Korean youth culture is all the rage in Southeast Asia. In January, the leading Indonesian newspaper Kompas published a front-page article on Korean culture titled: “Korean Pop Culture Launches Itself on the World.”
“The image of South Korean celebrities with their shapely figure as smooth as porcelain, leaves a powerful impression,” the paper said. “It is no surprise that today many young people want to look just like them.” The paper added that “our daily lives are surrounded by Korean products, from cars, electric appliances to supermarkets” due to the Korean Boom. “Cool Korea” has transcended the domain of entertainment to become a social phenomenon.
When it comes to manga and anime, Japan still has the edge. However, in the world of TV programs and pop music, which enjoy greater media exposure, South Korea is absolutely tops. For that reason, Japanese culture seems to be losing ground in Southeast Asia.
Yet, it wouldn’t be advisable for Japan to become carried away by nationalistic fervor and seek to challenge Korean culture. Culture is not a zero-sum game.
Originally, up until the 1980s, middle- class youth living in the urban areas of Southeast Asia sought European and American pop culture, just as in Japan and in other Asian countries. Then in the late 1980s, Japanese pop culture made its inroads. A “cool” culture that was different from the West and closer to home in lifestyle — that was Japanese pop culture, and it laid the ground for the Korean Boom that followed from around 2000.
If so, today’s Korean Boom is effectively pushing the threshold of acceptance toward Asian culture beyond the influence of Japanese culture, which had originally transformed the cultural preference of Southeast Asian youth.
If Japan and South Korea became entrenched in nationalistic sentiment and lost the flexibility of spirit necessary for cultural creativity, that would turn off their Southeast Asia fans and detract from their magnetism over the long term.
Japanese culture should aspire to refine its message into one that has an inspiring and universal appeal and can contribute to the development of the global community and to mutual understanding, and to communicate this message so as to encourage spontaneous exchange among citizens and youth.
We can take our cue from AKB48, a Japanese female idol group that appeared at the Japan Pop Culture Festival in Jakarta in late February. Midway through their performance, they sang a song of earnest hope for earthquake reconstruction and gave thanks to the support offered by Indonesia. The audience, which had been caught up in a frenzy of excitement, suddenly fell silent.
The AKB48 concert was reported at considerable length by the Jakarta Post. This was an event that marked the one-year anniversary of the Great Earthquake and it showed that Japan’s spirit had remained strong in the wake of the unprecedented disaster, the paper said. The message carried by AKB48 had indeed reached the hearts of the Indonesian people.
Japan’s best message to the world may be the courage, forbearance and the indomitable will toward reconstruction demonstrated by survivors on the thorny path left by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
This thought became a conviction when I visited a local Islamic university in Indonesia. In a small city in East Java with few ties to Japan, we showed a film and presented a lecture on Japan’s efforts for reconstruction. We wanted to communicate to the future Islamic leaders of Indonesia the significant impact that culture and religion can have in the course of reconstruction and prevention of disasters.
When we speak of reconstructing a region after a disaster, we tend to focus on aspects such as economic aid, infrastructure and technology. However, the human mind is one aspect that is often impossible to restore by economics or technology. There are things only people involved in religion or creating culture can do.
Students who heard my lecture said they were impressed by Japan’s cultural tradition, such as the “Samurai Spirit,” which they thought kept the Japanese people from falling into a panic after the great earthquake.
Yet, I am sure that what really moved them was not just the cultural aspects unique to Japan. Their eyes swelled with tears when they saw victims of the earthquake showing concern for the physical well-being of foreign voluntary workers despite their own plight.
The message hit home precisely because students recognized a universal “goodness” inherent in all mankind, understood how strong and caring we can be, and how we can coexist with each other even under the most crushing circumstances. Certainly, such goodness is not unique to the Japanese people.
Such universal values and way of life have moved hearts across national borders, and are attracting the world’s interest in Japan. And the interest shown by the world in turn provides powerful encouragement for people struggling to reconstruct disaster-affected regions, and becomes a vital source of energy for Japan’s rebirth. It is our task to reinforce such cross-border exchange between citizens.
The writer is regional director for Southeast Asia of the Japan Foundation. The article originally appeared in a bulletin of the English-Speaking Union of Japan.