A year after the historic cohosting by Japan and South Korea of the 2002 World Cup finals, Japan’s embracing of things Korean appears to have gone beyond being simply a one-time fad.
When the World Cup began with an opening ceremony in Seoul on May 31 last year, there were still skeptics who questioned how close the two neighbors could really become. But the number of Japanese studying the Korean language is rising, while it is no longer odd to find foods such as South Korean nori and instant noodles on supermarket shelves.
Hiromi Hasegawa, 34, who works for a trading house, said the World Cup prompted her to begin studying the Korean language at the Korean Cultural Service in Tokyo’s Minato Ward in April.
While she had gone on several business trips to South Korea over the past four years, she never felt the need to study the language because local staff could all speak fluent Japanese.
“But I was just amazed at the power of the South Koreans, seeing their passionate support for their team and the way they flooded the square in front of (Seoul’s) City Hall,” Hasegawa said. “I want to deepen mutual understanding by speaking with them in their own language.”
According to the Tokyo-based Hankul Association, which has been conducting proficiency tests of the language since 1993, some 6,000 people have signed up to take the next exam, which will be held Sunday. This is about three times the roughly 2,000 people who took the inaugural test, and some 2,000 more than the number who took the test last June, while the World Cup was ongoing.
“In addition to the heightened cultural exchange between the two countries, as in films and movies, the World Cup probably sharply raised interest in South Korea (among Japanese),” said Kim Dok Ryong, who heads the association’s secretariat.
Korean foods have also rapidly won acceptance by Japanese. Sales of South Korean nori, which unlike its Japanese cousin uses sesame seed oil for flavoring, have grown fivefold compared with 1996 levels, according to one importer, Sun-ei Nori Co. of Soma, Fukushima Prefecture. Sales of spicy instant noodles, which are found everywhere in South Korea, are also logging a sharp rise, with nearly 10 million packages sold last year alone, according to distributor Nongshim Japan.
Song Boo Young, chief editor of Hot Chili Paper, a bimonthly magazine that introduces South Korean culture to Japanese, noted that interest in Korean culture is growing — especially among women in their 20s to 40s. “I think South Korea has become a country Japanese people can naturally say they like.”
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