning Korean and traveling here. “Learning Korean has become a must for watching Korean TV dramas and movies,” Park Dong-ha, a Tokyo-based Korean actor and the host of NHK’s Korean language program “Annyeonghasimnikka” (Hello), said in April.
Enthusiasm hasn’t waned since; more Japanese colleges have launched Korean courses, which now total about 390. Private institutions teaching Korean are enjoying an influx of students, who sometimes have to line up to take classes.
Why the sudden interest? It’s not as though Japan’s doors had been closed to Korean culture until “Winter Sonata” ― the way Korea’s doors, ironically, were closed to most Japanese pop culture until the lifting of legal restrictions in January.
More than 80 Korean TV dramas had aired in Japan prior to “Winter Sonata,” failing to attract much attention. Since the late 1990s, most popular Korean movies have played in Japan, but most of those failed as well.
Chikayo, the Korean pop culture expert in Japan, sees the success in Japan of the Korean action movie “Shiri” in 2000 as one milestone, and the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup as another. “Then came ‘Winter Sonata,’ which pulled the trigger,” Chikayo said.
Chikayo sees energy and passion as key factors in Korean TV dramas’ appeal. “Watching Korean TV dramas, you feel dynamic energy and vigor, which you cannot find in Japanese ones,” she said. “But one thing to watch out for is that Korean TV drama can be just too energetic. Japanese viewers can get fed up with it.”
Chikayo thinks the Yon-sama craze will die down before long. But Kizo Ogura, who teaches Korean language and culture at Tokai University, sees no sign of the general Korean boom waning.
“The Korean pop culture fad is not stopping with some fandom for a few stars,” said Ogura. “It’s now a social phenomenon for Japanese, who think, ‘Why didn’t we realize that our neighboring country is this attractive?’”
Ogura thinks nostalgia is key to the appeal of Korean TV. Korean productions, Ogura said, deal with Confucian values, taking family and community seriously.
These values prevailed in Japanese TV drama until the 1980s, but are rarely found there anymore. “Korean TV dramas remind Japanese viewers of their TV dramas of the 1970s and the 1980s,” Ogura said.
“Japanese TV dramas at the moment are all about individualism and lighthearted love affairs of youth. This only made the middle-aged viewers feel isolated,” he said. “They even felt deserted, with nothing on television that attracted their attention. Then ‘Winter Sonata’ popped up, and they were hooked.”
Tomorrow in Tokyo, “Taegukgi,” the most popular Korean movie ever, opens under the title “Brotherhood.” Its backers hope it will inherit “Winter Sonata’s” popularity.
There seems reason to think it might; its director, Kang Je-gyu, directed “Shiri,” the most successful Korean film in Japan to date, selling 1.2 million tickets. Park Chan-wook’s “Joint Security Area” was second with a million tickets.
“One thing both successful films have in common is that they’re based on the Korean War. ‘Taegukgi’ is no exception, which gives us high expectations,” said Cody Kim, an international business staffer at Kang Je-gyu Films.
Yonsei University’s Yoon thinks Korean pop culture will eventually become less prominent, but won’t disappear. “Japan is a country that is already so much accustomed to cultural hybridity. Even after the fad calms down a bit, Korean pop culture will still survive in Japan, as a part of the cultural diversity,” he said.
As it happens, next year is the Year of Friendship for Korea-Japan, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the two countries’ normalization of diplomatic relations. Among the public figures named by each country to officially represent it for the occasion are, from Japan, Prime Minister Koizumi ― and from Korea, “Winter Sonata” star Choi Ji-woo. The cultural exchange between Korea and Japan, it seems, won’t be withering anytime soon.
by Chun Su-jin