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The International Writers Magazine

Korean culture sweeping through Asia
John Duerden

For 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 Tokyo’s 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 hasn’t 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 country’s 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 recorded.
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 sensation’s first three albums all rocketed to number one. Japan was just the first step in the recipient of MTV Asia’s ‘Most influential Artist in Asia’ award’s 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 Korea’s Confucian outlook and enjoy the greater emphasis that Korean soaps place on the family. While Japanese dramas often seem more individualistic and sexually explicit, Korea’s 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 one’s 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 1990’s, headlines such as ‘Is your child becoming Japanese?’ did not make comfortable reading for those with a sense of history. Korean culture doesn’t 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 one’s face to appear more beautiful is widespread in Korea. Indeed, as much as 60% of women in their 20’s and 30’s are estimated to have had some cosmetic surgery in the more exclusive districts of Seoul.

Many 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 Asia’s most important film hub. Korean films are enjoying unprecedented success in Korea, where local movies account for around 60% of the market.

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 isn’t 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

Re-Uniting Korea - Can it be done? 11.24.04

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