The diplomatic rift between Tokyo and Seoul widened earlier this month after Japan removed South Korea from its “whitelist” of preferred trading partners. The apparent reason given for the move is national security: Japan says some strategic materials it sells to South Korea are making their way to third countries. Seoul, however, believes Tokyo is punishing it for a South Korean Supreme Court decision that found in favor of citizens who said they were forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II, when the peninsula was a colony of Japan.
Although the particulars of the disagreement have been covered by the Japanese media, there has been scant coverage of its effect on the domestic chemical companies that produce the strategic materials in question, which are vital to South Korean electronics manufacturers. On Aug. 4, however, the Mainichi Shimbun published a feature that said Japan had a trade surplus worth approximately ¥2.24 trillion with South Korea in 2018.
This surplus is being threatened by South Korean retaliation, including consumer boycotts of Japanese products, which antagonize a number of Japanese people and, in turn, boosts the support rate for the government’s actions. The Aug. 8 issue of the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho included a feature on how the row is affecting trade in Japanese goods.
A reporter based in South Korea tells Shincho that sales of “cup ramen” have decreased by a third, while cosmetics sales have dropped by about 20 percent. Japanese beer has been hit particularly hard, with sales down by half. Asahi Breweries Ltd.’s PR department declined to comment, while Kirin Holdings Co. is taking a wait-and-see approach. Suntory Holdings Ltd., whose beer sales in South Korea mostly go to restaurants and bars, hasn’t seen as much of a drop. The company says it still has a “good relationship” with its distributors in South Korea.
A Korean restaurant chain that serves Japanese cuisine has seen its sales decline by 20 percent. Shukan Shincho also makes direct connections between organizations supporting the boycott and the party of President Moon Jae-in, the supposed villain of the article.
There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent retaliatory movement in Japan at this time. Another Mainichi Shimbun feature that was published on July 20 suggests that the rift has had little effect on Japanese youth’s love of Korean pop culture. A Mainichi reporter visited the Shin-Okubo district of Tokyo, the heart of Korean pop commerce in Japan, and found that there has been no diminution of enthusiasm for all things Korean among Japanese young people, who tend to discriminate between government policy and cultural appeal.
In interviews with various Japanese teens in the area, the Mainichi Shimbun found that South Korea is considered more fashionable than Japan is. Some study the Korean language and, despite the diplomatic crisis, Japan seems to be going through its third so-called Korean wave.
The first started around 2003 with the popularity of the TV soap opera “Winter Sonata.” The second was around 2011, launched when K-pop groups such as TVXQ and Girls’ Generation appeared on NHK’s year-end music contest. However, according to one trend-tracking company interviewed by Mainichi, the third wave is even bigger.
The first two were limited to specific pop culture fields, while the present one covers a wide spectrum, from idols to cosmetics to food. According to the company’s survey of 180 women aged between 10 and their 30s, 90 percent of teenage girls said that South Korea is the “source” of all the current trends they follow.
The principal reason is social media, which is immune to the kind of politicization of South Korea-Japan relations that characterizes mainstream media coverage. Young people pay little attention to major media. By the same token, people who are not on social media have no idea about this third Korean wave.
It’s not clear if the reliance on social media is also the reason why the mainstream media doesn’t cover it in depth, but in any case they almost never mention all the K-pop groups that routinely sell out arenas and stadiums in Japan. BTS, the most successful K-pop group in the world at the moment, released its fourth consecutive No. 1 single in Japan on July 3, setting a new weekly sales record, according to Oricon Inc. In terms of attendance, TVXQ was the biggest concert draw in Japan in 2018.
This aspect of the relationship does not register in most mainstream media surveys. According to recent data compiled by the East Asia Institute and nonprofit organization Genron that was quoted in the Mainichi Shimbun, 31.7 percent of South Koreans had a favorable image of Japan, while only 20 percent of Japanese felt the same about South Korea, a comparative ratio that doesn’t really align with the consumer actions reported by the media. Or maybe it’s simply a matter of national sensibility. As one Korean academic told the newspaper, Japanese young people may go along with the mainstream when it comes to politics (or answering vague survey questions), but they also know what they like.
One thing seems clear, however. The rift could have a very bad economic effect on Japan. In the past, Japan has been the net winner in Japan-Korea tourist exchange — South Koreans are second only to Chinese in terms of visitors — but a July 31 article in the Nagasaki Shimbun detailed a huge drop in tourist trade on the island of Tsushima, normally a popular destination for Koreans, with some accommodations reporting that reservations are expected to be down as much as 90 percent year on year. Since July, ferry trips between South Korea and Japan are routinely canceled.
South Korea is clearly at a disadvantage right now, but Japan could lose more economically in the long run. The Japanese press characterizes current Korean popular sentiment as being “anti-Japanese,” but it might be more accurate to describe it as being anti-Japanese government, which seems intent on winning a point rather than working toward a solution.
During a discussion of the matter on the web news program DemocraTV on Aug. 3, former Asahi Shimbun reporter Mieko Takenobu pointed out that even her old employer, usually characterized as “liberal,” is demonizing Moon. By reflexively supporting the government line, Japanese media may not be doing the Japanese public any favors.