[Viewpoint] Blackout dims the lights of Hallyu

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[Viewpoint] Blackout dims the lights of Hallyu

I finally got past the entrance but could not move forward because of the crowd. Women of various ages were admiring photographs of Korean actor Jang Geun-seok, whose popularity reportedly exceeds that of Bae Yong-joon’s at the height of his glory. Young men were putting K-pop girl group Kara’s CDs in their shopping carts.

It has been a month since I arrived in Tokyo as a correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo. I made my first visit to Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo, the mecca of the Korean Wave. The Hallyu store here was beyond my imagination.

My Japanese friend told me: “My wife wanted to live in Europe before, but now she is into Super Junior and wants me to transfer to Seoul. Her dream is to live in Cheongdam-dong [southern Seoul] where its agency, SM Entertainment, is located.” As I looked around, I realized that he was serious.

K-pop stars are not the only engines of the Korean Wave. As the Hallyu in Japan spreads, it is evolving into a more comprehensive phenomenon. In the Korean grocery stores in Shin-Okubo, Japanese customers queue to buy Korean kimchi, spices, marinated fish, instant noodles, snacks, cookies and cosmetics.

The narrow sidewalks are filled with people buying and tasting spicy rice cakes and shaved ice with red bean from street venders. The Hallyu has become a lifestyle - not just limited to Shin-Okubo. The basements of Japanese department stores usually have high-end supermarkets, and Korean products are ubiquitous. Soft tofu casserole and ginseng and chicken soup have become favorite lunch items for office workers in Tokyo. Jang Geun-seok’s face can be found on giant screens in Ginza, and spotting advertisements for Korean snacks on the subway has become routine here.

Eight years have passed since “Winter Sonata” first aired in Japan, setting off the Korean Wave. The Hallyu has been quietly, yet faithfully, carrying out the task of boosting the cultural pride of Koreans and improving Korea’s reputation and image.

But in one fell swoop, a ridiculous incident last week ruined Korea’s image. The news of nationwide blackouts in Korea, the home of the Hallyu, came as a shock to many Japanese.

The analysis of Japanese media was that the outages were caused by slack management and failure to predict power demand. President Lee Myung-bak visited the headquarters of Korea Electric Power Corporation and gave a tongue lashing. He hit the table with his fist and said: “You are all pathetic and incompetent. You have done what can only happen in backward, underdeveloped countries.”

Japanese newspapers ran headlines with Lee’s remarks. They published photos and posted videos of people stuck inside elevators, a restaurant owner filling fish tanks manually, ATM machines not working and cars tangled in traffic.

The Japanese have gotten through a hot summer amid unprecedented electricity shortages after the country’s nuclear accident earlier this year. There would be no other explanation for the Korean blackout other than a backward and underdeveloped mind-set, just as the president reproached.

My Japanese friend asked: “I heard that the power was out in Korea without any notice. What happened? It could have been a serious disaster, so is it O.K. now?” The Japanese tend not to ask questions that make the other person embarrassed. But I still got these questions, so we can tell the blackout was a serious mishap.

*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Seo Seung-wook
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