Soured ties fail to curb South Korean appetite for Japanese art, pop culture


South Koreans show no sign of losing interest in Japanese art and pop culture despite the slide in bilateral ties, with a series of exhibitions by contemporary Japanese artists drawing crowds in Seoul and around the country.

Among them is a show at the Daegu Art Museum featuring works by Nagano Prefecture native Yayoi Kusama, known for her unique polka dot motif. In just over a month, the exhibition , in the southeastern city has attracted 135,000 people, far more than anticipated.

The dispute over the ownership of two South Korean-held islets in the Sea of Japan, which South Korea calls the East Sea, and long-standing disagreements over historical issues related to Japan’s brutal 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula and the war, appear to have had little impact on visitor numbers.

“There were 5,000 visitors even on the Aug. 15 anniversary of the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonial rule,” an official at the museum said, noting that anti-Japanese sentiment usually climbs on that date. “It seems that culture overcomes political difficulties,” the official mused.

Two exhibitions in Seoul are also proving popular. One is showing the works of anime-inspired pop artist Takashi Murakami and the other the animation layout designs for Studio Ghibli movies.

A local critic said South Koreans started turning to Japanese art after a decade-long boom in the Chinese art scene lost momentum.

“Something unique about pieces of Japanese modern art, as represented by Murakami’s (works), is that they reflect Japan’s ‘otaku’ geeky culture while overturning the negative image of the geekiness,” the critic, who declined to give his name, said. “This concept has been well-received by South Koreans, especially by the young.”

South Koreans are also embracing Japanese novels, especially by Haruki Murakami, Keigo Higashino, Miyuki Miyabe and Kaori Ekuni. The latest novel by Murakami, “Shikisai wo Motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to Kare no Junrei no Toshi” (“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage”), sold 350,000 copies in only 40 days, topping South Korea’s best-seller lists.

Meanwhile, the popularity of Japanese animated movies, especially Studio Ghibli films, continues to grow. According to the Korean Film Council, 37 Japanese manga movies have been shown at theaters in the South so far this year, up from 11 in the whole of 2010.

“People are fascinated by the spirit of craftsmanship in Japanese cultural content,” said Hiroyuki Kojima, director of the Japan Foundation in Seoul, an organization that promotes Japanese culture. “The bilateral relationship between the two countries is so mature that politics and diplomacy do not pose an immediate influence on cultural ties.”