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Japan loses its cool as South Korea heats up

by Mark Schreiber

Last month, a nationwide survey of 3,000 people by the Cabinet office found that the percentage of Japanese who do not view South Korea on friendly terms rose to 59 percent, up by 23.7 points from 2011. The sharply negative shift appeared to reverse over a decade of warming relations between the two countries. Those stating they feel an affinity toward Korea, meanwhile, declined by 23 points to 39.2 percent — the first time in 15 years that the rating dropped below 40 percent.

The shift in Japanese opinion largely reflects the abrasive policies of South Korea’s soon-to-be ex-president Lee Myong-bak, who many feel has taken an unnecessarily confrontational position on claims over the disputed islands of Takeshima (Dokdo in Korean), as well as pressing demands for an unequivocal apology over the wartime sex slaves issue.

There’s also evidence of a growing sense of angst among Japanese over what is perceived as Korean intrusion into Japan’s established business sectors, particularly home electronics, as well as in entertainment and cultural spheres.

Japanese electronics manufacturers, referred to in the vernacular as “Hinomaru Denki” (Hinomaru is the national flag) are struggling, with the credit ratings of Sony, Sharp and Panasonic downgraded to or approaching “speculative” levels. Meanwhile Korea’s Samsung and LG continue to peck away at their market share.

On its Dec. 15 cover, Shukan Toyo Keizai asked, Kankoku no tsuyosa wa honmono ka? (Is Korea’s strength the real thing?). The magazine devoted much of its focus on Korean electronics giant Samsung, toward which it accords grudging respect. Comparing products on corporate websites, the writer notices that as opposed to Japanese manufacturers who parade out high-tech, hi-precision TV models, Samsung still offers analog TVs with cathode-ray tubes.

“Japanese manufacturers offer few products that are easy to sell in newly developing economies, and therefore tend to rate low in terms of brand familiarity,” observed associate professor Atsushi Nagauchi of the Waseda University School of Business.

Some Toyo Keizai readers perhaps took comfort in another article titled “The true state of living difficulties that plagues Koreans,” which provided international comparisons that indicate Korea tops the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s rankings in its suicide rate (Japan is third, after Hungary), and also ranked worst in terms of poverty among elderly citizens. Its figures for unemployment among school graduates are nearly on par with Spain’s.

The article also pointed to the phenomena of Korea’s NG (for No Graduation) Tribe, so called because they have delayed their graduation from university while they seek employment. Although not included in the national unemployment statistics, they are believed to number more than 1 million.

Toyo Keizai nonetheless acknowledges aspects of Korea’s international business that might be worthy of emulation. One is the more positive view their company employees take toward postings overseas. Ted Lim, director of the marketing firm TNEX, notes that one of the “hidden secrets” of Korea’s success in newly developed economies is that it makes heavy investments in human resources. Unlike Japanese firms, Korean companies discourage their staff from working overseas unaccompanied by their families, and many firms will foot the bill for their workers’ children to attend international schools.

The international popularity of Korean performer Psy’s “Gangnam Style” earlier this year left Japanese wondering if its rival might soon start encroaching on “Cool Japan.” A story by Dan Grunebaum titled “Is Japan Losing Its Cool?” appearing The Christian Science Monitor (Dec. 8) touched on Korea’s international successes, particularly those made possible by government subsidies.

But others disagree.

” ‘Cool Japan’ is about a decade old at this point,” Jeffery Huffman, a former Japan resident now living in greater Seattle — an area of the United States with one of the highest concentrations of Korean ex-pats — told The Japan Times. “Just as the ‘Swinging London’ of the early to mid-60s gave way to California in the mid-to late-60s, pop culture epicenters don’t hold for long.

“The recent popularity of ‘Gangnam Style’ notwithstanding, things Korean are not that big a deal in the U.S.,” Huffman, who studied U.S-Japan economic relations at Columbia University, continued. “There have yet to be Korean anime festivals and Korean food remains an acquired taste for most Americans if they don’t already like spicy garlicky food. Korean dramas are not being subtitled for consumption in the U.S.”

Still, some Japanese feel moved to mount a defense against perceived threats to their country’s well-earned image. In its January issue, Sapio sets out to debunk so-called Kankoku urijinal — Koreans’ propensity to claim various cultural accouterments as their own. (The uri in uriginal comes from the Korean word for “we.”)

According to Sapio, Koreans of late have variously claimed to be the originators of budō (the Japanese warrior code); tea ceremony; flower arranging and bonsai; and the Kabuki and Noh dramas. They’ve even claimed to have invented origami. To which Sapio scoffs, “Origami’s history goes back 900 years, and there is no evidence of having originated in Korea.”

These urijinal claims are by no means limited to things Japanese; last year some posters on the Internet went so far as to insist that 13th century Venetian trader Marco Polo “stole” pizza from Korea.