SEOUL — The Japanese are coming — but this time they’re being welcomed with open arms.
Chage and Aska were in the vanguard of this peaceful invasion of culture, playing two concerts in late August to 100,000 music fans at the sold-out Olympic Park in Seoul, while the films “Love Letter” and “Shall We Dance?” are packing South Korean movie theaters.
The next wave of arrivals will include pop diva Namie Amuro, who is certain to attract a full house at the 80,000-seat Chamsil Stadium in southern Seoul on Sept. 24 for a free concert, and the release of a whole slew of Japanese cartoon series and films.
And South Korean youngsters simply can’t get enough of what was forbidden recreation not so long ago.
The third phase of the official lifting of the ban on cultural imports from Japan was carried out in June and has brought about a huge change in the South Korean public’s perception of Japanese pop culture as well as a change in the domestic industry.
The half-century ban was another of the hangovers from Japan’s rule over the Korean Peninsula, between 1910 and 1945. But a new regime and a new openness in Seoul since 1998 have swept aside outdated rules — which, in any case, were being circumvented by the arrival of the Internet age — to give Japanese entertainment an entire new market.
Until 1988, the only Japanese films that people in South Korea could see were those screened at one of four major international film festivals around the world, including Cannes. Since then, movies and videos have acted as the catalyst in the rising profile of Japanese pop culture products.
To date, only 20 Japanese movies have been screened in South Korea, but their share of the market has risen from a mere 0.7 percent in 1999 to 11.7 percent in the first half of this year. And they’re not only popular at the box office: “Love Letter” and “Poppoya” have received critical acclaim in the media here.
Films, however, are only one sector. Magazines, “manga” comics, music and personal computer games have long been popular with the younger generation of South Koreans, but were previously only to be found on the underground market.
CDs by Japanese artists are now openly available, as are a wide range of publications, and Japanese-made video games can now be imported both for use in the home and in game arcades. South Korean television stations have even been allowed to air programs from Japan.
Internet companies are among the leading proponents of giving South Koreans more access to Japanese youth culture, with several new Web sites offering information on Japan, including online shopping facilities and chat services.
“Interest in Japanese culture is surging, but information sources lag behind the pace,” said Jang Choong Yop, chief executive of Worldman Corp.
His firm set up the Shinzuku Web site in July to provide information on Japan. It has become among the most popular purveyors of imported pop culture, taking advantage of the fact that earlier incarnations of similar ventures were only able to provide fragmented and limited information.
Shinzuku claims to offer a comprehensive service, supplying news, and information on films, cartoons, games, fashion, TV, pop music and the latest Japanese idols. News on cultural trends is filed by “correspondents” in Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Harajuku districts.
And the aim is to make the service a two-way operation, attracting Japanese Net-surfers to access the site via their Japan-based operation, Jang said.
“Linking up operations in (South) Korea and Japan, Worldman will work to promote cultural exchanges between the two nations,” he said.
“Some people are concerned that inflows of Japanese culture will be harmful to Korean youths,” he said. “Shinzuku is based on the belief that proper information channels are needed to promote a sounder way of accepting the foreign culture.”
Indeed, many of those most vehemently opposed to the lifting of the ban on imported Japanese culture have since agreed that it has had some positive effects.
“The effect of Japanese pop cultural products has been less serious than previously projected,” admitted Culture and Tourism Minister Park Jie Won. “In fact, their impact on the Korean market and culture have been highly positive.
“Imported products have so far acted as a catalyst for the development of the local culture industry, and so there was thought to be no reason to delay the further opening.”
The full liberalization of imports from Japan will, however, clearly eat into the market shares of domestic entertainers; Park’s ministry estimates that Japanese videos are likely to control 4 percent of the market, while CDs could take 3 percent.
Not huge figures in themselves, but worth approximately 25 billion won, or some 2.5 billion yen.
But the flow of entertainment has not been one-way. The South Korean blockbuster “Swiri” has been seen by more than 1 million people in Japan, and pop groups such as S.E.S. and Cherry Filter have made inroads into the Japanese music scene.
“We are going to Japan to test the waters and see if they like what we do,” said Cherry Filter vocalist Eugene Cho. “They came to us and wanted to record our music, and we are a bit different from the usual bands that try to make it over there.
“We aren’t all that excited about current Japanese music, but we welcome the Korean market being opened to the Japanese,” she said. “We think it is stupid to restrict music here, period.”
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