You gotta have Seoul:
Differing views of history as portrayed in a school textbook have again sent diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan into a deep freeze. But at the grassroots things are warming up. Dan Grunebaum looks beyond the government line.
Shoppers in trendy Shibuya flock to Parco's Tondaemon Ichiba Korean clothes market, devour the latest Korean films and popular music, and book trips to Seoul in record numbers. Korean food no longer means only yakiniku. K-pop is cool. What's more, one of Japan's biggest stars, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi of SMAP, is trying to make it big in South Korea as well.
Although hard to quantify, it's clear that something is changing in Japan. In droves, Japanese are discovering their neighbor, a country whose culture was systematically repressed in the prewar years and then systematically ignored in the postwar era as Japan became besotted with American Big Macs and rock'n'roll.
When it comes to history, the Japanese feel reserve towards Koreans. But the young don't feel this.
A tour through this wave of Korean culture now sweeping Japan begins at 1am on Friday nights, when Kusanagi of the omnipresent pop group SMAP takes his quixotic quest to conquer Korea onto Fuji Television, in an unusual pseudo-documentary program entitled “Chonan Kan.” A distinctly serious alternative to the usual lowbrow late night fare, the show features Kusanagi as Chonan Kan, an alter ego distinct from his familiar identity as the sensitive guy of SMAP.
Kusanagi's search for success takes him to Seoul and through various strata of Korean society and its entertainment industry. Along the way, Kusanagi, who learned Hangul (Korean) for the program, is forced to confront the realities of Korean perceptions of Japan, and to reconsider his own identity as a Japanese. A recent episode of the program, which began last April and will continue until March, featured Kusanagi drinking with a Korean soldier. The young man had broken up with his first love in the course of his mandatory military duty, and castigated the selfishness and lack of a sense of duty among the Japanese.
Fuji Television's Itsuko Onuki says Kusanagi launched the program because he wanted to boost his profile in Korea to match that of hunkier SMAP member Takuya Kimura, who is already popular there. But along the way, the program seems to have metamorphosed into a sometimes-profound reconsideration of Korean and Japanese identities, albeit with comic overtones.
Onuki says that the program is producing strong ratings and that viewer response has been overwhelming. “Not only Kusanagi fans, but various [other] people are watching. Viewers have been particularly impressed with his attempts to master Korean. Some say he has inspired them to return to their studies, while others who had no interest are becoming interested in Korea.”
The program hasn't shied away from historical problems including, recently, a discussion of the thorny textbook issue. Things don't always go smoothly, says Onuki. “But with a top Japanese star trying to articulate Korean culture to a Japanese audience, Japanese-Koreans in particular are very appreciative.” The show might not solve any political problems, she grants. “But it can serve as a bridge between people and create a positive image for each other's cultures.”
Over in the more freewheeling realm of cyberspace, meanwhile, a vibrant and unprecedented exchange between Koreans and Japanese is taking place at all levels, from the casual to the academic. A recent segment on NHK's flagship evening news program featured young Japanese traveling to Korea to meet Korean peers they had first contacted over the Internet. At a party organized at a disco in Seoul, the teenagers struggled to communicate but were clearly infatuated with each other.
In a more intellectual vein, a number of websites exist with the intention of fostering serious dialogue between the two peoples. Kim Myung-Soo, a Japan-born Korean sociology professor at Kyoto Koka Women's University, launched The HAN World (www.han.org) in 1995. Standing for “Habitants of Alienation Network,” the trilingual site (Japanese, Korean and English) offers a bulletin board and links to a wealth of resources.
Kim says that the site has seen steady growth since its launch and now receives about 1,000 hits per day. He notes that, as with “Chonan Kan,” his website is prompting Japanese to reconsider their identity. “Many Japanese don't have a sense of national identity,” he says. “Through a consideration of Korean-Japanese identity, Japanese first begin to consider their own identity.”
Kim adds that when he first launched the site, what surprised him most was how many Japanese wrote to apologize. “More than half the messages I received were from Japanese,” he says. “What surprised me even more was the fact that many of them apologized for the colonial occupation of Korea by Japan.”
When asked about a perceived Korea boom in Japan, Kim observed that, as with much popular culture, young Japanese women are in the vanguard. “Among females, from three years ago when the World Cup was decided, there has been a boom in travel and food and Korean esthŽ.” Japanese men, he says, still retain a more limited view. “Recently, complex issues of culture and identity are beginning to be considered, but men are still focused on politics.”
For a clearer picture of the impact of women on the Korea boom, take a stroll over to Tondaemon Ichiba market (Tondemun Sijan in Korean), which occupies two floors of Shibuya's youth culture Mecca, Parco department store. Opened in September 2000, the market is named for Seoul's Tondemun East Gate, an area that houses small-scale Korean apparel manufacturers and retailers that have become popular with Japanese tourists.
Less well-known is the role these manufacturers played in the kogyaru boom of the last few years. Because they were able to accommodate the rush orders of kogyaru designers like Egoist, the Korean manufacturers caught the attention of Japan's Market Production Co., which invited them to set up shop in Parco last year.
While the fashions are perhaps more Japanese than Korean, one aspect of the market is distinctly Korean: shoppers are encouraged to bargain, with discounts of up to 20 percent possible for the skillful negotiator. Tondaemon manager Mikio Minami says that his market is in it for the long haul. “In the beginning we were boosted by phenomenal media coverage,” he says. “But we're still doing well. As K-pop and Korean movies get popular, we are seeing steadily growing interest. Rather than any temporary boom related to World Cup soccer, we have long-term business and cultural exchange in mind.”
With the success of the first Tondaemon Ichiba, a second, even larger outlet was opened in March in Yokohama's World Porters, with plans, says Minami, to expand to Shinjuku and Osaka in the near future. Elsewhere in the fashion world, the organizers of the Seoul Collection fashion show are planning a joint Korean-Japan fashion show to coincide with the World Cup, with ten designers from each country to be invited.
K-pop on top
Another window on Seoul can be found in Korean popular music's increasingly high profile in Japan, perhaps not a surprising development considering the closeness of K-pop and J-pop, and the links between fashion and music.
Korean acts like hip hop duo Drunken Tiger and dance group H.O.T. are gaining visibility in Japan, while leading J-pop label Avex Trax recently inked a deal with leading Korean record company SM Entertainment to sell the latest sounds from South Korea.
For a closer look, turn to cable music channel Space Shower's “Korean Wave” program, which features a weekly Korean Top 20 countdown on Thursday nights from 9:30-10pm. The program is produced by Korean music channel m.net, which also started trial broadcasting of its own in Japan in June. The director of “Korean Wave,” Hwang Joon-Ho, explains the appeal of K-pop: “Idoru (idol) music is big in Korea, and its similarity to Japanese bands like SMAP and the Kinki Kids makes it accessible to Japanese.”
Space Shower's Taniyuki Osawa adds that even before Korea relaxed its laws restricting Japanese cultural imports in 1998, there was mutual interest at the grassroots level. “Young Japanese and Korean artists have been collaborating for some time now,” he says. “Famous Japanese visual-kei band Glay, for example, has invited Korean bands to join them onstage. Japanese artists are actively approaching Korean musicians.” The logical conclusion to this is Y2K, a rock group consisting of 18-year-old Yuichi Matsuo of Japan, his 15-year-old brother Koji, and 20-year-old Ko Jieh-Gun of South Korea, who are enjoying considerable popularity in both countries. Korean bands, meanwhile, are also now a regular feature at the leading Fuji Rock Festival.
Many trace the roots of the Korea boom to Shuri, the film tracing the struggles of North and South Korean agents that was a big hit in 2000. The movie launched a wave of Korean films that will see more than ten feature flicks shown in Japan through next year.
The liberalization of Japanese culture in Korea also enabled the launching of co-productions, one of which was last year's Peppermint Candy, a joint production of South Korea's East Film and Japan's public broadcaster, NHK. “With the ending of the law preventing broadcast of Japanese media, we had the freedom to show such a film in South Korea,” says NHK producer Makoto Ueda. “Up until now we had co-productions, but as a result of the Japan connection we weren't able to show them. Being able to show them in both countries was one reason for us to begin this co-production.”
Peppermint Candy recalls the May 1980 Kwanju Incident, in which Korean police violently quelled a student demonstration, and, Ueda says, it was well received in Japan despite its intense theme. “We were worried about how it would be received, as it has a rather serious subject matter, but Japanese audiences liked it and were very interested in it. People who saw it said it was very moving.”
Ueda believes that the current Korea boom provides a welcome opportunity for Japanese to get to understand Korea and vice versa. “I don't know if it will continue,” he concludes. “But I do hope that it will, and that it will progress even in the midst of this recession.”
Others point to the increasingly high quality of Korean goods as a factor behind the boom, a phenomenon that reaches its apex at some of the Korean haute cuisine restaurants that have recently sprung up around Tokyo. One of these is Li Nam Ha, the flagship eatery in Daikanyama named for the “Grand Chef” of the Chanto chain of 31 restaurants.
Commenting on the recent interest in authentic Korean dining, Li notes that until very recently Korean food in Japan meant the inevitable yakiniku. “Korean food has not been viewed as a gourmet cuisine,” he says. “That is the present reality. So we are trying to educate people about truly excellent Korean food.” He says Korean cuisine is healthy and includes a lot of vegetables, and so sits well with the current trend towards vegetarian and natural food.
Fashionable Aoyama eatery Jap Cho Ok perfectly represents this trend, offering the finest and freshest ingredients prepared to reflect the best in traditional and contemporary Korean dining. Designed to evoke a Buddhist temple, the highlight of the menu is a 15-course vegetarian set that includes such exotic flavors as fried ginseng and steaming hot vegetable bibimpap (sizzling stone pot rice).
With all the hype surrounding the World Cup, and the Japanese government's current eagerness to put the textbook issue and other problems behind it, a bit of skepticism is in order regarding any so-called “Korea boom.” And, in the country's current fascination with Korea, one detects a certain sense of reflexive nostalgia for a more innocent, bygone Japan. This came to an apex in the outpouring of emotion unleashed when Korean student Lee Su-Hyon gave his life trying to save a drunken Japanese man at Tokyo's Shin-Okubo station last January, but also finds expression in the '70s retro clothing worn by SMAP's Kusanagi in his role as Chonan Kan. Yet even if the current vogue for things Korean passes, few can argue that opportunities for cultural interaction are on the rise.
Some observe, however, that all this unprecedented cultural interaction may have an unintended consequence. “When it comes to history, [older] Japanese feel reserve towards Koreans,” says Professor Kim. “But the young don't feel this.” As they come into contact with Koreans who are decidedly more nationalistic than they are, he says, "The Japanese may come to dislike Koreans and develop a nationalistic streak themselves."