The Japanese counter-wave

Japanese boy band Arashi – a hot ticket in Korea

March’s edition of Seoul magazine has an interesting article discussing how cultural waves do not travel in just one direction.

Supporters of Korean culture are keen to point out the unstoppability of the hallyu: Rain in the Philippines, BoA in Japan, Super Junior in China, TV Dramas everywhere (except the UK it seems). Back home, though, the Koreans aren’t necessarily consuming just Korean culture. From books to pop music, Japanese culture is more than making its presence felt.

The Korean music industry exports cute boys to China? Japan does the same to Korea. Seoul magazine reports:

Last December, a Japanese “pretty boy” idol group, Arashi, held its first concert in Korea, and the 88,000 won tickets were sold out in one hour.

The statistics compiled by the giant Kyobo bookstore show, for the first time in 2006, more Japanese books than Korean in the list of top 100 bestsellers:


Popular Japanese authors include Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. In a survey of one, Seoul magazine interviewed a 20-year-old Korean reader (and Banana Yoshimoto fanatic):

I think most Korean novels are too dark and heavy. They are immersed in the shackles of modern history, such as the fight for democracy … and concerns for the divided Korean Peninsula. … There are times that you want light-hearted and trivial stories to read, and Japanese novels are perfect for that.

The statistics above indicate others share those views. The magazine also interviewed Yoon Sang-in, a professor of Japanese culture at Hanyang University:

There is a universal charm in modern Japanese novels that is hardly found in many modern Korean novels.

The professor uses two words which are often found explaining the success of Korean movies — that

it is the “hybrid” and “universal” nature of Japanese modern literature that Korean young readers have been looking for.

And talking of movies, 2007’s early hit film 200 Pound Beauty was based on a Japanese manga. So, as many readers will be aware, was the international Korean mega-hit of 2003, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.

It was only relatively recently that the Korean government lifted the ban on Japanese popular culture. After a 53 year post-war hiatus, the first Japanese song to be performed legally in South Korea was on 24 October, 1998. But removing the ban was recognising the inevitable — that in an internet-connected world you can’t keep barriers erected forever.

A Chosun editorial from earlier this week takes a rather gloomy view of the situation:

If the Korean Wave is to continue, Korea’s cultural industry must wake up and realize the significance of content.

Content is the new buzzword in the culture industry (hence KOCCA — the Korean Culture & Content Agency), and there is no doubt that the industry does recognise its importance. Yoon Sang-in, again in Seoul magazine suggests that the popularity of Japanese novelists – or rather the lack of popularity in Korean novelists – is partly historical (that because of Korea’s turbulent history “Korean authors did not have to to develop the power of diversity”) and partly structural:

“Japan has the best system in the world where good writers have good income,” he says. “Meanwhile, most Korean writers need to do other jobs to bring home the bacon”.

But history has not prevented Korea’s vibrant film industry from developing, albeit with a lot of government support.



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