Dong-Hoo Lee. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Editor: Chua Beng Huat & Koichi Iwabuchi. Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
In 2004, the Korean government finally wrapped up the program that it had begun in 1998 of unlocking its doors to Japanese popular culture. It removed restrictions on Japanese movies and songs that had been previously banned to those under the age of 17, especially Japanese TV dramas that can now be accessed via cable or satellite TV channels. It took six years for the Korean government to completely generate its policy of openness towards Japanese popular culture, reversing a decades-old ban that had been in place since its liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945.
Although the inflow of Japanese popular culture had been officially restricted until 2004, it had been informally imported into Korea. While Japan’s popular culture has profoundly affected the narrative forms of Korean television via informal routes of copying (Lee, 2004), there have been informal circulations of Japanese popular cultural products in Korea, which have generated spontaneous acts of fandom. In particular, since the spread of computer- mediated communication in the late 1990s, many young Koreans have shared their information and experience about Japanese popular culture, and have actively formed numerous fan communities.
With widespread information communication technologies (ICTs), the consumption of Japanese popular culture has transformed from a small number of private acts to a larger number of leisure activities. For instance, in 2004, at Daum, the largest Internet portal site in Korea, there were 549 Internet communities related to Japanese TV dramas. The largest community, called “Ilbon TV,” had 820,000 members (Hankyoreh, 29 June 2004). Japanese TV fans can share information about and instantaneously consume recent Japanese dramas, and dramas aired on cable TV channels. They have constructed a consumption space where they can interpret and appropriate foreign cultural products regardless of the marketing purposes or intentions of their producers and distributors. Meanwhile, they have witnessed that with the wave of enthusiasm for Korean pop culture that started in 2003 in Japan, popular cultural flow between the two countries is no longer one-way, and that Korean pop cultural products are transnationally circulating in Asia.
In order to understand the ongoing multi-layered, complicated sites of production, circulation and consumption of popular culture in Asia, it is necessary to examine a local site of transnational cultural consumption. This research attempts to ethnographically study the transnational TV consumption articulated in young Korean women’s everyday lives. Specifically, it intends to understand how they have viewed and related Japanese TV dramas to their daily lives and what kinds of popular cultural capital have been created by these enthusiasts’ appropriation of the cultural codes found in Japanese TV dramas. While Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of cultural capital suggests that the financial and cultural economies have a similarly top-down operation, Fiske (1992) argues that the cultural economy and the financial economy do not work in the same way, saying, “popular cultural capital can maintain its relative autonomy because the financial economy can exercise control over only a fraction of it.” Further, Fiske suggests that the audience can reinterpret cultural products in terms of the needs and desires in their own lives. With easy access to Japanese TV dramas via the Internet, one can accumulate popular cultural capital beyond the control of formal production or distribution agencies and utilize them for his/her own pleasure. Thus, this research tries to look at how young Korean female fans have accumulated popular cultural capital via viewing practices and what it has meant to them.
Rather than generally mapping out Korea’s consumption of Japanese TV dramas or investigating the reception of a specific type of Japanese TV drama, this research makes an attempt to examine in both an experiential and microscopic dimension how young Korean female fans between their late teens to early thirties, whose social conditions have been changed but still constrained by conventional gender systems, have received and appropriated Japanese TV dramas in their daily experiences. By examining their consumption of Japanese TV drama, this study will discuss not only the ways in which young Korean female fans have created or experienced transnational consumption space, in which they have negotiated their cultural or gender identities in an age of globalization, but also the degree to which their reception experiences have been hybridized.
Transnational Media and Fandom
To study the viewing practices of young Korean female fans of Japanese TV dramas from an ethnographic perspective, this research has considered two bodies of scholarship. The first body of scholarship is global media studies, particularly those studies that have focused on the concurrent formations of various Asian media cultures. As globalization has proceeded, production has been decentralized and multi-centralized, and circulation has become more multi-directional; the global and the local are not opposite but interconstituent (Robertson, 1995; Morley and Robins, 1995). In the age of ‘glocalization,’ transnational media productions and receptions in East Asia have challenged established research dichotomies in global media studies, namely, the Western dominance versus peripheral vision, and globalization versus regional diversity. East Asian cultural traffic cannot be fully explained by the notion of unilateral globalization, or by the concept of ‘Third Way’ globalization. Transnational popular cultural flows in East Asia have tended to elude the constraints of nation-state and the intentions of global media giants, and to form new intra-cultural traffics beyond national boundaries. Studies on intra-East Asian cultural traffic, especially studies on the consumption of Japanese popular culture in East Asia, have shown the ways in which East Asians have received, interpreted, and appropriated transnational popular culture, and have exemplified the dynamic relationship between global convergence and local specificity (Iwabuchi, 2001; Iwabuchi et al., 2004).
Studies on intra-East Asian cultural traffic have been led by those who have made an inquiry into the ways in which or the reasons why Japanese popular culture has been so popular in Asian countries since the 1990s. They have argued that the modernization of Asian countries, intra-Asian postcolonial power relationships and political economy, the emergence of a metropolitan consumer culture in Asia, and the construction of a local cultural identity, especially by young people, have been articulated in the popular receptions of Japanese popular culture (Chua, 2004; Iwabuchi, 2001; Iwabuchi et al., 2004; Kim, 2003; Leung, 2004; Yoon and Na, 2005; Thomas, 2002). They have shown how Asians, young people in particular, have appropriated Japanese popular culture and have felt a shared ‘contemporaneity’ through its consumption.
Intra-Asian cultural traffic has become more complicated with a surge in the popularity of Korean popular culture, which has made transnational cultural space in East Asia more hybridized. In addition, the widely-adopted new digital technologies such as VCD and high speed Internet have accelerated the flow of transnational popular culture, and at the same time, have empowered users by providing them with more efficient tools for consumption and appropriation (Hu, 2005). Recent developments of transnational media flows in East Asia and ‘technoscapes,’ have made us think about whether the transnational popularity of certain popular cultural products can be explained in an inclusive and essentialist way; whether transnational media consumption in East Asia would lead to an East Asian popular cultural bloc; and whether as a consequence of this intra-cultural traffic, the boundaries of a local culture sustained by a nation-state would be easily dismissed. To extract and assert certain elements of ‘East Asianness’ in transnational cultural flows, to celebrate the cultural power of transnational media consumers, or to disregard multi-layered contexts that situate a local reception of transnational popular culture would be problematic for understanding the concurrent processes of transnational media flows in East Asia and their cultural consequences. A study to conduct a close investigation of a local site where various media cultures have plurally (not evenly) coexisted and their consumptions have been hybridized is still needed.
The second body of research consists of subcultural studies that emphasize young media consumers’ tactics, resistance, and pleasure in their media consumption. Young media consumers have been considered the spearheads of cultural globalization, those who most actively come into contact with cultural products without regard for the physical boundaries of nation-states. Recent ‘post-subcultural studies’ have outgrown the Birmingham School’s resistance theory to concretely approach the interactions and receptions of pop cultures in terms of the formation of ‘neo-tribalism’ and the expressions of postmodern, alternative sensitivities (Muggleton and Weinzier, 2003). Fandom studies, as a part of sub-cultural studies, have taken notice of the productivity of fan cultures (Kim and Lee, 2003). Rather than limiting fan activities to textual interpretations, they have paid attention to fans’ cultural practices that appropriate the original texts and produce second or third texts for their own pleasure, in addition to their making of an ‘affection economy’ by projecting and sharing their feelings, and their accumulation of cultural capital and knowledge.
In particular, studies on female fandom have looked not only at the ways in which women have consumed and appropriated popular media products but also at the ways in which the consumption of popular media products have constructed and reconstructed women’s cultural identities, which are typically confined by the existing gender system (for example, Lin and Kwan, 2005). Female fans have often transformed the Internet into their playground where they share experiences, produce their own cultural texts out of the original text, and form a cultural power of their own (Bury, 2005; Mazzarella, 2005). By translating popular culture in their own terms, female fans have deterritorialized and reterritorialized a popular cultural media space, and at the same, have negotiated their cultural identities. They have shown that cultural practices and the affection economy, are not fully won over by mainstream media culture. And their subjectivities have become further diversified along with their class, age, locality, and sexuality.
Along that line of thought, this particular investigation tries to contextually examine the ways in which young Korean female fans of Japanese TV dramas have consumed or appropriated these dramas. It tries to look at the subcultural characteristics of their transnational media consumptions and cultural practices, and to study how they negotiate their cultural or gender identities along with these consumptions and cultural practices. Their diverse experiences reveal that there are multi-layered contexts which have situated their reception practices, and that intra-cultural traffic in East Asia has become far more complicated.
Ethnographic Approach to Japanese TV Drama Consumption
In order to investigate young Korean women’s practices of viewing Japanese TV dramas in the context of the current intra-Asian cultural flows, this research has taken an ethnographic approach. From January 2005, the author has paid close attention to two Japanese TV drama online fan clubs, which have been operated by women; one of these clubs has about 70,000 subscribers and the other has about 10,000 subscribers. I had subscribed to and made participatory observations on their online fan activities, and has exchanged emails with their web mistresses who have become the informants for this research. Moreover, to have basic knowledge of Japanese TV dramas and better understand fans’ cultural practices related to interpretation and appropriation, I had downloaded the dramas, via peer-to-peer services, and watched the Japanese TV dramas, sharing viewing experiences with the online fans.
Additionally, I had contacted two informants, an undergraduate student and a graduate student who have identified themselves as Japanese TV drama fans. With the help of these four informants, two web mistresses and two students, I recruited 20 Korean female fans by the snowballing sampling technique. These included three high school females in their teens, 10 females in their 20s, and seven females in their early and mid-30s, living in Seoul and neighboring cities. I conducted in-depth interviews with them individually or in groups from August through to October 2005 (see Appendix). While I was searching for female fans who could share their viewing experiences, their demographic backgrounds were not considerations, although with the exception of three high school teenagers and three undergraduate students, they all held bachelor’s degree. They were employed, graduate students or searching for jobs, and were all single.
The interviewees have had different histories of viewing Japanese TV dramas; some had watched them since the 1990s, and others from the early 2000s. However, all of them had consumed Japanese TV dramas before they were officially shown on Korean cable or satellite TV channels. They told the author about their motives for viewing Japanese TV dramas, their favorite dramas, characters, and stars, their likes and dislikes about the dramas, the contexts and contents of their receptions, the significance of these viewing practices in their everyday lives, and their methods of appropriation. Rather than posing structured questions on their viewing practices or urging them to talk about their responses or interpretations of a specific drama, the author let individuals or groups talk freely or share their histories of viewing Japanese TV dramas (J-dramas) and their pleasures. All the interviews were transcribed for analysis.
Modes of Consumption
Interviewees made contact with Japanese TV dramas for the first time through various routes. Some became interested in J-dramas after they consumed other Japanese popular cultural products such as manga, animation, J-pop, or films. Sometimes their fondness for a specific star led them to J-drama consumption. As Kim (2003) argues, fans of Japanese popular culture have expanded their consumption practices by moving around the related cultural products; many J-drama fans discovered their interest in J-drama while consuming other Japanese popular cultural products. The highly intertextual nature of the Japanese media made these transfers easy. A cultural product often becomes a node linked to other products. The familiarity of other cultural products allows fans to view the drama intertextually and to have the pleasure of reading its subtext. With this ability for intertextual reading, they distinguished themselves from other general audiences.
We enjoyed a kind of story like Manhattan Love Story. Although we have fun watching such a story, people in general would be embarrassed. … While we can find all the Japanese codes in there, they would be very, very bored and wouldn’t know when to laugh. Therefore, we cannot have conversation with them. We get to be talking only with people here (on the fan site). [MH, 26, editor of fan webzine]
While their peer group’s shared culture often played a great role in introducing Japanese popular culture to the interviewees, the Internet provided an accessible consumption space that allowed fans of Japanese popular culture to extend their tastes for a specific product or genre to similar and related others. The consumption space of Japanese popular culture has been markedly expanded by the wide spread of high-speed Internet. ICTs have provided an environment where J-dramas can be actively circulated and consumed. A fan can easily find a drama that she wants to watch as well as other like-minded fans.
This media environment had made possible immediate and simultaneous consumptions with no delay from the original airing time, and at the time, had provided a vast archive of J-dramas. J-drama fans can search J-dramas synchronically and diachronically, and have the pleasure of selecting a drama according to one’s own taste. Each interviewee created her own lineup of J-dramas as she pleased, and downloaded and watched her selections at convenient times. One’s lineup would consist of recent dramas or would be a mosaic of the old and the new. Most of the interviewees had experiences with ‘immersive’ viewing, as they watched their own lineup of dramas within a short period of time. With ‘immersive’ viewing, they formed more emotional attachments to J-dramas.
When I had a flight to Japan on Thursday and returned on Friday, I was pleased that I could watch Trainman on air time. … Although by watching it on airtime I would differentiate myself from others [other Korean fans], I enjoy watching video files. While I cannot concentrate on the drama when I watch it on air, I can see all the details when I watch in computer file. (KJ, 27, flight attendant)
The interviewees have shown different usage patterns of ICTs for their J-drama consumption. Although all the interviewees identified themselves as J-drama fans and used the Internet for the pleasurable viewing of J-dramas, some were actively uploading, creating subtitles, providing related information, publishing webzines, and leading fan communities. Others were read-only fans, downloading and watching J-dramas, and (what the online community calls) “lurking” on bulletin boards. Those who worked as web mistresses and fan-site managers, played the role of cultural producers who create and maintain consumption spaces where fans can obtain and share various information about J-dramas, including knowledge about drama narratives, characters, stars, producers, writers, Korean subtitles, program scheduling and ratings in Japan, and other related subjects. They were willing to devote their time for fan communities without earning any financial and cultural rewards; they were just pleased with their role as benefactors. According to Fiske (1992), “fan cultural capital, like the official, lies in the appreciation and knowledge of texts, performers and events,” and “the accumulation of knowledge is fundamental to the accumulation of popular cultural capital” (42). Those web mistresses and fan-site managers not only accumulated knowledge but also shared it with other fans to facilitate community interactions. They identified themselves as ‘pyeoin’ or manic fans, distinguished from ‘otaku,’ who, they said, didn’t know how to share cultural capital but know how to accumulate it. To create texts such as subtitles and webzines, and to maintain communicable fan sites, they had to become technologists who have a good command of ICT languages, skills which are usually assumed to belong to the male domain.
On the other hand, those read-only fans cannot be necessarily assumed to be passive, inactive J-drama fans. Although they were lurking on J-drama fan sites, they actively shared their viewing experiences with their offline peer group, and made their media pilgrimage to drama sites and star concerts in Japan. One interviewee — JH, 33, graduate student (interviewees are denoted by their initials, age and occupation) — indicated that “to become a Japanese fan, one should have a financial ability,” the spending power to go on media pilgrimages and buy related cultural products such as OST and concert tickets.
The transnational drama consumption has encouraged these women to move around transnationally. While high school and undergraduate interviewees hardly had a chance to make a media pilgrimage, and could only dream of one, others in their mid- to late 20s and their 30s had actually made trips to Japan to pursue their pleasure as fans, which in turn contributed to their accumulation of popular cultural capital in the fan economy. These media pilgrims extended their consumption of J-dramas to that of other related Japanese cultural products, as well as the drama’s imaginary spaces, and have built their distinctive subjective positions as fans.
Pleasures and Flexible Subjectivities
Most of the interviewees took pleasure in J-dramas primarily because J-dramas provided diverse narratives different from Korean drama conventions. They were intrigued by imaginations and cultural resources that they had rarely seen in their local popular culture. Rather than foreignness and exoticness, or ‘cultural proximity,’ the narrative conventions of J-dramas are different from Korean dramas, and this is a main draw or attraction. These differences that they mentioned include diversity in generic forms and themes, drama quality, refined commercialism, a larger pool of actors and actresses, and so on. In particular, they indicated that J-dramas were relatively free from the conventional dichotomist gender imagery that they found often in Korean TV dramas. Their inclination towards J-dramas didn’t come merely from the charms of J-dramas themselves. Their viewing practices were implicit acts of resistance against Korean drama conventions.
As they were intrigued by differences in generic forms and contents, they came to develop a flexible subjectivity. They sometimes identified with a character in the drama, and yet, at other times, they only celebrated, and did not necessarily identify with the character. And sometimes, they adopted a position outside the text, criticizing the drama’s “exaggeration” and “extremity.” At other times they maintained a position of a relatively detached onlooker and took a voyeuristic position over what the drama showed. Rather than criticizing expressions of sexuality or themes such as adultery, incest, sexual intercourse between teacher and student, which were suppressed in Korean TV dramas, they kept a certain distance from the text, and remained as onlookers.
For example, when they talked about Witch’s Conditions, which described sexual intercourse between a teacher and a student, or A Hundred Million Stars from Heaven, which suggested incest between a brother and a sister, the interviewees merely confirmed cultural differences rather than rejected them or expressed displeasure. Most of the interviewees didn’t resist themes that violated conventional sexual norms, and accepted them as cultural differences. And yet, a group of interviewees felt great displeasure when a Korean drama portrayed adultery between a heroine’s husband and her friend. They couldn’t accept it because it was Korean. A sense of cultural distance formed their double standards in tolerating J-dramas’ unconventional settings.
According to Chua, the marker of the location of production in an imported program such as scenery and language “enables a Singaporean audience to maintain a stance of watching, in a voyeuristic manner, the lives of others elsewhere in East Asia,” and to differentiate oneself from other East Asians “in spite of sharing a similar urban and familial disposition” (Chua, 2004, 213). However, for Korean J-drama fans, the markers that put them in the position of a relatively detached onlooker didn’t seem to come from the exterior signs of scenery and language. Rather, generic specificities or unprecedented dramatic settings and social norms signified in the text enabled them to maintain a voyeuristic position. And these cultural codes were not perceived as utterly foreign and peculiar but as possible codes that Korea would adopt in the near future.
Viewing Practices and Gender Identity
Korean women still face disadvantages in social positioning and economic activities. Although Korean women’s social and economic participation has increased, gender equality has not yet been achieved. While among the unmarried, women’s economic participation rate is 53.3 % compared to men’s 53.6%, among the married, women’s economic participation rate drops to 48.7% compared to men’s 84.3% (National Statistical Office, Economically Active Population Survey 1990-2004). Marriage and raising children, as well as social conditions adverse to women, have kept women out of the labor market. However, regardless of these disadvantageous social conditions, a growing number of single women tend to delay marriage in order to pursue their career goals: the median age of women’s first marriage rose from 24.8 years in 1990 to 27.5 years in 2004 (Choi, 2005). These so-called ‘contrasexual’ women, who value their self-realization and wage-earning capacity more than conventional gender roles, have become more visible. A recent survey has reported that 51.3% of surveyed single women in their 20s and 30s do not mind remaining unmarried, whilst 40.8% of them do not mind remaining childless (Yonhap News, 22 November 2005). In recent years, many young Korean women have revealed a collective desire to get away from fixed gender roles and to lead their own independent lives. This desire is reflected and projected in the interviewees’ television viewing practices.
Interviewees in their 20 and 30s talked about their fascination with the portrayal of urban single professionals in J-dramas (Japanese TV dramas). They said that while Korean TV dramas (K-dramas) depicted the professional world as a mere backdrop, J-dramas illustrated it in a detailed and realistic way. In showing their liking for the generic diversity of J-dramas, they said that they had had enough, and thus had got tired of ‘romantic stories only for romance’ and typical gender relationships in Korean dramas. Along with their liking for generic diversity, they showed more interest in the depiction of both an individual’s personal growth in the professional world and one’s social and organizational life; they appreciated characters who were more than merely heroine and hero in a romantic relationship.
In addition, the dramatic reality delineated by J-dramas appealed to them more than that of K-dramas. They were critical of the depiction of class issues which are often used by Korean dramas to highlight an obstacle to the consummation of a hero and heroine’s love and to maximize the dramatic effect. They were also critical of the depiction of gender identity. Although J-dramas portrayed both independent women with their own subordinates and subservient, feminine women, most interviewees recalled the roles of self-determining female characters. They also felt the relatively unrestricted sexual expressions in J-dramas truthfully reflected reality. Although the interviewees had different moral positions concerning these sexual expressions, they agreed on their probable occurrence in real life.
On the other hand, the interviewees were attracted by their favorite male stars’ masculinities. While they thought Korean heroes were too perfect, and therefore too unrealistic for them to be approachable, Japanese male characters illustrated less typical and more diverse masculinities. They felt their images were more realistic and individualized, and different from traditional gender stereotypes, which they often found in Korea dramas. In her analysis of SMAP members’ characters, Daring-Wolf (2004, 367) writes that the hybrid identities of male/female, macho/sensitive, and Asian/Western, and the characterizations were antithetic to the emotionless salaried man, “deconstruct(s) the essentializing notion of masculinity,” and appeal to young people’s “increasingly questioning traditional gender roles defined by a workforce relying on overworked male workers and full-time housewives.” The interviewees perceived a more diverse and hybridized masculinity from the Japanese male characters with whom they could be emotionally and safely engaged. Their favorite male characters were sensitive, emotional, possessing a human frailty, and eccentric. As these interviewees were discovering or attempting to discover new types of masculinity, they took pleasure in consciously or unconsciously resisting conventional gender imagery.
Compared to [masculine] Korean male characters, there have been two types of Japanese male characters; one is a neutral or feminized style, and the other is a typical salary-man. J-dramas have only shown these two types. However, Tomoya Nagase seemed to provide a new style. He is tough, funny, with personal charms, quiet, and so on. I have been very amused by such an odd style. I guess he has an attractive personality in reality. (KA, 34, journalist)
Viewing practices were more than just the pursuit of pleasure as fans. They were cultural lessons for young women to help overcome the pressures of an idealized romance or marriage to ‘the boy next door’ and to display their independent individuality. Since viewing practices as well as other fan activities were time-consuming activities, the interviewees had to devote a significant part of their lives to them. In particular, those who worked as web mistresses and managers spent most of their leisure time viewing dramas and contributing to the fan sites, sitting alone in front of PCs; physically, they simply didn’t have time to date. These viewing practices allowed these single women to build their own fantasy world. Having such an obsession and living in these fantasy worlds, they constructed their own independent identities. Such obsessions often buffered social pressures on their single status, and were sometimes used strategically to escape from socially determined gender roles. And these female fans were happy to find they were not alone in their obsession.
The following excepts reveal what their viewing practices meant in real life terms:
BH (26, designer/systems operator): My boss only talked to me about brand names, saying, “Buy some clothes for yourself.” My schoolmates told me about their boyfriends. If they have had a taste in romance, I have had mine in this [J-drama]. … I wanted to talk about my taste and yet, they only talked about their boyfriends or brand names.
MH (26, webzine editor): And having a baby …
BH: I couldn’t talk. Last time when I bought a Japanese album at 50,000 Won, I heard, “Are you crazy?” … They said, “Pull yourself together! At your age, you should save up money for your marriage.”
JM (29, office worker/operator of women’s bulletin board): At this marriageable age, I don’t get married, and I am staying at home and watching TV [J-dramas] all day long while others go out on dates. That’s why my mom has told me to turn off my PC and to go out.
MH: I’ve heard that nagging from my younger brother! He said, “How old are you, Sister?” If I bought a magazine, he would say “Come on! Won’t you get married?”
BH: When I watch TV [J-dramas], I see good-looking guys. However, when I went to an arranged marriage meeting, I met a man with ‘pumpkin skin,’ trying to strike a manly pose. Alas! I wanted to go back to my TV world and return to the front of my monitor. How Korean men are so ugly!
JM: Many members [of the fan club] want to have an offline meeting on the National Holiday. Next New Year’s Day, I am planning to hold a meeting.
Since during the National Holiday they would face more pressures and expectations from gathered family members, JM suggested an offline meeting in order to be freed from these social burdens imposed upon single women. Their tastes in J-dramas have enabled them to construct their own independent cultural identities. With these tastes, they have come to confirm their desires. As they were investing much of their time in their own interests, and they were discovering a professional world, an individual’s ordinary life, or diverse masculinities from J-dramas, they could have their own imaginary world where they were released from the gendered social pressure to define women’s lives in terms of marriage and domesticity, and even make their single lives more viable.
Although young Korean women have been enthralled by the charms of transnational TV dramas, their viewing practices and fan activities are affected by cultural contexts in Korea. As deeply rooted sentiments against Japan still prevail, to identify oneself as a J-drama fan in public can attract negative attention. For example, when BH, a J-drama fan website’s systems operator, swapped its front web page with that of an American drama fan site on April Fool’s Day as a harmless joke, her site was called a “traitor’s site.” When the newspapers headlined the conflict between Korea and Japan over the controversial Tokdo issue, many bulletin boards related to Japanese popular culture had to be shut down for a while because of strong protests. While the interviewees are fairly open to Japanese popular culture and willing to defy narrow-minded nationalistic sentiments, they keep insisting that their consumption is not a pointless activity. According to Yoon and Na (2005), Korean teenagers have adopted several strategies to appropriate Japanese popular culture without coming into conflict with the maintenance of their Koreanness. These strategies include one which separates Japanese popular culture from its nation or its politics and another in which they maintain a critical distance. While the interviewees in their teens tended to consider J-dramas as separate from their Korean identity, and were critical of people’s narrow-mindedness, the interviewees in their 20s and 30s tended to be more insightful about their fandom. Some interviewees critically pointed out imperialistic nuances embedded in some texts such as Kokusen and other school dramas. Others took care to differentiate their fandom from that of teenagers. They said they were not such blind followers as the teenagers. The interviewees in their 20s and 30s condemned the act of receiving Japanese popular cultural symbols decontextually. They not only distinguished themselves from the blind pursuers of Japanese popular culture, but also took precautions against ultra-nationalism, not only in Korea but also in Japan and other Asian countries. The context of politics in the real world still matters in the context of transnational cultural consumption.
An individual can watch a different selection of J-dramas according to her personal interests, peer group mechanism, and local context. As the Web and new media environments have enabled access to dramas from various countries, one can adopt nomadic viewing practices, following a drama’s enjoyment value and quality, regardless of its national origin. Unlike interviewees in their teens, the interviewees in their 20s and 30s had consumed not only J-dramas but also American dramas, both on the Web and via cable TV. Acknowledging this phenomenon, MH, the editor of a J-drama club webzine, once posted a special issue on American dramas. Its introduction, as follows, shows clearly the ways in which their viewing practices have been recently formed:
Have you enjoyed your life with J-dramas? It seems that many of those who have encountered Japanese dramas for the first time would have been surprised by their peculiarity and diversity and have become indulged with their charms to become ‘Paiyin’ [manic]. But there’s been always a slump after one year of viewing J-dramas!!!! How do you overcome this slump?? … Thus we have prepared this issue. “Those who are tired of J-dramas, take a break in the world of American dramas!!” Most of those who like J-dramas would also like American dramas. I am also watching J-dramas at the same rate as American dramas.
Many interviewees said that although they currently had a ‘feel’ for J-dramas, depending on the drama type, they also watch American and Korean dramas. Amongst their lineup of J-dramas, American dramas and Korean dramas had also become strong candidates for viewing. Moreover, the great enthusiasm that Japanese female fans showed for Korean dramas had made J-drama fans rethink the dramatic power of Korean dramas, and heightened their interest in them. As a result, their drama readings had become more intertextual. As one consumes different cultural products simultaneously, one develops more hybridized consumption. While the origin of media products or their nationality still works as a criterion to make the consumer feel a cultural distance, the consumption space has become more hybridized. In this hybridized space, these women have acquired the cultural power to select and appropriate more specific cultural products.
Although Korean female fans of J-dramas physically reside within the boundaries of their nation-state, they have created a transnational imaginary space through their consumption of J-dramas. This consumption is closely related to their life conditions in their home area, and leads to the creation of various cultural practices. Through new information and communication technologies, these consumers can acquire, archive, annotate, appropriate, and re-circulate transnational cultural products. These young women are not merely consumers. They can also be cultural producers, distributors, community members, media pilgrims, critics, and popular culture capitalists. They control their own conditions of reception, create their own consumption patterns, and share experiences with like-minded people who enjoy a similar obsession. Also, their fan activities can be cultural practices used to resist the social and economic conditions imposed on women in Korea.
Although these women have been attracted to the specific cultural codes and symbolic systems of J-dramas, they can turn their attention to other entertainment contents appealing to them. With globalization and new media technologies, media space becomes more hybridized and thus, so does consumption. Repertoires of consumable cultural products can be flexibly constructed, depending on one’s taste. From these repertoires, a woman can select what she wants to consume. However, local contexts, including social norms and ideologies, gender systems, media systems, and one’s own social and economic conditions, are still important references points for understanding this consumption.
Korean women have managed their own identity politics by viewing and appropriating J-dramas. It is noteworthy that they have discovered and also envied diverse generic forms, modes of life, and types of masculinity. These experiences and adoration of diversities or differences have often been projected onto their daily lives. They have also found possible the fulfillment of women’s desires across nations, even under local gender constraints. Whether their consumption leads to a transnational alliance or a cultural identity across East Asia, it forms a local subculture that precedes its own cultural politics.