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Korean wave may help erode discrimination


Though a lot of people are tired of the guy by now, there’s something encouraging about the inexhaustible, Beatlemaniacal attention being paid to Korean star Bae Yong Joon. Bae’s popularity is merely the most prominent feature of the current kanryu (Korean wave) boom, but the attraction that many Japanese women feel toward the bespectacled actor may be indicative of something larger.

Much of the attraction is pinned on Bae’s character in the insanely popular Korean soap opera, “Winter Sonata,” which is currently being broadcast for the third time on NHK. This jun’ai (pure love) drama has a convoluted plot involving romantic triangles, amnesia and incest. The appeal of Bae’s character is that he always says the exact thing that women want men to say, which isn’t surprising since the script was written by two women.

Bae’s Japanese fans come from all age groups, and the women’s weeklies have covered him intensely. Even Aera, ostensibly a generic newsweekly but one that is increasingly aimed at females, has featured articles about Bae in every issue for the last two months. In one, Aera printed letters from admirers. Most of these correspondents were women over 40 and the depth of their devotion is striking. They say that Bae changed their lives, a common sentiment for a star-smacked adolescent but one that women in their middle years rarely admit to.

Some comments are frivolous (“Whenever I hear the name Yong,” a 62-year-old woman writes, “I automatically open my wallet”), but one thing they all have in common is that no Japanese male star can compare with Bae. “If there was ever such a man in Japan,” writes one woman, “then I wouldn’t be suffering like this.”

The Japanese male star who perennially tops surveys as the most desirable to women is Takuya Kimura, but Kimura’s sex appeal is oafish and self-regarding. Bae, on the other hand, is both dreamy and approachable, and, as he proves in the entertaining historical comedy, “Untold Scandal,” he’s a real actor who isn’t afraid of stepping away from the image that made him famous. In that movie, he plays a conniving cad, and he’s brilliant.

But what’s refreshing about Bae’s popularity is its grassroots quality. The media were genuinely shocked by the massive fan turnout for Bae when he visited Japan last spring to promote “Scandal” because there was nothing to prepare them for it.

Japan was relatively late to the kanryu boom, at least in terms of TV. “Winter Sonata” and other Korean TV dramas were already hits in China and elsewhere in Asia before Japanese TV picked them up (“kanryu” was coined in China). The Japanese television industry is more advanced than the TV industries in those countries and so has less reason to import programs, but there’s also some cultural chauvinism involved.

Though Korean cultural products were never banned here, Japan didn’t start importing such products until the Korean ban against comparable Japanese products began to lift several years ago in preparation for the joint Japan-Korea hosting of the World Cup. Japan’s unofficial cultural embargo wasn’t the cause of the discriminatory atmosphere against Korean residents of Japan (zainichi), but it didn’t help alleviate it, either. However, general interest in Korean culture may increase awareness of the legal barriers (no right to vote, no access to public sector employment) that keep zainichi outside Japanese society even though they have a closer affinity to Japan than they do to Korea because they were born and raised here.

Most zainichi still use Japanese names even if they do not become naturalized because they know it is easier to get by in Japanese society if you have one. Show business was (and, in many cases, still is) a last resort for people on the margins, but many zainichi gravitated to the popular arts while hiding their backgrounds.

Despite the greater awareness of the zainichi plight generated by best sellers like zainichi professor and media pundit Kang Sang Jung’s autobiography, the issue is still considered taboo, as illustrated by the fact that many Japanese net-based bulletin boards have chat rooms where contributors anonymously and mischievously “out” celebrities they believe are zainichi.

Bae’s popularity and the kanryu boom will not eliminate this sort of discrimination overnight, but it may force people to admit the ludicrousness of the atmosphere that perpetuates it. Though most zainichi know no country but Japan, they are discriminated against for not being Japanese. But now that Korean culture is hip, perhaps they will be appreciated for their difference, even if that difference is only a matter of semantics. After all, the country has accepted the official line that the children of the Japanese who were abducted by North Korea have “returned” to Japan, despite the fact that they’ve never been here before.

This may sound over-simplistic, but perceptions can often be changed through simple means. Next week, Fuji TV will start a new jun-ai drama series, “Destiny of Love,” in which the female lead is zainichi. It is the first time in the history of Japanese television that a series has been built around a zainichi character. Of course, the series’ main function is not to heighten awareness of the zainichi situation. It’s purpose is to cash in on the kanryu boom — and indeed one supporting character is made up to look exactly like Bae Yong Joon. Nevertheless, once you break a taboo it’s broken for good.