THE GLOBALIZATION OF POPULAR CULTURE: THE KOREAN WAVE IN JAPAN RIA SHIBATA1
UNIVERSITY OF OTAGO
The Korean wave (Hanryu in Japanese) refers to the dramatic spread of Korean pop culture across Asia through the dissemination of Korean television dramas, dance music, films, animation and games and fan clubs for Korean stars. Reports of an emerging “Korean wave” in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and other Asia countries first appeared in 1999 to much excitement and discussion not only in the pop cultural industry of Korea but also in government and academia. (Hayashi, 2005)
The immense popularity of Korean culture known as Hanryu boom can be viewed as an exceptional phenomenon that refutes the past theories of cultural globalization based on the framework of cultural imperialism and cultural homogenization—which describes globalization of culture as a one-way flow of culture and ideology from the core, namely the United States, to the peripheral nations in the process of modernization. The Korean wave seems to be a manifestation of more complex and interdependent flows of culture; a case of “cultural hybridity” that has emerged in the globalization process of mixing and synthesizing the global and the local in a historical process (Robertson, 1995). According to Straubhaar, the regional formation of cultural markets assumes cultural proximity among nations in the area that share geography, language, history and culture. Empirical studies have revealed that domestic audience across nations prefer television programs that are close and proximate to them not only in language and history, but also in codes of culture, such as humor and dress, and ethnic and physical markers (Straubhaar, 1991).
When viewed from the theoretical framework of cultural proximity and cultural imperialism, it would be expected that the economic powerhouse of Asia, Japan, would spread its version of Asian modernity across the region. However, although Japanese trendy dramas in the 1980s did capture the interest of young urban audiences in Asia, this popularity was soon subsumed by the flood of Korean television dramas dominating the Asian airtimes. By 2005, Korean television dramas became integrated in the daily programming of terrestrial and satellite networks in almost all Asian countries, including Japan (Channel News Asia, 2005-04-19).
This paper examines the various cultural factors that may explain the phenomenal success of Korean television dramas in Japan through in-depth interviews of the fans of Winter Sonata or Fuyu Sona, the drama series which triggered the surge of Korean wave in Japan. The interview findings have revealed that what primarily captured the interest of the core female audience of Korean television dramas (age 30-60) is their nostalgia for the past, a yearning for the emotional connection they cannot find in the westernized post-modernity culture of Japan where traditional Asian values have been lost. The findings show support the argument that the Korean wave is not an extension of western cultural imperialism but a new “Asian hybridity,” an adapted mix of Western modernity and traditional Asian values that help fill the cultural void that the Asian audiences have felt in the process of rapid modernization--an emerging post-colonial Asian cultural expression against the past domination of Americanized western modernity.
Korean Wave in the Context of Theoretical Frameworks of Globalization of Culture:
The popularity of Korean pop culture in East Asia since late 1990’s poses a theoretical anomaly which challenges the dominant theories of cultural globalization; namely those of cultural imperialism and cultural homogenization. The spread of Korean wave in Asia refutes the existing cultural imperialism model that seeks to analyze cultural flow as a one-way diffusion of cultural products from the core to the peripheral nations. According to Wallerstein’s theory of world system, “cultural products from the core countries served the interests of those dominating countries and their corporate interest in both economic and ideological ways, with the sacrifice of dependent countries.” (Wallerstein, 1974) Empirical studies in the 1970s supported this model of one-way flow of cultural and media products from Western core countries, especially the United States, to the rest of the world. (Nordenstreng & Schiller, 1979) This unilateral flow of culture is assumed to have led to homogenization or westernization of culture across nations in the process of modernization. Globalization has been analyzed in the past as an unequal flow of influence around the world in the context of modern history dominated by Western imperialism. The proponents of cultural imperialism contend that the West’s cultural, political, economic and military hegemony has forged a modern “world system” where the influence of modernity configured in Western capitalistic societies, namely the United States, pervades the world. (Wallerstein, 1974)
However, this cultural imperialism theory has been challenged by scholars like Straubhaar who asserts that “cultural-media flows among nations and cultures are actually far more complex and interdependent than cultural imperialism thesis presumed.” (Straubhaar, 1991) These scholars stress that modern experiences forced upon the non-Western countries have at the same time produced disparate forms of localized modernity. With the spread of Western modernity, differences and similarities of cultures interconnect at multiple levels with the dynamics of unequal and assymetrical global cultural encounters creating a global cultural complexity. (Hannerz, 1992) Hence, the transnational cultural flow is not a simple unilateral movement from core to periphery. The way cultural commodities flow across borders is diverse and complex and cannot be simply defined as a ‘global homogenization of culture’ driven by the powers of western capitalism. Hannerz, furthermore, defines globalization of culture in the twenty-first century as a process of ‘cultural diffusion amid polycentralism and local innovation.’ (Hannerz, 1992)
Amid this complex diffusion of culture via today’s world consumer markets, the global cultural flow is no longer a uniform replication of culture but a more complex process of adaptation where the original core culture becomes reproduced and spread with a different meaning as products of “cultural hybridity” or “glocalization.” In this process, a new culture emerges as “reciprocal borrowings and mixtures that occur at multi-levels and in different ways through historical process of cultural contacts, such as migration and trade.” (Robertson, 1995)
From this standpoint, the recent diffusion and popularity of Korean pop culture across countries in Asia since 1990s can be considered as a manifestation of cultural hybridity, a new form of “Asian modernity” that challenges the domination of western cultural imperialism. This point will be examined with the example of a Korean television drama, Winter Sonata, looking at its cultural dimensions, in particular the traditional Asian values, that led to the series’ successful reception in Japan. The traditional values portrayed in the Korean cultural hybridity may account for the reason why Korean wave was enthusiastically welcomed as a new form of Asian modernity despite the disparities across Asian countries, both in economic dimensions and in the process and experience of modernization.
Cultural Proximity—Why not Japan Wave?
Japan, a country that was considered in the past as a provider of technology with little influence on world culture, is today playing a new role in media and cultural globalization. Following the economic stagnation of the 1990s, Japan has transformed itself into a powerful popular culture-exporting country. There has been a significant increase of Japanese popular cultural products including anime and manga exported worldwide. Remarking on Japan’s increasing cultural influence in the last several years, Sankei Shimbun notes that: “The export value of Japanese animation and comics to the US market amounted to $75 million in 1996.” (Sankei Shimbun, 1996-12-14) With the phenomenal success of game software, animation, manga, Japan has come to be regarded by a large audience of young people in the United States, Europe and Asia as a country that produces “cool” animations, games and characters.
Success of Japanese Television Dramas in Asia
Japanese television industry has adapted and localized Western television format with sophisticated skills and today exports considerable number of programs to many parts of the world. In the 1990s, Japanese “trendy” dramas such as “Tokyo Love Story,” “Long Vacation,” and “Love Generation” became a huge success across Asia. The transnational popularity of Japanese “urban, trendy” dramas was seen by some scholars as an extension of Japan’s past colonization in East Asia in the context of cultural imperialism. (Barker, 1999) Other scholars attributed this success to cultural proximity based on such characteristics as language, race/ethnicity within the region. (Straubhauer, 1991) On the other hand, there are scholars like Iwabuchi who stresses that it is the “cultural odorlessness” of Japanese popular culture products seen as a Japanese adaption of Western modernization that actually appealed to the Asian audiences. (Iwabuchi, 1988)
“The cultural proximity the Hong Kong audiences feel when watching Japanese television series is based on a sense of coevality or contemporaneity stemming from shared socio-economic conditions.” (Iwabuchi, 2002) Experiences common to inhabitants of capitalist urban spaces—such as the spread of consumerist culture and lifestyles, the development of the media industry and market, the emergence of young middle-class people with considerable spending power, and the transformation of women’s status and attitudes—have all given rise to a sense of “contemporaneity.” This can be observed in the context of socio-cultural life, sexual/gender relationships, friendship and working conditions. (Iwabuchi, 2008)
In East Asia, there were many young viewers who were able to relate to the everyday happenings in the lives of young Tokyoites portrayed in Japanese television dramas and identify with their dreams and aspirations. For the Taiwanese and Hong Kong audiences in East Asia, Japanese media culture was embraced as proximate with a comfortable difference with their own cultures. Iwabuchi states that Asian viewers were able to empathize with Japanese characters because Japan is similar yet different. “The sense of realism in which sameness and difference, closeness and distance, and reality and dreams delicately mix elicits sympathy from viewers—the kind of sympathy that perhaps cannot be gained from American media cultures.” (Iwabuchi, 2008)
Japanese urban “trendy” dramas of romance among young professionals living in upscale Western apartments and dining in trendy locations in the city of Tokyo, was a visual symbol or metaphor of Western capitalist consumerist modernity. In the 1980s, it was this consumerist Western modernity that fascinated and captivated the audiences of Japanese trendy dramas in East and Southeast Asia, especially in those developing countries aspiring to live like modern Tokyoites and improve their material life.
It was these aspirational elements reflected in the Japanese localization of Western modernity that led to the favorable reception of Japanese popular culture among the young Asian audiences. Iwabuchi stresses that “the experience of cultural proximity must be viewed as something dynamic that describes what people, society and culture are becoming, not what they are.” (Iwabuchi, 2008)
However, in the late 1990s to early 2000, the popularity of Japanese television dramas was completely subsumed by the flood of Korean popular culture—films, pop music, and in particular, television dramas—that emerged in East Asia, coined in China first as Han liu or Korean wave.
The leading force of the Korean Wave is generally considered to have been television dramas. The export rate of TV dramas rose significantly after the year 2000. According to the statistics from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in 2001, South Korea exported to other countries of Asia US $ 12,356,000 worth of broadcast programs. Of these 20.1% went to Taiwan, 9.4% to Japan, 9.4% to Hong Kong, 7.9% to Singapore and 2.8 % to Vietnam. Of the total exports of popular culture products, 64.3% were dramas, consisting of 9515 programs. (Ministry of Culture and Tourism http://www.mct.go.kr )
By 2005, Korean television dramas became part of the daily programming of many terrestrial and satellite television stations in East Asia. “Turn on any television in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore or the Philippines and you are sure to see a Korean drama series or two on prime time.” (Channel News Asia, 2005-04-19) In contrast to Japanese cultural exports, Korean Wave cannot be analyzed simply as extensions of cultural imperialism in that Korea was a past colony of Japan. Moreover, modernization was experienced by Japan much earlier than Korea. Whereas in other Asian countries, Korean television dramas are generally accepted by young audiences, in the case of Japan, Winter Sonata had a strong appeal to middle-aged females who make up about 90% of the viewership of Korean dramas.
Although some argue that Korean television drama production has been influenced by Japanese dramas, there are significant differences between the two. Instead of simply copying Japanese shows, the Koreans have adapted the drama series, creating simpler plots and imbuing the stories with traditional Asian values. This unique appeal has helped Korean television series to be received more enthusiastically than the Japanese dramas especially in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.
One of the main reasons for the success of Korean television dramas is in their depiction of traditional Asian cultural values mixed with western modernity. This gave the Korean programs a broader appeal to the Asian audience than Japanese television dramas. Many viewers in Asia prefer Korean dramas to Japanese ones for their realism and because they are more easily able to relate to the characters and the world that is portrayed in the stories. The plots of Japanese TV series are more restricted in their appeal than Korean dramas, as they tend to focus on young corporate characters and their love lives. Young people’s romances also tend to be the central themes of Korean dramas, but the stories of these romances unfold in the context of the protagonists’ families, and are colored by the complexities of family ties and the powerful bonds between parents and children. This dimension, so prominent in many Asian cultures, is often lacking or peripheral in Japanese television dramas. This inclusion of the family theme thus seems to resonate more strongly with the real life experiences of the viewers in East Asia. Although the depictions of the trendy world of young Japanese people in Japanese dramas did have a wide appeal in Asia, Korean dramas seem to have achieved a greater level of realism and resonance among the Asian audiences.
This point was demonstrated clearly in the verbatim statements of the ten in-depth interviews that were conducted among female Winter Sonata fans in the age group of 30-60. The qualitative research was conducted in an attempt to determine the reasons why Korean television dramas appeal to a wide range of Asian audiences, even in Japan where local alternatives already exist.
The Background of Winter Sonata
Winter Sonata, a South Korean television drama series, was produced by the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and broadcast in South Korea in 2002. Directed by Yoon Seok-ho, a respected South Korean television drama producer director, Winter Sonata was first broadcast in Japan in 2003 on the NHK satellite channel (NHK BS2). In Japan, within only 21 months, NHK broadcast this drama series four times. The first airing was from April-September 2003 on NHK BS2 satellite channel. Here it achieved an average viewer rating of 23.1%. The second showing took place from December 15-26 on the same channel and the viewer rating was higher than the first broadcast. Strong re-run requests flooded into NHK leading to the drama making its appearance in 2004 on the NHK terrestrial channel, this time with subtitles and no cuts.
The Plot of Winter Sonata
Winter Sonata is a love story between a male character Jun-sang (played by Bae Yon-joong, who following the success of Winter Sonata became a household name in Japan) and a female character Yu-jin who fall in love (both for the first time) in high school. Jun-sang, however, has to leave for the U.S. for higher education, and prior to his departure the two arrange to meet on New Year’s Eve. Yu-jin keeps waiting but Jung-sang never appears. The next day, Yu-jin learns that Jun-sang was killed in a road accident on his way to meet her. Yu-jin is devastated. Fifteen years later, Jun-sang reappears in front of Yu-jin but now his name is Min-hyung. Jun-sang does not recognize Yu-jin because he has lost his memory in the road accident. Although Yu-jin believes that Jun-sang is dead, Min-hyung’s resemblance to Jun-sang and Yu-jin’s memory of her first love leads to the two falling in love. After facing many difficulties, in the last episode, Jun-sang and Yu-jin meet at the house that Jun-sang designed as an architect. (Min-hyung is a famous architect) By this time, Jun-sang is almost blind as a result of the second road accident. The trauma of the car accident, however, has somehow restored his lost memory. In a moving scene, Jun-sang and Yu-jin recognize each other. Their first love is realized afresh.
While this is a fairly straightforward love story on the surface, the plot of Winter Sonata is quite complex. Akin to other South Korean dramas, an intricate web of family relationships undergirds the plot, and a sense of mystery sustains the audiences’ attention. For instance, Jun-sang transferred to the high school where he meets Yu-jin with the primary intention to find his real father. At a certain moment, the drama encourages the audience to believe that Jun-sang’s father and Yu-jin’s father might be the same person and, as a consequence, the two lovers might be siblings. As the story unfolds, the web of family ties is disentangled, resulting in a sense of mystery that dramatizes the primary story of pure love between the two protagonists.
Winter Sonata reminds me of pure love (jun-ai)
Ms. A (age 46)
“The reason why I got hooked on “Fuyu Sona” (Japanese abridged title for Winter Sonata) is mainly because of Bae Yong-joong. He is so “kakkoii” (handsome and cool) and his lines simply make me cry. There aren’t a lot of television dramas in Japan that a woman in her 40s can really relate to. They seem to be targeting young kids. I am not the kind of person who would cry in front of the television, let alone watching a romantic drama. However, Fuyu Sona touched my heart and reminded me of the long lost “kandou” (moved emotions) that I haven’t felt in years. It also reminded me of my first love in high school when I couldn’t even hold hands with the boy I liked.”
Ms. B (age 58)
“First of all, Korean dramas are unrealistic but the story line is simple for even a person my age to follow. I just feel “spiritually healed” (iyasareru) watching the warm, caring affection that the men in Korean dramas show the women they love. I am touched by Jun-sang’s devotion and love toward Yu-jin. (hitamuki na ai meaning single-minded devotion and love) I cannot remember when I was loved so deeply by another man.”
Ms. C (age 60)
“Yu-jin, even after she thinks she lost Jun-sang in the car accident, never forgets her first love. Her pure and untainted love makes me cry. Jun-sang’s deep love for Yu-jin is the reason why I like Bae Yon-joong so much. They remind me of the kind of romance I have always longed to experience. It makes me feel warm in my heart and reminds me of the pure feelings I had for my hatsukoi (first love) when I was young.
Ms. D (age 37)
“There is something special about Korean men that you cannot find in Japanese men. They depict “jun ai” (pure love). The couples in Korean dramas always face seemingly insurmountable obstacles that work to keep them apart but they still hold on to their love for each other. I am married with children but I still earnestly desire for that kind of pure love that makes my heart beat faster. I think that is why Japanese women like Yon-sama so much. I also like the fact that Korean dramas don’t show any aggressive sex scenes or violence like Japanese or western dramas.”
Ms. H ( age 48)
“My heart that has dried up with time feels nourished after watching Fuyu Sona. I want to be reborn so that I can love another person again. It makes me feel like a young maiden (otome). It reminds me of the pure love that I had kept locked up in the closet of my heart for so long. This drama brings out that old photo album of my heart.”
Ms. I (age 60)
“When I watch Fuyu Sona, I feel energy welling forth. I feel younger and my heart feels healed. (iyasareru) I feel so happy. I think this drama does magic.”
Nostalgia for “Kimi No Nawa”
The Korean dramas seem to appeal to women in the age 30-60 group because they remind them of the “pure love” of their youth that they long to experience again. Several respondents often compared Winter Sonata to the popular radio drama in 1952 titled “Kimi no Nawa” (What is your name?) “Korean dramas hark back an earlier, golden era of Japanese films and television dramas of the 1950s, when the male stars were more stoic, manly, more protective of women. Many had “pure love” plots with lovers separated by war or soldiers returning to find their loved ones married to someone else.” (Christian Science Monitor, 2005-04-08) This radio drama left an indelible impression in the mind of one of the respondents (age 60) who to this day, remembered the scene when the couple kissed each other blocked by a window. Korean dramas seem to raise a sense of strong nostalgia in middle-aged Japanese women, reminding them of their first love. A review of Japanese labor force statistics indicates that Japanese women in the age group of 40-50 are typically homemakers engaged in their duties at home. When they married and had children, they did so in a period of Japan’s rapid economic growth when women left the work force to marry and it was expected of them to make domestic household duties their life long career. When their children grew up, they had more time on their hands and they looked for something to fill their spiritual void and needs. (Hayashi, 2005)
Winter Sonata was specifically designed as a fantasy to fulfill the needs of this market. Winter Sonata’s director, Yoon Seok-ho, quoted in a number of Japanese publications, admits that Winter Sonata was designed to meet this targeted age group’s needs. Yun states that “he created a fantasy world, a reality to meet the needs of modern day people (in the 30-60 age group). He saw that what they were missing in their busy, changing everyday world were the age-old core certainties of life—love; for family, parents and friends as well as romantic love; purity/integrity, trust, belief in self, caring and kindness for others.” (Hayashi, 2005) Watching Korean dramas allows Japanese women to identify with the heroine and live in the fantasy of “pure love.” This would be difficult to experience with Japanese trendy dramas which tend to target urban OL audience (professional working women) in their 20s.
In contrast to Japanese dramas in their trendy, modern lifestyle contexts, Korean television dramas are imbued with traditional Asian values. Most of the interviewees, especially in their 50s and 60s, agree that lost traditional values seen in the plots of Korean dramas, like “family ties,” and “respect for parents and those older than oneself,” recall an idealized past—“the good old days.” Modernization has led to the disintegration of family systems and an increasing number of nuclear families, where traditional Confucian values like filial piety are no longer important.
Ms. F (age 63)
“Traditional values to respect family ties seem to be extremely important in the Korean society. Japan used to attach importance to these values in the past, but not anymore. With the industrialization after the war, we have lost these familial values; the kind you find in the world of Sazae-san.” (longest running anime based on a comic strip of 1946 that remind Japanese of traditional family values)
Ms. G (age 58)
“Japanese people no longer respect their elders. You can tell that when you are inside a train. We see less young people giving up their seats to older people like myself. But in Korean dramas, young people constantly show care and respect to those who are older than them. Even in Winter Sonata, one of the big obstacles Jun-sang and Yu-jin face is the strong objection from their parents. If this was in Japan, they would ignore the parents and go off and get married. Jun-sang is established in society as the CEO of a successful architectural firm and Yu-jin is old enough to make her own future decisions, and yet they suffer because of the notion of filial piety (oya koko) that they must absolutely respect.”
Korean dramas depict scenes where family members discuss, and often times argue issues over the dinner table. Parents constantly meddle in children’s marriage and love lives, and appear as obstacles that hamper their romance.
Korean men—similar in appearance but gentle and passionate
Japanese middle-aged viewers of Winter Sonata have been captivated by its male actor, Bae Yon-joong who they refer to as “Yon-sama” (an honorific for Japanese royalty). According to the interviews, the respondents are not only attracted to Yon-sama’s good looks and famous “killer smile,” but his sensitivity with which he plays his roles, and his gentle, polite demeanor. “The Korean stars are seen as being humble and polite—gentlemanly qualities seemingly lacking in the current top crop of Japanese talent.” (Christian Science Monitor, 2005-04-08).
Ms. H (age 48):
“Japanese big male talents don’t seem humble and polite compared to Korean stars. For example, Kimura Takuya never bows to his fans.”
Ms. G (age 58)
“Korean men in the television dramas show respect for their elders and always obey their parents. They don’t even smoke in front of their seniors. When they drink alcohol with a senior, they look sideways and sip the glass, as an expression of showing respect.”
Japanese fans contend that Korean stars are “gentlemen” and they show deep care and consideration for their fans. In televised interviews, Korean stars constantly make the following statement, “I was able to do my best because of the warm support I got from my fans.” When they enter the stage at fan club meetings, they consistently bow to the Japanese fans and say, “Arigatou gozaimasu.” (Thank you in Japanese) When thousands of Japanese women gathered at the airport to greet Bae Yon-joong, creating much confusion and ambush, “ten women, aged 43 to 65, were taken to the hospital for bruises and sprains. One 51-year old woman had her foot run over by a tire (in the hotel parking lot).” (New York Times, 2004-12-23) At a news conference later, Yon-sama expressed his deep concern for the safety of his fans whom he calls his “family”: “I’m terribly sorry that some members of my family were hurt. I just pray that there are no serious injuries.” (New York Times, 2004-23-12) Bae Yon-joong refers to his fans as his “family” which is something uncommon for Japanese stars. By referring to his fans as “family,” Bae is perhaps expressing his unconditional love for the members of this virtual, imagined family. This “family” factor makes the Japanese women feel even more spiritually proximate to these Korean stars. And the respectful bowing and words expressing care and kindness are seen as manifestations of the long lost traditional Asian values in Japan’s post-modern era.
Ms. J (age 35)
“Japanese men are so weak and hesitant to express their emotions. They hardly tell their lovers, ‘I love you.’ Every woman, I think, wants to be strongly desired and to be loved. On the other hand, Korean men are so passionate in expressing their love. Yon-sama is gentle and warm but passionate to show his true love to Yu-jin. He is strong when it is necessary to be strong. Sometimes their lines sound a bit corny and unrealistic but that is what I like about Fuyu Sona.”
Korean male actors appeal to Japanese middle-aged women not only for their good looks that are Asian and therefore, more proximate and easier to relate to compared to Hollywood stars, but for their humility, gentleness and politeness. These qualities resonate with their nostalgia for traditional cultural values that are no longer visible in the Japanese trendy dramas or in the behavior of Japanese pop stars.
Conclusion Popularity of Korean pop culture in East Asia since late 1990s is an exceptional cultural phenomenon that challenges the dominant theoretical framework of cultural globalization that examines cultural and media flow to be one-directional and driven by cultural imperialism of Western modernity. The Korean wave can be described as a product of “cultural hybridity” that has emerged in the globalization process of adapting and mixing the global and the local cultures. This paper examines the various cultural factors that explain the phenomenal success of Korean television dramas in Japan through in-depth interviews of the fans of Winter Sonata. The interview findings reveal that what primarily appealed to the core female audience of Korean television dramas (age 30-60) is the depiction of the traditional Asian values, their nostalgia for an idealized past, and a yearning for the emotional connection they cannot find in the post-modernity culture of Japan. The findings show that Korean wave is not a simple extension of western cultural imperialism but a new form of “Asian modernity,” an adapted mix of Western modernity and traditional Asian values that can fill the cultural void that the Asian audiences have felt in the process of rapid globalization and modernization.
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1 Ria Shibata is a PhD candidate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand.