Japanese try to reach out. Why can’t the Koreans?

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Japanese try to reach out. Why can’t the Koreans?

Cho Young-nam is a man of many words. As a pop singer whose career spans over three decades, Mr. Cho, 59, has also been a prolific writer, painter and TV personality. His outspoken, if not hyperbolic, oratorical talent has earned him kudos over the years, although that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with him. Mr. Cho has a large number of people who find him disagreeable, which does not discourage him at all.
In a column in 2002 for the Joong-Ang Ilbo, Mr. Cho wrote of his amazement to see the Japanese not hesitating a bit to cheer for Korea in the World Cup. With that very column, Mr. Cho was recently lucky enough to receive an invitation from the Japan Foundation office in Seoul to have a look around the Japan’s pop culture scene.
No wonder he has had so much to say about his trip.
So here are Mr. Cho’s thoughts over the longtime love-hate relationship between Korea and Japan. As always, his fun and thought-provoking column (translated from Korean) might contain elements you do not quite agree with, but let’s not forget that this is a free country where everyone’s voice counts.


My trip around Japan, at the invitation of the Japan Foundation, got me thinking long and hard about my feelings for the Land of the Rising Sun. I’ve been back and forth frequently between the United States and Korea, but I’ve managed to avoid our closest neighbor to the east until now. More precisely, it would be more accurate to say that I’ve avoided our erstwhile foe all these years out of deep-seated antipathy. At least, I thought that’s what I’m supposed to say as a Korean. However, it has been some time since Korea lifted its ban on importing Japanese pop culture, and I haven’t seen many changes in attitudes here.
Among the throng of Japanese cultural imports now available, its movies are not immune to getting the cold shoulder. Such was the case of “The Hotel Venus,” a recent Japanese import that apparently was so popular in Korea, only two theaters thought of showing it. (Even the arthouse theaters snubbed it.)
But then again, maybe we chose the wrong film to blow off. I’m talking about a film that received the best-picture award during this year’s Moscow International Film Festival. I saw the film; it was simply breathtaking. It starts with a group of people, who seemingly give up their lives and end up meeting individually at a shabby hotel whose location ― whether Korea or Japan ― quite honestly eludes me. In a documentary style, the film shows where the people came from and where they are going. The film shows how life changes from ephemeral to meaningful.
Amazingly, the actors from the beginning to the end speak only in Korean. So, it’s a Japanese production filmed in Korean, but hardly known in Korea. I’ve met the leading actor, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, and the director, Hideta Takahata. The director is quite well known in Japan, and the starring actor, Mr. Kusanagi, is a member of Japan’s hot idol group called SMAP, which has been a sensation in Japan for more than a decade. Mr. Kusanagi, incidentally, is a self-described Korea-phile. Apparently, he loves Korea so much that he even pronounces the Chinese characters in his name in Korean-style, to be “Chonan Gang.” He also published a Korean study aid, titled “Hwajangsil Eodi-eyo?” (Where Is the Toilet?)
Yes, I know there’s been a big Korean wave in Japan as of late, but c’mon, a Japanese film with a Japanese cast, shot entirely in Korean? I hate to say it, but that’s just going too far. So on my recent trip to Japan, where I met the director and lead actor, I just came right out and asked Mr. Takahata and Mr. Kusanagi, “Why are you into Korea so much?”
It took time for them to answer as they smiled that very Japanese smile. After waiting what seemed like an eternity, their answer almost knocked me off my seat: “We just thought it would be fun.”
Could it be possible to be any cooler than that? From the beginning, they seemed to be averse to the ring of officialdom found in canned terms such as “Korea-Japan friendship” or “Korean-Japanese cultural exchange.” I observed that Mr. Kusanagi, a.k.a. Chonan Gang, dealt with the uncomfortable issue of Korea’s and Japan’s recent history as something that his father’s generation had to deal with. That is, to many young Japanese, Korea is neither a stereotype nor a reminder of past enmities. Korea, apparently, is nothing more than a neighbor. Of course, this contrasts sharply with the opinions and stereotypes about the Japanese held in Korea by the same generation and older.
What was interesting to me was how a Japanese audience reacted to watching a Japanese film in Korean with subtitles. Mr. Kusanagi, true to form, answered half in Korean, half in Japanese. “The audience for ‘The Hotel Venus’ was more than that of the Korean film ‘Shiri,’” meaning that “The Hotel Venus” played to at least 1 million in Japan. For an art film to achieve such commercial success would be a near impossible in Korea. As a result, I became more interested in understanding the totality of Japanese pop culture, which left me a little bit noplussed to say the truth. Should I regard them the way I regard the United States? With this visit to Japan, I realized I was as blindly in favor of the United States as I was in love with my black-rimmed glasses.
What is culture anyhow? Nowadays, national borders are becoming lest distinct, and it’s all about diversity. Before we start raising the issue of how to address cultural diversity in a global village, what I consider as a precondition for diversity is becoming “bias-free.”
One of my biggest impressions from my trip to Japan was the near absence of cultural bias in Japanese society.
Having lived for about seven years as a student in the United States, I never experienced any overt prejudice while on campus, which I still remain thankful for. And mind you, I lived in a small city in the southern part of the United States, speaking poor English, in a place where there are hardly any Asians. If I was being discriminated against, I was oblivious to it.
Actually, I might have already sensed the bias-free side of Japan years ago. There was a case of a fellow singer, Lee Seong-mi, with whom I performed in the early 1970s at OB’s Cabin in the Myeongdong district in Seoul. One day, I was told that Ms. Lee was making it big in Japan. If Ms. Lee were some sort of a typical “troteu” (which is similar to the Japanese “enca” sytle) singer, it would be easy to understand why Ms. Lee was a hit in Japan. Afterall, Ms. Lee sang like Karen Carpenter. Japan to me, then, became a country that could accept anyone who did something well, with no bias or prejudice, even though that person, like Ms. Lee, was not accepted back home.
After Ms. Lee, Korean singers like Cho Yong-phil or Na Hun-a, did not have a hard time breaking into Japan’s music scene with the troteu style. Even the Japanese were singing Mr. Cho’s hit number “Dorawayo Busanhang-e” (Come Back to Busan Port) at karaoke joints.
But if I had to choose the most successful Korean singer in Japan, that would be Gye Eun-suk. Ms. Gye, a.k.a. Gye Eunsuku in Japanese, went by her Korean name only. Nevertheless, she still went on to become an icon in the Japanese pop music industry ― along with other singers like Kim Yeon-ja and Jeong Jae-eun. Can you imagine the reverse happening in Korea? It’s almost unthinkable.
Despite such fervor on the part of a new generation of Japanese, Korea and Koreans still remain an unknown quantity to most Japanese, perhaps in the same way that Cambodians and the Filippinos are to most Koreans. After the 1988 Olympics, the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the critical success of the Korean teledrama, “Winter Sonata,” and the current and ongoing popularity of singing sensation BoA, can we really say that Korean culture has made an impression with Japan? Is this exchange enough to wash away the scars of our colonial past. Unfortunately, it is not.
It is significant to remember that BoA only made it big in Korea after her success in Japan. Has this set a precedent for creating the conditions to succeed in your home country? Do you really have to prove yourself abroad? When you succeed in Japan, does that mean you will be allowed to succeed in Korea? Or is this a mere reflection of the fact that Japan, as a melting pot of Asian culture, is setting the tone? If this is the case, a new paradigm shift is badly needed so we can foster our own talent at home.
When I lived in the United States in the 1970s, I saw the TV miniseries, “Shogun,” air over several consecutive days. Apparently, however, that was enough to change Americans’ impression of Japan.
Right after the miniseries, if I recall correctly, sushi restaurants started sprouting up in every major American city, and Americans began this obsession with all things Japanese.
In many ways, this is the same thing being replayed in Japan, except with “Winter Sonata” as the impetus.
I also heard that many Japanese women think that all Korean men are hot and look like the starring actor Bae Yong-jun. What’s a Korean man to do? I had to make powerful efforts throughout my stay in Japan to keep up with Mr. Bae’s image.
Also, I heard that when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi joked to President Roh Moo-hyun that Yon-sama (what Japanese fans call Mr. Bae) was even more popular than the prime minister himself, our president sadly had no witty comeback.
This is because we have refused to give serious air to Japanese films like “The Hotel Venus,” while Korean products like BoA and Winter Sonata are spearheading a one-way cultural exchange with Japan. I figured that the Japanese are getting the benefit, while we Koreans are getting left high and dry ― mostly because of our own doing. This really worries me if Korea continues to deprive itself of cultural exchange under the distortion of nationalism.

by Chun Su-jin
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