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How to Boost the Korean Wave in the Long Run

How to Boost the Korean Wave in the Long Run

July 20, 2012


A boom of the so called Korean wave or “hallyu” began sweeping Japan in 2003 when NHK aired the popular Korean TV show “Winter Sonata.” The drama created a great sensation in the country, so when the main actor Bae Yong-Jun appeared at Haneda International Airport, as many as 4,000 fans gathered at the airport to see and welcome the hero of “Winter Sonata.” The crowd was even bigger than the ones that flocked to see top Hollywood stars or Britain’s Princess Diana.

In 1998, the Kim Dae-Jung administration opened the door to Japanese pop culture but decided to phase it in over years for fear that Japanese cultural products would flood into Korea abruptly. However, it was Korean pop culture which quickly filtered into the hearts of Japanese people.

After the “Winter Sonata” craze, not only Korean soap operas but also movies, pop music, animations, games, commercial ads and even food attracted a great number of Japanese fans in the name of the Korean wave. Additionally, while hallyu fans were mostly comprised of middle-aged women at the beginning, they further expanded to include youngsters and male fans.

Professor Tameda Aichiro at J. F. Oberlin University in Tokyo, who once worked as an Asahi correspondent in Seoul, contributed an article titled “Japanese intellectuals’ perspectives on hallyu” to a February 2005 issue of Shindonga magazine. In his article, professor Tameda said, “With the advent of an information and knowledge-based society and global community defying national borders, people living across the Korea Strait can now enjoy a variety of cultural experiences they lacked before. Japanese people found cultural products unseen in the Japanese market in Korea, and that is how the new market for hallyu was created in Japan.”

Why have Korean cultural products been successfully appealing to Japanese people for almost 10 years? Professor Ogura Gijyo of Kyoto University, who obtained a doctorate in psychology at Seoul National University, explained reasons why Japanese are fascinated by Korean culture in his article published in the Nikkei newspaper in June 16, 2012.

“In short, Japanese people can feel warm humanity in hallyu stars and products,” the professor said. When Bae Yong-Jun visited Japan, he said in an interview, “I think my role is connecting Korea and Japan.” His message gave a shock to Japanese people as they found their “Yon-sama” rational and mature unlike Japanese celebrities who rarely look serious in interviews.

Some say that Korean singing girl groups such as Girls’ Generation and Kara attract the Japanese public with their slim and beautiful legs and revealing clothing, but that cannot say enough about their popularity in the country. Most of their fans consist of young women, and they say they are touched and motivated by Korean idol singers’ painstaking efforts to present a perfect, fantastic image to their fans.

In addition, Korean society is still a modern society while Japan has transformed itself to a post-modern society. In a post-modern society, it is hard to find the true nature of human identity, and the society as a whole feels a sense of stagnation. And, that is another reason why so many Japanese people are attracted by Korean cultural content which depicts the power of family love and human rationality.

In March 2012, a symposium on the Korean wave was held at the University of Tokyo.

During the symposium, professor Sonoda of the University of Tokyo said, the “Korean wave sweeping across Asia is associated with Asian countries’ attempt to depart from their westernized cultures, and at the same time, it is also a part of Asianization.” In other words, countries in Asia, which had thirsted for brand-new cultural content different from western countries, welcomed and easily accepted Korean cultural products since they have a common denominator with other Asian cultures.

For example, President Sato of the Japan Institute of Motion Pictures commented, “In American movies, a man who is stronger than others always wins a woman’s heart. However, it is a good-looking guy who gains love in Korean and Taiwanese movies.” He also added that Koreans became “significant strangers” to Japanese people in the process of the Korean wave.

On the other hand, however, there has been also some criticism over the Korean wave or hallyu. For example, a group of protesters held an anti-Korean wave demonstration in front of Fuji TV headquarters in Tokyo in July 2011. They did not express hatred against Korean programs or hallyu itself but complained about the broadcaster’s biased reporting on Korean programs. According to Fuji TV, as its advertisement revenue was declining every year, they had no choice but to air a large number of Korean shows with high viewership.

Shin Okubo is known as a mecca of Korean wave items, ranging from cultural content, cosmetics and alcoholic beverages to food. As it is one of the most popular spots in Tokyo, many young females flock to the region even early in the morning. Therefore, some say that people should learn marketing strategies from Shin Okubo stores as they are not much affected by economic recessions.

According to a survey conducted by Nikkei Industrial and Regional Research Institute, as many as 66.3% of frequent visitors of Shin Okubo and 41.3% of ordinary Japanese people answered that their perceptions on Korean products improved compared to five years ago. Only 7.2% of the former and 19.3% of the latter said the image of Korean products worsened. The institute attributed the improved image of Korean products to 3K in Japanese, kakaku, kosei and kenkou, which refer to price, uniqueness and health, respectively. Furthermore, Korean companies are making great advances in the markets of smart phones and smart TVs, which Japanese counterparts are not doing well in. All these circumstances can serve as a good opportunity for Korea, which struggles with a trade deficit with Japan.

Now, what really matters will be how long the Korean wave will continue to attract Japanese people. Professor Ogura pointed out that there have been no particular Korean hit movies in Japan since “A moment to remember” released in Japan in 2005. He said that there are not many good scenarios, and lengthy dialogues in movies sometimes seem unnatural. If Korean movies deploy a technique of quick story development, one of the specialties of Japanese movie makers, they will likely succeed in the Japanese market and thereby contribute to the persisting Hallyu boom in Japan. Just as Korean companies succeeded in emerging countries through localization, it is important to localize cultural content in response to local demand. Additionally, it is also necessary to fully consider circumstances surrounding the country and the region when distributing cultural content and products.

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