Japan from the inside out

The Japan Wave in South Korea: It’s older than you think

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 4, 2008

THE SEOUL CORRESPONDENT for the Nishinippon Shimbun filed a fascinating report today that demonstrates the recent surge in popularity of Japanese culture in South Korea—the so-called “Japan Wave” (illyu in Korean)–is by no means a new phenomenon, and that interpersonal relations between Japanese and Koreans are more amicable than the picture the popular press in other countries (including South Korea) chooses to present.

The article is in Japanese and it’s not on line, so here is my quick and dirty translation:

I formed the Aimai Club(あいまい会), a language study group consisting of Japanese, such as me, for whom the Korean language is still hazy, and Koreans for whom the Japanese language is still hazy. But as you might expect, most of our time spent learning the unvarnished truth about each other occurs when we go drinking or mountain climbing together.

We held a year-end party at a karaoke room, and the mood was immediately enlivened by the performance of songs I didn’t expect to hear. One Korean sangGingiragin Sareganaku the 1991 hit by Kondo Masahiko. Another club member, a 48-year-old Korean man, told me this number was so popular during his college days that people would spontaneously get up and dance whenever it was played at a Korean night club.

Other well-known Japanese songs sung during the evening included Buru Raito Yokohama, the 1968 song by Ishida Ayumi; Koibito Yo, Itsuwa Mayumi’s 1980 hit; and Endoresu Rein, released in 1989 by X Japan. The beauty of it was that every one of those songs was popular in Korea at the same time they were hits in Japan.

It’s been just 10 years since the South Korean government gradually began to lift the restrictions on the import of popular Japanese culture in 1998. For the Koreans to have been familiar with the songs they sung at the karaoke room, either their countrymen in Busan and other areas in the southern part of the country heard them from radio and TV signals coming across the Korean Strait from Kyushu, or they became hits after they were taped and smuggled into the country.

Regardless of what actually happened, however, either way would have been fine. The important lesson is that things which resonate in the human heart resonate even when they are prohibited. The Aimai Club chair, a 37-year-old Korean woman from Busan, immediately designated Buru Raito Yokohama as the official club song when she was chosen, perhaps because it has stuck in her memory since childhood.

This sort of popularity of Japanese culture before the import restrictions were removed has been referred to as the ‘underground Japan wave’. Now a new Japan wave is at its height. Last year, 10 films based on original Japanese stories were filmed in Korea, including Kanna-san Daiseiko Desu! (written by comic book author Suzuki Yumiko). Also last year, Japanese works had a higher share of the Korean fiction market than did Korean works by a margin of 31% to 23%.

What was it that created the intense motivation to understand the real Korea during the Korean wave that hit Japan several years ago?

From my perspective, regardless of what happened in South Korea 10 years ago, Japanese-Korean relations–which had been capable only of creating a historical pattern pitting the victims against the victimizers—will thrive in the future.

Japanese-Korean relations at the person-to-person level are a lot healthier than some people would have you believe, and are likely to keep getting better.

Endnotes: Aimai is usually translated as “vague”. When the author wrote that the club consisted of people for whom their understanding of the other country’s language was hazy, the word he used in the original was aimai. I don’t think “vague” works well in that context, however, so I came up with “hazy” off the top of my head. There is probably a better alternative.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Koreans at the southern end of the peninsula can pick up Japanese radio or television without special equipment. The regulations governing broadcasts in the two countries are different.

In the U.S., for example, it is easy to pick up distant commercial radio stations at night. (I could regularly pick up stations seven to eight hundred miles away on a 10-transistor radio during my high school days.) The same is true for South Korean stations; the reception for KBS radio in Busan at night here in Kyushu is very good, and I can tune in even more stations if I’m driving out in the country.

Japanese radio stations broadcast with a lower wattage, however, so it’s easier for me to pick up stations from Korea than it is other Japanese stations even nearby in Kyushu.

That’s why I suspect music and TV programs were either smuggled in or picked up using satellite receivers.

One further note: Suzuki Yumiko’s website is in Japanese, but even those not fluent in the language might be interested in discovering the consuming passion of her life by paying it a visit and clicking a few of the categories at the lower part of the screen.

UPDATE: Reader Aceface reports that the reception of Japanese television is possible somehow in Busan and points south, and that many in Korea’s entertainment industry made special trips there specifically to watch it.

He also sends along this article in Japanese that says former South Korean President Kim Young-sam’s television channel of preference is Japan’s NHK. Mr. Kim says he tuned into Korean television for the first time in several years to watch the recent election day coverage.

5 Responses to “The Japan Wave in South Korea: It’s older than you think”

  1. Aceface said

    “but I don’t think Koreans at the southern end of the peninsula can pick up Japanese radio or television without special equipment.”

    Somehow,You can see Japanese TV in Busan without any special equipement.There used to be a phrase like “Going to Busan” among Korean TV staffers to go to Busan and watch Japanese TV all day in hotel,so they can copycat the format of TV program.

    There has also been some feuds between NHK and KBS over satellite spill over to Korea in the late 90’s when NHK has started satellite program.That was partially the reason why NHK is more eager to show KBS program than vice versa so that can balance cultural import/export between two nation.”The Winter Sonata”boom was byproduct of this tendency.

    BTW,what I had picked up today.
    ex-president Kim Young Sam haven’t seen any Korean TV,but only watches NHK,say Joongang Ilbo.

  2. bender said

    Japanese-Korean relations at the person-to-person level are a lot healthier than some people would have you believe, and are likely to keep getting better.

    Maybe, but I wish S Korea halt their extreme nationalistic education/history preaching, promoted with enthusiasm not only by the government but also their mainstream media and many academics. It’s even affecting Koreans abroad who are supposed to have naturalized to their adoptive countries. Unless this happens, I don’t think it really matters whether there are person-to-person friendship.

  3. James A said

    Hopefully Japan-Korea relations on the governmental level will improve once Lee Myung Bak comes into office. It may not be perfect but anything’s better than Roh’s clusterfeck of a foreign policy. He’s already shown himself to be more open to foreign investors in Korea, particularly Japanese and Chinese ones.

    I remember seeing some videos of Japanese anime bootlegged into Korea with Hangul subs during the 80’s somewhere. I’m not surprised there was a long-lived black market for that stuff.

  4. doinkies said

    Some old anime seem to be well-known in Korea. I remember watching a Korean drama where in one scene, the female lead gets drunk and the male lead helps her get home. As they are walking, all of a sudden the female lead started singing the theme song to the 70s anime Candy Candy in Korean. It seems that this series was popular in SK before the import restrictions were lifted. I’ve also seen other references to anime from this period in some K-dramas.

  5. Aceface said

    There were many J-animes showed in Korean TV’s in the 70’s and 80’s.
    Friend of mine(Korean women in her late 30’s) told me that she was a fan of “Future Boy Conan”and”Anne of Greengables”(Both were made by Hayao Miyazaki in the late 70’s).
    When I went to Seoul last spring,I was surprised seeing boxes of 70’s J-anime DVD in Kyobo Munko,the largest book store in Seoul,presumably focused on 30-something consumers wanting to keep their pieces of nostalgia.

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