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When Akiko Konishi felt life had become routine after five years in the same company, she decided to spice things up a little by studying a foreign language.

With few fond memories of studying English, it could have been any other language. She ended up choosing Korean, however, just because there was a school near her office.

The after-work lessons soon gave way to a full-time interest and set her future on a new course.

“First it was hangul that caught my heart, and then I gradually fell in love with many cultural aspects of (South) Korea, including movies, music and other pop culture,” the 36-year-old said.

“Korean things look quite similar to those of Japan, but if you know more, they gradually look different, and I felt something very exotic in these cultural differences between the two countries.”

Her enthusiasm for South Korean culture led her to quit work and move there in 1996 to take Korean ethnic studies courses in college and graduate school.

Soon after she returned to Japan in 2000, she was offered the post of chief editor at K-pop Star, the first Japanese magazine devoted to South Korean pop music.

“I was expecting our readers to be mainly Korea freaks in their 30s like me. But letters from readers show that many of them are teenagers or in their early 20s, who may have encountered (South) Korean pop culture via the recent media frenzy over South Korea prior to the World Cup soccer finals (to be cohosted by Japan and South Korea),” she said, adding that the circulation of the bimonthly has increased to around 50,000.

The content does not differ greatly from Japanese music magazines, featuring interviews, photographs and CD reviews of pop stars, whose fashion tastes appear close to their Japanese counterparts.

“The traditional Japanese view of South Korean pop culture as somewhat uncool has drastically faded away from the mind of the Japanese in the past decade, allowing many people to purely appreciate the quality of the music itself,” Konishi said.

“Japanese who listen to (South) Korean pop music tend to hold fewer stereotypes of the country than older generations, and they are often very adamant in deepening their knowledge of South Korea.”

Letters from readers are often quite serious, with many saying they have begun studying Korean and taken an interest in other aspects of South Korean culture since listening to the country’s music.

Booming movie exchange

The trend took off two years ago, when the South Korean action movie “Shiri,” which boasted having better action scenes than Hollywood flicks, earned 1.85 billion yen in Japan, a record for a South Korean movie.

That smash hit was followed here by “Chingu,” (“Friends”) earlier this month, which was seen by a record 8.2 million in South Korea last year.

Also booming is a series of movies and TV programs jointly produced by Japanese and South Korean concerns, including the action movie “Seoul,” released earlier this month.

Another coproduced movie, “2009 Lost Memories,” featuring both Japanese and South Korean top stars, was seen by more than 2.2 million in South Korea earlier this year.

A suspense movie based on the abduction of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung by his country’s agents when he was a political dissident visiting Japan in 1973 is planned for the big screen in both countries in May. Another coproduced movie, “Dodge GoGo,” which focuses on the friendship between children in Japan and South Korea, will be released in July.

In February, “Friends,” the first TV drama coproduced by Japanese and Korean TV networks, was aired in both countries, attracting an enthusiastic reaction from young fans on both sides of the Sea of Japan.

The four-hour drama, a love story between a South Korean man and a Japanese woman, drew hundreds of messages to Web sites in both countries.

“It is a very typical love story, and it is unusual for such a drama to receive so many enthusiastic messages from fans, even months afterward,” said a spokeswoman at Tokyo Broadcasting System Inc., which coproduced the drama.

“I think the fact that the story was between a South Korean and Japanese somehow made them feel so romantic,” she said, adding that she believes the story of pure love beyond national borders impressed young viewers.

In response to fans’ requests, a soundtrack CD, DVD and video game software of the program are to hit the market soon.

Last month, an album by South Korean pop singer BoA topped domestic sales charts in Japan. Though all the songs on the album are in Japanese, it was the first time for a musician from the country to win a top chart position.

“We hope the success of BoA will turn more Japanese ears to South Korean pop music,” said Hitoshi Yajima, senior manager of international service at Avex Inc., BoA’s record company.

Avex is one of two major record companies that sell South Korean pop music in Japan, holding the domestic sales rights of several top artists. Other record companies have been closely monitoring the two firms’ efforts to gauge the potential of South Korean music, Yajima said.

“My dream is to see CDs of South Korean groups being sold in imported music sections along with English CDs, and Japanese music fans buying them without any prejudice,” he said.

“I don’t think the dream is too ridiculous, considering that quality South Korean pickles, which were so hard to find not so long ago, are now everywhere in Japan.”

J-pop prepares assault

In the meantime, major record companies in Japan have already set up subsidiaries in South Korea to prepare for a planned lifting of bans on the sale of Japanese music.

Although illegally imported copies of Japanese CDs, magazines and other popular culture have been available in South Korea for a long time, the country maintained a decades-old ban on Japanese pop culture until October 1998.

Seoul partially lifted the ban, eyeing a total end in time for the start of the World Cup in May.

Japanese movies that won international awards and comics were the first examples that were allowed in South Korea, followed by concerts by Japanese musicians. International award-winning animated movies came next and sales of CDs by Japanese musicians singing in any language except Japanese.

But last July, Seoul announced it would postpone the removal of the bans for an indefinite period.

The announcement came after the Japanese government authorized a controversial junior high school history textbook that South Korea claims glosses over Japan’s atrocities during its colonial rule of the peninsula and during the war.

“If such bans are totally removed, there will be a much larger, unified entertainment market in East Asia, and it will probably provide both countries’ pop cultures with opportunities to improve in quality so they can compete with the rest of the world,” Yajima of Avex said.

O Son Hwa, an award-winning author who has lived in Japan since 1983, also said that such promotion of mutual interest and understanding can give both countries a new form of national identity.

“Although the two countries are leaders in Asia, the only way to build up those identities was to compare themselves with Western civilization, which has often merely resulted in a growing inferiority complex with the West,” said the South Korean-born author of several books and essays on Japanese and Korean culture.

“But if they find something really nice and respectable in the cultures of their neighbors, they will likely discover a greater respect for their own cultures,” she said.

O, however, also believes cultural proximity has prevented Japanese and South Koreans from truly understanding and respecting each other.

“The fact that we have similar physical appearances and cultural elements often makes us intolerant of our differences, making Japanese and South Koreans very picky and often condescending toward each other,” she said.

O said it may take decades before the current cultural exchanges truly bring the two countries closer.

“I have made every effort to understand Japan since I came here, but it still took me five years to appreciate, for example, Japanese pottery, which appeared too dark and plain to my Korean eyes.”

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