“There’s something sad, when a political problem goes so far as to spill over to the entertainment industry,” rues journalist Kaoru Kikuchi in Sunday Mainichi (Sep. 9).
Kikuchi reported that on Aug. 21, Korean male actor Song Il Gook, who was slated to appear in leading roles in police dramas on two different Japanese satellite networks, was being stonewalled for permission to enter Japan for filming.
Indeed, no less a figure than vice- minister of Foreign Affairs Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi had informed the press that it would be “difficult” to grant Song entry permission. The two networks have been forced to delay the broadcasts.
Song’s transgression was to have taken part in a swimming relay on Aug. 13 to the island of Takeshima (referred to as Dokdo in Korean), focus of a long- running territorial dispute between the two nations.
Japan’s mainstream vernacular newspapers have reported that the current discord is largely the doing of South Korea’s soon-to-be-departing president Lee Myung Bak, and they give a variety of interesting theories for Lee’s ulterior motives, which mostly involve his efforts to survive in Korea’s rough-and-tumble domestic politics.
But some magazines and tabloids are happy to add fuel to the fire. The weekly magazine Asahi Geino (Aug. 30) ran a hypothetical war scenario between the two nations. Tabloid newspaper Yukan Fuji (Aug. 28) went out of its way to discredit South Korean actors and entertainers who have in public made “anti-Japanese remarks” related to the Takeshima dispute. The list of eight offenders included Song and the K-Pop female group Girls’ Generation, referred to as Shojo Jidai in Japanese, who in 2008 performed a song in rehearsal (but not in concert) claiming Dokdo was Korean.
At the top of the Yukan Fuji’s list was actor Bae Yong Joon, male lead in the melodrama serial “Winter Sonata,” which was broadcast on NHK’s satellite channel in 2003. Bae, accorded the princely title of “Yon-sama,” set off a phenomenon referred to as “Yonfluenza,” attracting dozens of middle-aged housewives who converged outside the arrival gate at Narita International Airport to meet his flights.
Since the fuyu-sona boom, Korea’s slick melodramas have become a staple on Japanese TV, and their various spinoffs have created a huge market, valued by some estimates as high as ¥1 trillion.
Buoyed at least partially by the Hanryu boom, tourism between the two countries has also thrived. In 2010, points out Flash (Sep. 4), some 2.44 million South Korean tourists traveled to Japan, accounting for 28.5 percent of all foreign visitors. Japan reciprocated by sending 3.02 million tourists to Korea, accounting for 34.8 percent of all South Korea’s foreign visitors. Both countries respectively rank first overall as the sources of foreign tourism to their counterparts.
“As tensions rise in the territorial dispute, attempts by the state and some media to block the flow of Korean pop culture into Japan are worrying,” says Steve McClure, former Asia Bureau Chief of Billboard magazine and publisher of McClureMusic. com, an email newsletter covering the Japanese and Asian music industries. “I hope the grassroots, people-to-people communication that the ‘Hanryu wave’ has nurtured will be strong enough to weather this ridiculously petty fracas.
“I think most Japanese fans of Korean pop culture will keep on lapping up Korean TV dramas and pop music regardless of jingoistic posturing by nationalists on both sides,” he added.
McClure’s view appears to be validated by a survey featured in a seven-page article in women’s magazine Josei Seven (Sep. 6). Titled “South Koreans’ century of ‘anti-Japan’ enmity that has even Hanryu fans squirming,” the article gives results of a survey of 100 fans of Hanryu dramas, females in the 20-to-60 age segments.
In response to the question, “What was your reaction to the news about Takeshima?” 47 percent of respondents replied they would “not tolerate” the Korean actions. Nevertheless when asked, “While anti-Korean sentiments continue to rise in Japan, what are your feelings as a fan of the Hanryu dramas?” an overwhelming 71 percent said they agreed they regard politics as being “apart from the arts,” and “have no intention of giving up being a fan.” Another 12 percent replied, “I support additional efforts at building bridges (of understanding).” Only 10 percent said they were in the process of changing channels.
“Korean entertainers are being coerced into saying that ‘Dokdo belongs to Korea,’” says Park Il, a 3rd-generation Korean resident of Japan and professor of economics at Osaka City University. “To use celebrities for nationalistic purposes reveals the immaturity of a country’s civil society. We need to transcend politics and create an environment where the ring of cultural exchanges will keep widening. Otherwise, the Hanryu boom is likely to wither away.”
And what about the sentiments on the other side of the water?
“Despite the country’s anti-Japanese education policies, many young Koreans are fans of Japanese fashion and entertainment, and are reacting calmly,” Katsuhiro Kuroda, a special correspondent in Seoul for the Sankei Shimbun newspaper told Josei Seven. “While the mass media and politicians are trying to stir up anti- Japanese sentiments, I can see with my own eyes that Koreans, somewhat unexpectedly, are actually sanguine over the issue. I don’t think the cultural exchanges will stop.”