Japan from the inside out

Banned in Busan

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 13, 2010

COUNT ON the political class to be the last to take a stand on principled common sense, if ever. Their livelihoods depend on creating and hounding hobgoblins to keep the public aroused, as H.L. Mencken put it. In other words, they don’t want to get it because they believe it’s in their interest not to get it.

One who does get it is South Korean Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism Yu In-ch’on. In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo, he discussed his government’s continuing ban on terrestrial TV broadcasts of Japanese programs. Here’s what Mr. Yu had to say, as reported by Japan’s Kyodo news agency. (Keep in mind this is going from Korean to Japanese to English)

“Japan and China broadcast South Korean programs (on terrestrial TV), so why can’t Japanese programs be shown on South Korean terrestrial TV?…Instead of this compulsion, we must allow equal access (for this programming).”

After the period of Japanese colonization/annexation ended in 1945, the South Koreans prohibited the dissemination of Japanese popular culture in the country, including TV programs, movies, and music. Some watched and listened anyway, first through smuggled materials, and later by intercepting satellite broadcasts. Reader Aceface, who is employed in the Japanese broadcast media, pointed out that Koreans in the television industry used to take periodic trips to Busan in the southern part of the peninsula, where those broadcasts might be more easily picked up. In fact, as this previous post reports, there has long been an “underground Japan wave” of Japanese culture aficionados in South Korea. To cite one example, Japanese fiction outsold Korean fiction in the South Korean market in 2007 by a significant margin.

Yu In-ch'on

After the late Kim Dae-jung was elected president in 1998, he implemented a policy of lifting the ban in stages with the objective of improving bilateral relations. The prohibitions were rescinded in three steps and were supposed to have been removed entirely by the joint World Cup in 2002. In a too-typical burst of childish presumption, however, the government stopped the process in July 2001 to protest the content of Japanese history textbooks (used at that time by about 0.6% of the school population).

As conditions stand today, South Koreans can legally watch Japanese TV programming on cable and satellite TV, but not on terrestrial broadcasts. There is a sizable audience for this programming; last year’s screening of the Japanese program Hana yori Danshi (Men Rather than Flowers) was quite popular and garnered an audience share of more than 30%. The only dramas permitted on land-based TV, however, are Korean remakes of popular Japanese programs and joint productions.

Some still choose to downplay the popularity of Japanese entertainment. Kyodo quoted an unidentified South Korean TV executive:

“(Yu’s) statement was probably made with an awareness of relations with Japan, but I don’t think that programs in which all the actors are Japanese will be accepted by the viewers.”

That example of a non sequitur is good enough for a textbook. He seems to be saying that a unilateral law banning television programs from a single country—in other words, censorship—should stand because people won’t watch the programs even if the law were to be repealed. Except a lot of them already do, on cable.

Though it’s a good example of a non sequitur, it’s a poor example of how a country goes about inculcating respect for its laws. Kyodo also quotes a 32-year-old male public employee:

“I download Japanese programs from the Internet and watch them every day to study Japanese. The ban on terrestrial broadcasts is divorced from reality, and I hope they rescind it quickly.”

Of course it’s divorced from reality. People throughout the world can now download most of the programs, movies, or music they want from the Internet and either enjoy them from their computer or burn their own DVDs or CDs. If the authorities had their wits about them, they would realize that removing the ban would make money for Korean broadcasters through advertising revenue. As it stands now, they get nothing and the people watch the programs anyway.

The Japanese media is always restrained in its treatment of South Korea, and the Kyodo article attributes the Korean ban only to the continued reaction to the Japanese period of colonization/annexation. Were they inclined to discuss the subject more openly, they might also have cited the isolationist tendencies that seem endemic to the peninsula, both in the north and south. One reason for North Korea’s problems is their stubborn insistence that they alone are the torchbearers of Joseon cultural purity. Flashpoint South Korean mob hysteria over such issues as American beef imports is another illustrative example.

The isolationist tinge means this really isn’t just a Japanese-Korean issue—it extends to American movies as well. The South Korean show business industry led widely publicized demonstrations against the free trade agreement with the United States because the Americans demanded a reduction in the legal requirement for movie theaters to screen local product a specified number of days per year. That requirement was as high as 40%, or 146 days, from 1985 to 2006. A compromise was reached to reduce the total to 73 days a year, or about 20%, where it stands now.

As this English-language article from Yonhap shows, actors, directors, and movie execs were livid, calling the compromise a “crime against history”. Rather than recognizing that the agreement was a step toward cultural openness that would benefit everyone without a vested interest, they chose to describe the situation as a “cultural turf war”. If anyone used their common sense and protested that the quota limits the opportunities of Koreans to visit theaters to watch the movies they prefer and are willing to pay for, and the theater owners from making a reasonable profit by giving the customers what they want, Yonhap didn’t write about it.

Speaking of cultural turf wars, the part of the Yonhap article I liked best is the second photograph showing the banner under which the demonstrators spoke. The larger print on the left says “screen quota” transliterated directly from English into written Korean without translating it into the Korean language. The demonstrators had no problem with polluting the purity of the Korean language, but no one better dare mess with the guaranteed jobs of the filmmaking proletariat. (The following word, sasu, means to defend to the death; it’s shishu, or 死守, in Japanese.)

Those who support the quota throw up the usual protectionist arguments that would be dismissed in any university economics classroom in a matter of minutes, i.e., Hollywood would swallow the South Korean film industry whole. The same students in that economics classroom would have been able to predict that only 13 out of 112 Korean films made money in 2007–fewer than 12%–according to a K-pop site with a busted link. Local studios know they have a captive market, so they wind up filming lunchmeat to meet the screen quota.

In that sort of climate, Mr. Yu should be commended for speaking out. The Koreans have no compunction about savaging apostates; either the minister must believe his position is secure, or he’s become affluent enough that losing it wouldn’t bother him.

Much has been made of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s vague dream of an East Asian entity, as well as the “friendlier” attitude of his government toward South Korea. If he’s serious about improving governmental ties (the grassroots ties are already there), removing South Korea’s ban on terrestrial TV broadcasts of Japanese programs should be near the top of the list on his bilateral agenda.

The website of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism boasts this slogan: A culture of sharing for a beautiful world.

The period of Japanese colonization/annexation lasted 35 years and ended 65 years ago. It’s time for the ministry to demonstrate that it really believes what it says.


* It’s only speculation, and the Korean-American Wiki-warriors won’t talk about it, but perhaps one reason Kim Dae-jung started removing the restrictions on importing Japanese culture is that he may have felt some gratitude toward the Japanese for helping save his life. Kim was a long-time political dissident, and the South Korean government once kidnapped him from a Tokyo hotel with the intent of killing him. Both the Americans and the Japanese interceded on his behalf. The pretend reference sources on the Web, written by anyone who can operate a computer keyboard, give credit only to the Americans. Why do they bother? Even the Korea Times had no problem admitting the truth.

* The use of textbook content to suspend the process of lifting the ban in 2001 might have been just a convenient pretext. Before then, Japanese governments had generally adopted a peace-at-any-price policy in bilateral negotiations on a wide range of issues with Seoul. They gave in when the Koreans inevitably brought up historical circumstances and claimed, “You owe us.” The Koizumi administration, which took office just a few months before the South Koreans took the step, ended all that.

One Response to “Banned in Busan”

  1. Joseph Steinberg said

    TV and films are different media, even if so much of South Korean life is directed by the same corporations. The difference is policies with countries highlights the problem with managed trade agreements. I suspect the difference comes down to the relative abilities of various corporations and groups to influence the government for trade preferences, and that the cultural arguments are just cover for naked interest.

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