Japan from the inside out

Koreans wonder where the wave went

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 23, 2007

WHILE PACKING UP AT 10 DOWNING ST., British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week spoke about the difficulties of conducting governmental affairs in today’s media environment. Many observers in the U.S. as well as Great Britain noted with interest his description of the Independent as a “viewspaper, not a newspaper”.

Britain’s not the only country with a viewspaper problem–many newspapers in Western countries and Japan aren’t interested in making distinctions between a Page One news story and an editorial. I’m sure we all could offer our favorite candidates.

And after reading this recent article in The Hankyoreh about the Korean Wave of pop culture in Japan, the deadly viewspaper virus has wormed its way into the South Korean print media, too.

The article starts as a newspaper piece, offering more bad news for K-Wave fans and those whose taste runs to international soap operas:

  • The rise of “hallyu,” or the “Korean wave” of cultural products, was short-lived in Japan.
  • Cinemart Roppongi, a Tokyo theater devoted to showing Asian films, has screened 16 South Korean movies since late March, but has attracted only about 2,300 viewers during the entire festival.
  • When Cinemart Roppongi opened, Korean films accounted for almost 90 percent of its lineup, but now comprise about 60 percent.
  • Korean film distribution rights, even deeply discounted for the Japanese market, are getting too pricey for the amount of box office they pull in.
  • Just three or four Japanese companies import and distribute Korean films, a drop of more than 50 percent from their peak.
  • The average sale price of a film’s distribution rights in Japan is about 10 percent of what it once was.
  • “No matter how cheap they are, nobody wants to buy Korean movies,” said Lee Eun-gyeong of Kadogawa Pictures.
  • According to a survey performed by the Korean Broadcasting Institute (KBI), Japan’s import of Korean TV programs decreased by about 16 billion won (approximately US$17 million) in 2006 as compared to 2005.

Connect the dots, and it’s obvious they’re having a hard time giving Korean product away in Japan now, a mere three years after the country’s movies and TV programs had become so popular it led to the coining of the phrase “Korean Wave”.

Then The Hankyoreh inexplicably switches from newspaper to viewspaper mode. Take a look at the headline:

Is the ‘Korean wave’ dead in Japan? Don’t bet on it, say experts
Other cooperative projects grow out of surge in interest in Korean culture

The sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, once wrote, “The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”

The Hankyoreh is curiously passionate about “the palpably not true”, despite the Korean Wave having gone flat and glassy. This isn’t new information; everyone involved, including the Koreans, knew it at the beginning of last year. Here’s a quick translation of excerpts from article that appeared in Japanese in the Nishinippon Shimbun almost a year ago (all subsequent emphasis mine):

The value of Korean film exports, the primary element in the so-called Korean Wave sweeping Japan, plunged by roughly half in the period from January to June this year (2006). The most important factor was the sharp decline in exports to Japan, which accounts for 70% of the export market. The Korean Film Society commented, ‘We cannot say this phenomenon is temporary. Rather, it is the result of the “export bubble” to Japan bursting.’
…The statistics for exports to Japan were particularly revealing. During the same period last year, 36 movies with an average export price of US$860,000 each were sent here, while this year the figure fell to just 15 films with an average value of US$580,000. In addition, the amount of money received from exports to Japan during the first six months of this year accounted for roughly half of all film export income, while it amounted to about 74% last year.

If the people of any country are in a position to understand Japanese behavior, it should be the Koreans. Apart from some small islands under Russian occupation, Korea is Japan’s closest neighbor, and interaction between the two—albeit at times antagonistic and involuntary—stretches back for millennia.

senko hanabi

Senko hanabi

Therefore, The Hankyoreh should already be aware of the tendency for Japanese interest to suddenly burst into flame, burn almost incandescently, and just as quickly die out. The Japanese themselves are the first to acknowledge this behavior; they use the expression senko hanabi—literally, incense fireworks—to describe this phenomenon. Senko hanabi are a traditional Japanese version of the American sparkler often seen at family gatherings in the summer. These backyard, child-safe fireworks have become a metaphor for transience, a favorite Japanese theme.

The popularity of Korean movies and TV in Japan had reached such a height in 2004 and 2005 that people were openly speculating when the inevitable collapse would come. As the Nishinippon Shimbun article excerpted above reports, that collapse came in the first half of 2006.

None of this should be a big deal. Trends wax and wane in countries everywhere, all the time. Yet The Hankyoreh seems desperate to come up with excuses to believe in the palpably not true.

Excuse #1

Bang Sang-won, a Korean executive of Samsung in Japan, said that he now has many new topics of conversation with his Japanese business partners since they are all watching the same Korean TV dramas.

I suspect Mr. Bang’s Japanese business partners are relieved to have finally found some subjects for casual conversation with him. Another common trait of the Japanese is to search for the least common denominator enabling them to initiate friendly communication with people. (That’s why they compliment newly arrived foreigners on their use of chopsticks or attempts to speak Japanese. That’s also why the Japanese think talking about the weather is an excellent way to start a conversation.)

If Mr. Bang has to struggle for topics of conversation with the Japanese, the fault lies either with his Japanese ability or his personality. What’s he going to do now that most of those dramas have disappeared?

That’s not to mention the most peculiar aspect of all: most of the Korean programs shown in Japan were made either for the women’s market or for a younger demographic. How often do Samsung executives talk about soap operas with their business partners, much less watch them?

Excuse #2

The next excuse raises so many red flags, it’s like a Moscow May Day parade from the Soviet era.

Yuka Anjako, a researcher at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University’s Korea Research Center, said that due to the exposure of Korean culture to Japan, “some kindergartens designated ‘Korea Day’ as a special event. When these children grow up, they will be able to overcome the painful past between Korea and Japan.”

Ritsumeikan APU is a unique educational institution: roughly half the faculty and the students are from overseas (70 countries in all). It’s not surprising an official from that school would find a way to put a positive spin on anything that improves international relations.

But there are other problems. First, I can’t find a “Korea Research Center” on their website. Is either The Hankyoreh or Ms. Anjako padding her qualifications? In fact, she’s not listed as a faculty member at all (either under that spelling, or Anzako).

Then there is her assertion that Japanese today need to “overcome the painful past between Korea and Japan”, and that a Korea Day at kindergartens will turn the bilateral relationship into one big smiley face.

I don’t know Ms. Anjako’s age (or nationality), but most Japanese—either the average citizen or those committed to improving bilateral ties—simply don’t talk or think that way. They don’t have anything to overcome.

In 1984, my first year in the country, a friend remarked to me that while his parents disliked Koreans, no one in his generation felt that way at all. He’s in his 50s now.

I’m also familiar with Japanese efforts to promote grassroots interaction between the two countries. I was involved in the planning of the first exchange event held locally with Korean university students nearly 20 years ago, in 1989. As chance would have it, the Emperor Showa (Hirohito) died on the same day it was to begin. The Koreans were worried that the Japanese would cancel, but it was never seriously considered.

Koreans and their culture were not an exotic novelty before some of their movies and TV dramas found an audience among middle-aged Japanese housewives. Nor do Japanese have any reticence about interacting with Koreans. I’ve seen too many Korean college students studying in Japan enjoy themselves too much during their time in this country to think that anybody has to overcome anything.

My experience, combined with her manner of expression, made me wonder if Ms. Anjako has a certain agenda, so to speak.

Well, what do you know! This item from the North Korean news agency turned up (7th from top):

South and Overseas Delegations here
Pyongyang, September 28 (KCNA) — The south side’s delegation headed by Jon Jae Jin, chairman of the Society for Probing the Truth behind the Sinking of Ship Ukishima by Explosion and the overseas delegation led by Hong Sang Jin, secretary general of the Central Headquarters of the Korean Side of the Fact-finding Group of the Forcible Drafting of Koreans arrived here on Sept. 27 to participate in the Pyongyang symposium for probing the truth behind the “Ukishima-Maru” incident. Also arriving was Japanese delegate Yuka Anjako.
They were greeted at the airport by Hong Son Ok, chairperson of the DPRK Measure Committee for Demanding Compensation to Comfort Women for the Japanese Army and Victims of Forcible Drafting, and other officials concerned.

I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions.

By the way, if, like me, you didn’t know about the Ukishima-maru incident—and want a good laugh–this will tell you all you need to know.

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, some 3,800 Korean expatriates in Japan were aboard the “Ukishima-Maru” a Japanese naval vessel, which had been supposed to arrive in Pusan, a southeastern port of Korea, bidding farewell to their slave-like lives in the Japanese Archipelagoes– a suzerain of Korea. The ship had left a pier in Maizuru Port on August 24, 1945, but the vessel suddenly sank inside Maizuru Bay, north of Kyoto, Japan, claiming the lives of approximately 550 passengers.

The DPRK has claimed that the ship was sunk intentionally by the explosives planted inside the ship went off according to a plan carefully worked out by the Japanese authorities.

Flatly denying that the “Ukishima-Maru” was bomb-exploded, the Japanese side has been saying that the ship sank when it hit a mine.

Once again, I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions. Especially about the Japanese going out of their way to sink their own ship in their own waters one month before the war ended.

This time, the lady from Ritsumeikan turns up as Yuka Anzako, but it’s probably the same person.

Once they decided to turn this article into fiction, The Hankyoreh’s journalists really got on a roll. Their next excuse is one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen in a newspaper:

Excuse #3

Kim Mi-deok, a Korean researcher at the strategic institute of Japan’s Mitsui Corp., said, “The fact (is) that Japan’s major enterprises have started to be moved along by the Korean wave. Since hallyu hit Japan, Japanese businesses have acknowledged the possibility of Korea, and have strategically used Korea to advance into the greater Asian community.”

There are two possibilities for this nonsense. One is that Mr. Kim figured that he might as well tell the reporters what they wanted to hear, because his bosses at Mitsui would never read what he said.

The other is that The Hankyoreh just made it up.

It didn’t take long to find the Japanese government’s figures on Japanese foreign investment broken down by country, as you can see from this website (Excel file). These statistics show that Japanese businesses “advanced into the greater Asian community” long ago–with the notable exception of South Korea (considering its proximity and population). Japan has invested substantially more in China than in South Korea over the years, as well in the NIES and in Thailand. Their investments have sporadically been greater in Singapore, and more frequently higher in Hong Kong, considered separately from China—and both of those are city-states.

The next step was a search for statistics from the Korean side, to either corroborate or amplify the Japanese information. Before I found any statistics, however, I found this editorial that ran in the Korea Times two years ago (.pdf file):

Foreign investment in South Korea has never been high. For decades, the government pursued policies that successfully impeded foreign investment…These policies were in part an understandable response to the country’s colonial history and fears that if the economy were opened widely to foreign investors, the country’s assets would be bought up wholesale by Japanese investors.


Many are not doubt familiar with a proverb common to China, Japan, and Korea: “The frog at the bottom of the well knows nothing of the ocean”. I found myself wondering if the people who wrote The Hankyoreh article had the same perspective, but that frog’s not at the bottom of a well—it’s living in a roomful of mirrors.

Then the thought arose that they might be carrying a torch for all those Japanese consumers who deserted them. They could be going through the same sort of temporary denial that sometimes affects people when a lover decides to move on to greener pastures for a reason they don’t understand.

A more unfortunate possibility emerges the more one reads of that Korea Times editorial:

But what is more worrisome is that these specific manifestations may reflect xenophobia that is encouraged by the dominant institutions of Korean society….In 2002, pollsters from the Pew Survey on Global Attitudes interviewed more than 40,000 people in 46 countries around the world…One of the questions they asked was whether respondents agreed with the statement that “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others”.

Here are the results:
France: 40% agreement
Russia, U.S.: 60% agreement
Japan: 75% agreement.
South Korea: 90% agreement, the highest score of any country in the world.


Paradoxically, while an astonishing share of Koreans apparently feel culturally superior to the rest of the world, they also apparently lack confidence in that culture’s resilience—five out of six Koreans think it should be protected from foreign influence.

People describe the thinking of the inhabitants of island countries as “insular”, but that’s more insularity than I’ve seen in Japan in nearly a quarter of a century. Maybe that’s a “pan-insular” philosophy for the residents of a peninsula.

We’ve already heard from Tony Blair and H.L. Mencken, so let’s finish with a comment by former U.S. President Harry S Truman. He is reported to have said, “I feel sorry for my fellow citizens who read the newspaper every morning and thereby think they have an idea of what is happening in the world.”

The people I feel sorry for are the South Koreans who actually spend money to read The Hankyoreh.

Addendum: After all that, I don’t have the heart to translate this article from JanJan about the current Japan Wave of films in South Korea. One new Japanese movie opening every week…35 Japanese movies shown last year, attracting 1.2 million viewers, particularly women in their 20s…occurring during an overall downturn in the Korean movie industry…total audience down 17.3% during the first quarter, compared to the previous year…audience for Korean films down 41%…One person quoted said, “The time has come to learn from Japanese cinema”…

What the heck. Maybe JanJan is just a viewspaper, too. Maybe they took their cue from The Hankyoreh and made it all up.

7 Responses to “Koreans wonder where the wave went”

  1. GI Korea said

    The Hanky is a leftist newspaper that no one besides leftist hacks that very few people take seriously (like the current Korean president) reads. So I wouldn’t put to much stock in what the Hanky writes.

    The two big newspapers the Chosun Ilbo and the Joong Ang Ilbo are better then the Hanky but even they still editorialize and sensationalize the news to sell papers, just like what western papers have become.

  2. Garrett Milhouse said

    I watched several episodes of some well-known kdramas, a few years back, to see what all the fuss was about. I pretty much lost all interest after I realized that most of the storylines and characters were pretty much lifted from J-dramas released a few years before the korean-doppelganger version.

  3. bender said

    France: 40% agreement
    Russia, U.S.: 60% agreement
    Japan: 75% agreement.
    South Korea: 90% agreement, the highest score of any country in the world.

    I thought it was like 99% for the French. I’m really surprised!
    Aside from that, I don’t know how one can think their culture is “superior” to others. Must be really near-sighted and mindless to think that way.

    Personally, I’m not comfortable at the level of S Korea’s nationalism. I’ve seen Korean postings claiming that is’s good to be “patriotic”, but it seems to me that it’s way past that level. I wonder why they have to be like that- they’ve witnessed first-hand the Japanese Empire’s great fall. Do they think they’re so special that they can get away with over-hyped nationalism?

  4. Paul said

    “The Hanky is a leftist newspaper that no one besides leftist hacks that very few people take seriously (like the current Korean president) reads.”

    So it’s just like the Independent or the Guardian. The Guardian in particular is a magnet for environazis.

    “I realized that most of the storylines and characters were pretty much lifted from J-dramas released a few years before the korean-doppelganger version.”

    Korea has always seemed like a poor man’s Japan.

  5. Overthinker said

    I’m not too sure it’s really ‘dead’ as such. My SO still watches a lot of Korean dramas, and the local video place still has three or four shelves devoted to Korean stuff. Some long-term stats would be interesting: rather than showing a sudden drop from a peak, looking back over ten years or so might give a better picture. Maybe the ‘wave’ is over, but the tide is still in…?

  6. Aceface said

    OK.Where can I start…
    I happened to work in a media which is considered to be one of the main engine of Korean wave in Japan.And I can safely say that the whole stuff was pretty much planned to boost the friendly atomosphere toward Korea and by seizing the momentum of 98 Obuchi-Kim summit(in theory that was the end of all tha apology diplomacy….)and 2002 world cup and 2005 Japan/Korea friendship year,turn the two countries relation into new phase.
    Koreans agreed to open the contury for the Japanese culture inch by inch(though as of year 2007,it is still not allowed to broadcast Japanese language on ground wave,which means no J-pops and J-dramas,but only on cable TV),they were pretty worried about “cultural invasion”and to make Korean feel that the road goes both way,GoJ was asked very vauguly to promote Korean culture in Japan and NHK and Dentsu stood for the task.And there you have Kusanagi Tsuyoshi of SMAP learning Korean language and become “Choe Nang Kang” and NHK satellites(and ground wave)showered “Winter Sonata”endlessly to the nation.Coincidentally it was the time of renaissance in Korean cinema and there were a few good films.So there you have it.Korean wave.
    At first Korean were pretty gentle.I mean afterall it was quasi cultural exchange like mission that nobody felt it would be a phoenomenon.and then things starts to slip after Yonsama become nation wide sensation.And even though Korean wave is a nitche genre in Japan,there is a working copyright protection scheme in this country.So Korean company could raise fairly good amount of money for sales on DVD unlike Hallyu boom in Mongolia or Vietnam.So they become ambitious.Start to place ripoff price for the product which eventually led to the bubble.There are fan of Korean entertainment remaining and continue to exist in this country,but I don’t think there will be any gold rush like the past few years without the help of J-media powerhouse’s muscle,of which was the true dynamo of the Korean Wave.

    Now what GI Korea had said about Chosen Ilbo and Joongang Ilbo.Many of my colleague thinks they are nothing but a trash.Since they are not as anti-American like Hankyoreh,GI may have modest idea about the two.But I see little or no difference in it’s quality,especially when it comes to Japan related article.I have no idea why these editors wanted to put the Japanese version on the web.But because of the Yahoo Japan,these Korean paper’s articles with full of anti-Japanese sentiment inside are shown to Japanese through Yahoo news everyday.The Japanese youth who read these paper’s(and another national daily Donga Ilbo’s)Japanese edition on the web start to rear strong anti-Koreanism of which was none existent in this country.(there were prejuduce to zainichi Koreans before but that is mostly deteriorated due to the fact that most are not regarded as foreigners anymore,so the target of the prejudice had shifted to other foreigners like Chinese or Brazilian migrant workers).
    So I wouldn’t surprise Korean wave cannot find fans in new generation.

  7. The Chosun and Donga are both just above tabloid quality which is why I mentioned they sensationalize and editorialize what should be just be news. Often Japan even more so than the US is the target of sensationalism. Nationalism sells in Korea and the media exploits this to no end. However, these two papers come no where near the ridiculous I have seen in the Hanky. The Hanky is not even tabloid quality, it is just propaganda.

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