The International Writers Magazine:
culture sweeping through Asia
much of the second half of the twentieth century, Japanese cultural
products were banned in South Korea. A lasting legacy of the Korean
bitterness over its neighbour's brutal occupation of the peninsula
meant that Koreans couldn't watch movies or TV shows, read books
or listen to music that originated on the other side of the Sea
of Japan (or East Sea if you live in Korea). With the memory of
being forced to take Japanese names and speak only the Japanese
language still fresh in Korean's minds, successive governments were
determined that no longer would Tokyos culture be able to
gain a foothold in Korea.
Step by step the
ban was lifted, completely so earlier this year. This was a natural
step in establishing a mature relationship between the two countries,
even more so because Korean youths had for years been watching Japanese
anime and movies on the internet. However, despite the fears of much
of the older generation, the lifting of the ban hasnt led to a
love of all things Nippon. Rather, it is Japan and large parts of the
rest of Asia who are being swept by The Korean Wave, as
Korean entertainers are enjoying unprecedented popularity not only in
Japan but also in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South-East Asia.
Japan's embrace of Korean movies, music and especially TV dramas is
especially significant as modern Japan is a country that usually looks
towards Western popular culture as opposed to imports from Asian nations.
Following the success of Korean drama All in, in 2003, a
series which enjoyed ratings of 50 percent, the Asahi TV network paid
a million dollars to show the tragic love story Stairway to Heaven.
Another hit Winter Sonata provoked 4,000 Japanese tourists
to visit the small island location where it was filmed.
Not only are Japanese tourists visiting Korea in ever greater numbers.
Legions of young Tokyoites, oblivious, ignorant or uncaring about their
countrys troubled relationship with its neighbour, are discovering
Korean culture for the first time. Thousands visit the Korean Dongdaemun
Ichiba market to buy Korean clothes; an upturn in the numbers of people
studying Korean and eating the spicy cuisine of Korea has also been
Japanese families are not only settling down to a night in front of
Korean TV but more and more teenagers are listening to K, rather than
J, pop. BoA, a 17 year-old Korean girl, groomed for stardom since she
was eleven, has taken the Japanese charts by storm. The teenage sensations
first three albums all rocketed to number one. Japan was just the first
step in the recipient of MTV Asias Most influential Artist
in Asia awards avowed mission to conquer Asia and the rest
of the world.
It is not only the music of BoA that is wielding increasing influence
outside Japan. Korean TV dramas are proving to be more popular than
their Japanese counterparts in Taiwan and China. Viewers in this part
of East Asia share Koreas Confucian outlook and enjoy the greater
emphasis that Korean soaps place on the family. While Japanese dramas
often seem more individualistic and sexually explicit, Koreas
more conservative shows revolve around a strong family network with
familial respect and duty a strong theme. Countries like Taiwan and
South-East Asian nations share the same gender inequalities as Korea.
Female viewers, who make up the majority of drama viewers, can easily
identify with the problems that the on-screen females face.
It is not only older female viewers who can identify with the characters
battling male chauvinism. Younger viewers are able to sympathize with
the conflict between Confucianism and modern society that is depicted
on screen. Many Korean dramas deal with the problem of ones parents
deeming that a potential spouse is unsuitable for background, moral
or financial reasons.
In Taiwan and South-East Asia, many older people were troubled by the
invasion of Japanese culture in the 1990s, headlines such as Is
your child becoming Japanese? did not make comfortable reading
for those with a sense of history. Korean culture doesnt come
with the same baggage and has been credited with a sense of being able
to Asianize western culture into a form that is palatable
and appealing from Singapore to Beijing.
Many local commentators have dismissed the wave as a superficial fad.
This popularity of Korean culture does not amount to a real appreciation
of, or interest in, Korean cultural heritage but is merely a reflection
of the attractiveness of Korean actors and singers. Taiwanese newspapers
have pointed to the growth of plastic surgery clinics as young Taiwanese
seek to emulate the Korean stars of the big and small screen. Ironically,
this practice is as much a part of Korean culture as watching Korean
TV or movies. Altering ones face to appear more beautiful is widespread
in Korea. Indeed, as much as 60% of women in their 20s and 30s
are estimated to have had some cosmetic surgery in the more exclusive
districts of Seoul.
of these women would not look out of place at the Cannes film festival,
where Quentin Tarantino said that only America, Hong Kong and India
have sustainable movie industries. Koreans would disagree, feeling
that they have overtaken Hong Kong as East and South-East Asias
most important film hub. Korean films are enjoying unprecedented
success in Korea, where local movies account for around 60% of the
Two recent movies, Silmido and Taeguki were
both viewed by over ten million Koreans at the movie theatre in
less than two months. This solid base has enabled Korean films to
penetrate throughout Asia. My Sassy girl was an Asian-wide
hit and movies such as JSA, Friend and Memories of Murder have all
enjoyed Asian success. The sheer number of new productions and the
growing levels of creativity in an industry that isnt viewed
as just an industry but as part of the national heritage should
make Tarantino take notice.
Pic: My Sassy Girl 2001
The American director
will have that chance in Cannes as he views the slick thriller Old
Boy another huge hit from last fall. Many of his fellow Americans
will soon have the same chance as Koreans are now exporting to Hollywood.
Old Boy will be remade by Hollywood, with rumors that Brad
Pitt will play the lead. There are a number of films rights that have
been bought by such studios as Miramax and Dreamworks.
One wave, however big, does not mean that the tide has turned. Of course
the movies will be Americanized but it could soon mean that in the West,
a mention of Korean culture will no longer prompt images of eating dogs
and the world cup.
© John Duerden June 2004
Korea - Can it be done? 11.24.04
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