Koichi Iwabuchi. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Editor: Chua Beng Huat & Koichi Iwabuchi. Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
In the last decade, East Asian media flows and connections have intensified. Media markets have rapidly expanded and transnational partnerships have been closely formed among media corporations which pursue marketing strategies and joint production ventures spanning several different markets. The circulation of popular culture is no longer limited to the national borders but finds a broader transnational acceptance in the region, leading to the formation of new links among people in East Asia, especially the youth. This trend has shown no sign of letting up. Asian markets have become even more synchronized, East Asian co-projects in film and music have become more common, and singers and actors from around the region are engaged in activities that transcend national borders.
In this development, Japanese media culture took the initiative in the 1990s. However, many other East Asian regions too are creating their own cultural forms of international appeal within the social and cultural contexts specific to their countries and media flows are becoming more and more multilateral. Most notably, in the early twenty-first century, Korean popular culture is sweeping over Asian markets. Korean TV series and pop music are now receiving an even warmer welcome in places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China than their Japanese equivalents.
Japan, too, is embracing the Korean Wave. While local channels such as Fukuoka TVQ had begun to broadcast Korean TV drama series as early as in 1996, it is especially since the late 1990s that Korean films and TV dramas have been well received in Japan. As far as TV dramas are concerned, in 2002, a national-network channel TV Asahi, for the first time broadcast All about Eve at prime time. The series was not successful in terms of rating, but it opened the door for Korean TV dramas’ entry into the major media space in Japan. Finally, as the chapters of Mori and Hirata in this volume discuss in detail, Winter Sonata was phenomenally popular since 2003 and this clearly marked the landing of the Korean Wave in the Japanese market, which has been hitherto exclusive to other Asian TV dramas.
The purpose of this chapter is to examine the complexity of the impact of the Korean Wave in Japanese society and consider the possibility of transnational dialogues through popular cultural connections. First I will look at how the reception of other East Asian media cultures proves to be an opportune moment for Japanese audiences to critically review the state of their own lives, society and history. I will do this by comparing the reception of the Korean Wave, and Winter Sonata in particular, with the fervent reception of Hong Kong popular culture in the late 1990s. While the sense of nostalgia is a key feature to the both cases, the nostalgia perceived by consuming Korean TV dramas has more to do with personal sentiments and memories and this leads to more self-reflective post-text activities such as learning the Korean language, visiting Korea and even studying the history of Japanese colonialism.
However, there is another crucial difference between the reception of Hong Kong and Korean popular culture. It is the existence of postcolonial subjects within Japan. To understand the complexity of transnational media connections promoted by the Korean Wave, I will argue, it is also crucial to consider how the media flows from South Korea have influenced, both constructively and unconstructively, the social positioning and recognition of resident Koreans in Japan, most of whom are the descendants of expatriates under Japanese colonial rule. I will consider this by examining the representation of and audience responses to a popular Japanese TV drama series that for the first time deals with socio-historical issues about resident Koreans at prime time. It will be suggested that while the social recognition of resident Koreans has been much improved as the Korean Wave significantly betters the image of Korea, it tends to disregard the understanding of historically embedded experiences of resident Koreans. They are instead effortlessly associated with the culture and people of South Korea in a way in which postcolonial and multicultural issues are subsumed under international relations. This consideration highlights the importance for the study of trans-Asian media and cultural flows to go beyond the nation-centered framework by examining how the transnational intersects with the postcolonial and the multicultural.
Nostalgia and Self-reflexivity
The Korean Wave is not the first instance where other Asian media texts have been well received in the Japanese market. Various kinds of films (mostly of Hong Kong) and stars such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Cheng and Dick Lee have been favorably received as they appealingly represent different kinds of cultural expressions and imaginations of being modern in Asia. Most recently, there was a Hong Kong boom in the late 1990s, which is still fresh in our memories. A comparison of the reception of Hong Kong media culture in the late 1990s and that of the Korean Wave in the early twenty-first century elucidates both similarities and differences between them in intriguing ways.
First of all, the scope and intensity of media and cultural flows from South Korea is not comparable to those from other Asian regions and countries. In particular, the passionate reception of Winter Sonata reaches an unprecedented level. The Hong Kong boom was promoted by women’s magazines and film and music industries, it did not attract much attention from most of the mainstream media, especially TV. Extra efforts were thus needed for audiences to watch videos and get information about the stars and they faced difficulties in sharing their interests in Hong Kong media culture with friends and colleagues. Accordingly, its audiences were relatively limited to devoted fan communities. Yet, precisely because of this, many fans were proud to have an “advanced” taste, which enabled them to differentiate themselves from mass consumers of the mainstream media culture in Japan.
It is crucial here to remember that Hong Kong TV dramas have never been shown in Japan but TV dramas as well as films are the main vehicles of the Korean Wave and thus terrestrial national channels, which are the most influential media in Japan, are main promoters of the boom. Notably, Winter Sonata was broadcast on NHK, a public TV channel, which has the most extensive penetration all over the country. In addition, various kinds of mass media such as newspaper and magazines regularly cover the story about the drama, actors and audience responses.
The Hong Kong boom and Korean Wave have something in common in that the well received media texts represent modern cultural scenes in urban settings. While sharing the experience of negotiating with American (and perhaps to a lesser extent Japanese) influences of production styles, Hong Kong and Korean media industries have developed their own styles of films, pop music and youth-oriented dramas that attain transnational appeal in terms of the representation of “here and now” in Asian urban contexts. They lucidly articulate the intertwined composition of global homogenization and heterogenization in a different way from those of Japanese media texts. For audiences, it can be argued, similar and different, close and distant, fantasizing and realistic, all of these intertwined perceptions subtly intersect so as to arouse a sense of cultural identification, relatedness and sympathy in the eyes of young people in East Asia under regional cultural dynamics (see Iwabuchi 2004 for the case of Japanese TV dramas).
It can be argued that one of the main reasons for the success of Korean TV dramas is their depiction of family matters and relationships, which enable them to appeal to a wider range of viewers than Japanese programs. Even for young viewers in East Asia, South Korean dramas are preferable to Japanese ones in terms of realism and their ability to relate to the characters and story lines. In my interviews with Taiwanese university students in 2001, I was told that Japanese series tended to focus solely on young people’s loves and jobs, and this restricted the scope of their stories and thus audience identification. Korean dramas, on the other hand, while featuring young people’s romances as a central theme, tend to portray the problems and bonds of parents and children, grandparents, and other relatives. This makes them look more similar to the actual lives of young people living in Taiwan. The restricted and closed relationships and daily lives of young people featured in the world of Japanese TV dramas, which Ito (2004) describes as a “microcosm,” have attracted many followers in the Asian region. While Korean TV drama production might have been influenced by this kind of Japanese drama production (Lee 2004), Korean dramas have achieved a different kind of realism in portraying East Asian urban imaginaries.
However, this does not fully account for the favored reception of Winter Sonata in Japan. It is rather the sense of nostalgia that marks its adoring reception. This shows another similarity in the reception of Hong Kong and Korean media texts in that the main audiences are women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s who tend to express their nostalgic feelings for the things that used to be in Japan in their reception of Hong Kong and Korean media texts. In the case of Hong Kong culture, it reminded Japanese audiences of the vigor of the society that has supposedly been lost in Japan. This sense of nostalgia was strongly contextualized in the situation in which Japan struggled with an economic slump after the so-called bubble economy while other Asian nations enjoyed high economic growth from the early 1990s. In this suffocating socio-economic atmosphere, Japanese audiences’ consumption of Hong Kong media culture was sharply marked by a nostalgic longing for lost social vigor. This mode of reception shows a highly ambivalent posture in the appreciation of cultural neighbors. An awareness of “familiar” cultural differences through the consumption of Hong Kong popular culture arouses contrasting senses, a sense that Hong Kong’s level of being modern still lags behind Japan, albeit slightly, and a sense of contemporaneity in living in the same temporality that promotes cultural dialogue on equal terms. On the one hand, Japanese audiences’ emphasis on the temporal difference rather than spatial one occasionally displays their failure and refusal to see other Asians as modern equals who share exactly the same developmental temporality. This might attest to a historically constituted Japan’s double claim for being similar but superior to “Asia”. Orientalist thinking that attempts to understand Asia’s present by equating it with Japan’s past good times occasionally resurfaces in the nostalgic appreciation of Hong Kong culture (Iwabuchi 2002 ch.5).
On the other, however, it also shows their appreciation of a different mode of Asian modernity on more than equal terms with Japan in terms of the negotiation with the West and the sophistication of cultural hybridization. Hong Kong’s present was appreciated as a promising vivacity of another Asian modernity that looked in stark contrast to Japan’s present. By realizing that Hong Kong is no less developed and modernized than Japan and positively identifying themselves with its sophisticated media texts, Japanese female audiences themselves tried to regain vigor and energy (Iwabuchi 2002 ch.5). By watching media texts produced in other parts of Asia, Japanese audiences realize that they now inhabit the same developmental time zone as people in other Asian regions and that the peoples of Asia, while being washed by similar waves of modernization, urbanization, and globalization, have experienced these phenomena in similar yet different ways in their own particular contexts. This may prove to be an opportune moment for Japanese people to critically review the state of their own modernity. Belief in Japan’s superiority over the rest of Asia — a condescending mode of thinking that, while accepting that the country belongs geographically and culturally to Asia, makes a distinction between Japan and Asia — remains firmly rooted in society, but such attitudes are being shaken as countries in Asia become more and more interconnected through popular cultural flows.
The same is true with the reception of Winter Sonata in Japan, as the comment of a news reporter from Korea made a point of: “Cultures of other Asian countries evoke, touch and revive the emotions and dreams that have been lost in one country. This is a wonderful gift of cultural diversity” (Asahi Shinbun 18 May 2004). Revived emotions furthermore induce self-reflexive attitudes in audiences and drive them to search for a better present. However, nostalgia projected onto the Korean TV drama, Winter Sonata, is slightly but significantly different. While both nostalgias are socio-historically structured and self-reflexive, in Hong Kong’s case nostalgia is projected more onto a societal loss perceived as such by individuals, but in the case of Winter Sonata, it is projected less onto the social vigor Japan allegedly has lost than onto personal memories and sentiments in terms of emotions of love and interpersonal relationships. This causes a crucial difference in the perception of coevalness (see Fabian 1983). In contrast to highly a precarious way of interpreting the cultural difference of Hong Kong in a temporal framework, the reception of Winter Sonata and other Korean TV dramas in general seems to more often escape the pitfall.
Actually this perception is more often than not found in the media discourse about the phenomena which aims to dismiss Korean TV dramas as the belated equivalent of Japanese dramas in the 1960s and 70s and to mock dissatisfied middle-aged women audiences who find a savior in Korean TV dramas that actually reflect the behind-the-time standing of the society (see Li 2004). This is mostly evident in men’s weekly magazines, while the depiction is more sympathetic to the experiences of audiences in the magazines whose target readers are women and whose articles are mostly written by women.
It can be argued that Japanese audiences of Winter Sonata still perceive a temporal gap, given that most audiences are elder women compared to their Korean counterparts. Those middle aged women are reminded of the pure passion for love and caring in human relationships which according to them, they used to have in their youth. However I found the audiences do not seem to associate the temporal gap to that between the two societies even if they compare Winter Sonata with Japanese dramas of the 1970s and 80s, precisely due to the fact that the longing for things that used to be is induced more at the level of personal memories and love sentiments rather than at the level of social loss. If, in the Hong Kong case, the sense of nostalgia is closely related to the discourse of vanishing (Ivy 1995) discourses about social loss in the course of modernization, in the Korean case it has more to do with the personal recovery of vanished sentiments. And this longing is also related to the vanishing of discourse, the failure of Japanese media industries to produce media narratives that inspire emotions in a positive and humane manner. Most obviously, it is a pure, single-minded loving affectionate and caring interpersonal relationship depicted in Winter Sonata that attracts Japanese audiences. Especially much-admired is the man’s magnanimous tenderness that subtly combines embracing leadership and sincere respect for the partner that is attractively performed by Bae Yong Jun. These are somethings that cannot be found in Japanese TV dramas as one producer acknowledged that Japanese TV producers would not be able to make such dramas since such pure love stories have been replaced by stories with more ironic twists (Asahi Shinbun 21 May 2004).
Interestingly the highly personalized longing provoked by the reception of the Korean drama has strong marks on the vivacity of post-text social praxis, which is crucially different from the Hong Kong case. Many audiences told me that they consciously tried to become more caring and gentle to others and respect family members after watching Winter Sonata. More significantly, compared to Hong Kong’s case in which many audiences tended to consciously indulge in the act of consuming media images and did not pay much interest in directly connecting with the people and culture of Hong Kong, audiences of Winter Sonata are much more actively making contact with Korean culture, society and people. Fascination evoked in the media texts more directly and actively leads to interests in knowing and encountering “real” Korea. As detailed in Hirata’s chapter, no small number of them join Winter Sonata tours to Korea to experience the drama scenes, experience local culture and people, and start learning the language. Furthermore, many audiences are learning the history of Japanese colonialism in Korea. The nostalgic longing evoked by Winter Sonata is less motivated by the will to identify with the modernizing energy of the society, but precisely because of this personal-oriented desire, it is more engaging and emancipatory. Personal is indeed political!
International Cultural Exchange and Beyond
The historical relationship is also an important factor in understanding the development of the Korean Wave in Japan and its difference from its Hong Kong counterpart. Particularly important here is the history of Japan’s colonialism, which has long rendered the relationship between the two countries geographically and culturally close yet politically and emotionally distant. The recent upsurge of the Korean Wave in Japan, which is based on the contemporaneous appreciation of its cultural neighbour, can be seen as a positive kind of reaction to the postwar closure of bilateral cultural exchange. Japan did have a history of imperial invasion to Hong Kong too. No small number of people in Hong Kong still hold a strong anti-Japan sentiment, as is clearly shown by the demonstrations over the dispute about the possession of the senkaku islands. The point is, however, how the (post)colonial historical relationship is perceived and discussed in Japan. It is not a historical fact but the public perception of history and postcolonial presence that is at stake in the consideration of the way in which the history of Japanese colonialism inscribes the manner of the Japanese reception of other Asian cultures. Japan’s colonial relationship with Hong Kong has never been a big public issue in Japan — let me reiterate that this is not to say it is insignificant — but the fact that South Korea is a former Japanese colony and no small number of people in South Korea have a strong antagonism against Japan has long been widely recognized in Japan.
The bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea has significantly improved since the late 1990s. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 was perhaps the first instance that changed Japanese images of South Korea, from a backward, still undeveloped country to an urbanized modern country. The event attracted many tourists from Japan and activated grassroots exchange among the populaces. More significantly, two momentous events in the late 1990s greatly improved the cultural relationship between Japan and South Korea. One was the South Korean government’s decision in late 1998 to abolish the long-term regulation policy of banning the import of Japanese culture. This announcement clearly signified a new epoch for the bilateral relationship and was particularly welcomed in Japan, since it seemed to mark the sign of historical reconciliation at least on the part of the ex-colonizer.
The Japanese government has been interested in the potential of media culture facilitating cultural dialogue, particularly in terms of its capacity to improve Japan’s reputation and to make smooth Japan’s historical reconciliation with other East and Southeast Asian countries. This idea of cultural diplomacy in Asia has been discussed and its policy has been implemented by the governmental circle at least since the 1970s when the so-called Fukuda doctrine was schemed, but it is mostly targeted toward Southeast Asia. North-East Asia, especially Korea and China, whose colonial relationship with Japan is more direct and harsh but has not been seriously faced by the Japanese government since 1945, did not then quite fit the scheme of cultural diplomacy. Therefore, the recent development of popular cultural exchange between Japan and South Korea is a great advancement of the application of cultural diplomacy to East Asia.
It is in this context that the concert of a Japanese duo, Chage & Aska in Seoul in 2000 attracted massive media coverage in Japan. The duo had been actively entering other Asian markets. They had staged concerts in Taipei, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai since 1994, but could not make it to South Korea due to the cultural regulation policy. Their inroads into East Asian markets might have been motivated by commercial reasons, but they are quite conscious of their role in overcoming Japanese imperial history (see e.g., Views, July 1996: 78). In August 2000, Chage & Aska finally held a concert in Seoul. The Japanese media enthusiastically covered it, reporting that this was a historic concert being the first performance by Japanese pop musicians in the Japanese language, which clearly marked the cultural thaw between Japan and South Korea. Chage & Aska themselves expressed the sense of accomplishment at the concert: ‘Let us younger generations make a future together!’ (Asahi Shinbun, 28 August 2000).
Yet what has become prominent is not just the entry of Japanese popular culture into South Korea but even to a greater degree, the advent of Korean popular culture into Japan. The two-way flow of popular culture has significantly contributed to the people mutually finding intimate human faces and the immediate attractiveness of cultural neighbours. It is also greatly enhanced by the other historic event, the co-hosting of the FIFA world cup soccer tournament. In 1996, to everyone’s surprise, South Korea and Japan were assigned to co-host the FIFA world cup soccer in 2002. The two countries harshly competed with each other to win the bid and thus were not quite happy with the decision. However, the co-hosting process eventually resulted in having a tremendous impact on the betterment of the cultural relationship between the two nations at the official level as well as a grass-root level. It engendered many government-sponsored events, media collaborations such as the co-production of TV dramas and various kinds of people’s cultural exchanges. When Korea proceeded to the semi-final, people from Japan and Korea, including resident Koreans, all gathered together to cheer Korea in Shin-Okubo, a renowned Korean town in Tokyo.
Supporting this trend, some surveys showed the drastic improvement of people’s mutual perceptions and the positive view about the future relationship between Japan and Korea, with Japanese responses apparently being more positive. Likewise, many audiences of Winter Sonata expressed that the drama had totally changed their images of Korean society, culture and people, which were hitherto negative. By experiencing Korea through post-text activities, they come to further realize the close ties the two countries have and the fallacy of Orientalist images of Korea that have been dominantly held in Japanese society. According to a survey, about sixty percent of audiences came to have a better image of South Korea and forty percent of audiences are paying more attention to the media coverage of the Japan-Korea political and historical relationship (Hayashi 2004). Some warn that this development is just a transient boom and whether media consumption of Winter Sonata will lead to a substantial understanding of Korea is highly doubtful (e.g. Chon 2004, Son 2004). However, if we look closely into the audience reception as detailed in Mori’s chapter, the change cannot be easily dismissed. In the post-text activities that characterize the Winter Sonata syndrome, some even start learning what Japanese colonialism did in the Korean peninsula and realise how it still casts a shadow on the current situation. It probably will not lead to drastic political change in the short term, but the imagination and practice in everyday life is the basis of societal constitution. Through such mundane change, audiences will become indeed active political agents.
Having said this, admittedly the caution is an important reminder against uncritical celebration on the role of popular culture in the enhancement of inter-national relationships. Too excessive an expectation in popular culture for the enhancement of inter-national relationships needs to be carefully examined. Being concerned mostly with the relationships between nations, it tends to conveniently use popular culture for the promotion of national interests. What is problematic here is that such discourses can only be put in the foreground by not attending to the complexity of transnational popular cultural flows that (re)produce not just dialogue but also unevenness (see Iwabuchi 2002, 2004). Most imperatively, such a view tends to subtly redemarcate the national boundaries and disregard, and even suppress, the issues of existing differences, marginalization and inequality within each society in terms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, class, age, region etc. It needs to be remembered that what is being promoted is the exchange and dialogue between cultures that are dominant and popular in each country. If we take cross-border dialogue engendered by media cultural flows seriously, we must go beyond the national framework and consider how the complicated transnational circulations of people, capital and media texts crisscross local multicultural and postcolonial issues. Then, if we are to take the Korean Wave in Japan seriously, the examination of how the Korean Wave has impacted on the inter-national relationship between Japan and South Korea is not enough. The examination of its impact, I would suggest, on the social positioning of resident Koreans in Japan who have long been discriminated against as second-rate citizens would be a significant touchstone in the consideration of the (im)possibility of mediated transnational cultural dialogue.
Korean Wave and the Recognition of Korean Residents
Resident Koreans are those who migrated to Japan during Japan’s colonial rule and are their descents. At the time of the end of the war, roughly 2 million Koreans lived in Japan as Japanese nationals under colonial rule. More than 1.3 million people returned to Korea after the war, but about 60,000 Koreans remained in Japan due to the difficulty of starting a new life and finding a job in Korea. Most of those remaining in Japan were the earliest immigrants who had firmly established their families in Japan and lost a substantial connection with Korea. By the implementation of the San Francisco peace treaty in 1952, the Japanese government one-sidedly deprived Japanese nationality to those Koreans who had stayed in Japan and subjected them to the rigid control of Alien Registration Law. Koreans had then two options other than to remain stateless residents in Japan; either to return to Korea or naturalize to Japanese, but neither was persuasive to many, though some of them repatriated to North Korean after 1959, responding to Kim Il Sung’s encouragement of repatriation. The start of the diplomatic relationship between Japan and South Korea in 1965 made it possible for Koreans in Japan to obtain permanent residency if they became South Korean nationals. Still those who supported and identified themselves with North Korea remained stateless, neither Japanese nor South Korean. In either case, as a non-Japanese, Koreans had to be registered as a foreigners living in Japan and used to carry a registration card, which included fingerprints until 1991 when their status as special permanent residents were fully acknowledged by the Japanese government.
Some might wonder why many Koreans did not naturalize into Japanese despite the fact that they eventually lived in Japan for good. It is mostly due to the lingering structural discrimination against resident Koreans and the Japanese government’s authoritarian immigration policy in order to keep the nation apparently “homogeneous”. In the application of the procedure of naturalization, resident Koreans have to experience a long, inhumane examination about the qualifications of becoming “properly Japanese” and it eventually requires them to adopt a Japanese name. Due to the strong assimilation policy, to become a Japanese citizen, Koreans are required to forget and hide their descent. Thus, many choose not to become Japanese citizens and this posture has been an important part of their identity formation in the resistance against the repression of the Japanese government. “Residing in Japan” (zainichi) is “an alternative to becoming naturalized” and the construction of their identity is centered on the sense of belongingness to Korean nations (Tai: 2004: 356), while the number of Koreans who naturalize into Japanese has been increasing recently.
When we consider the impact of the Korean Wave in Japan, as suggested above, the presence of resident Koreans as (post)colonial subjects in Japan is decisively different from the Hong Kong case. The issue at stake here is whether and how the presence of problematic (post)colonial subjects has some bearing on the reception of popular culture from the country they have ethnohistorical “roots and routes” and/or how the reception has had an impact on local multicultural and postcolonial issues.
Ashley Carruthers (2004), in his analysis of the Japanese consumption of Vietnam exotic, argues that while it is a subjectless multiculturalism that tries to pleasurably domesticate multicultural situations in highly a consumerist manner without seriously engaging with the presence of actual subjects, what marks the Japanese case is a striking tendency that exotic Vietnamese cultures are introduced, exhibited and promoted by Japanese people themselves. Here, the relative absence of Vietnamese residents in the Japanese public sphere as a significant other makes it much easier for people in Japan to consume Vietnamese culture as exotic:
The fact that the Vietnamese are not significant national others is crucial to any understanding of the exceptional commodifiability of the Vietnamese exotic in Japan … Vietmaneseness in Japan is not embodied in a threatening way. It can be safely conceptualised in the abstract, untroubled by the prospect of encountering the concrete “ethnic” subject and its strange cooking smells and noisy music. (Carruthers 2004: 416)
Perhaps this point is applicable to the reception of Hong Kong culture too. The relative absence of Hong Kong subjects in the public sphere renders the consumption of Hong Kong culture idealized and commodified.
Yet, as Carruthers points out, this is never the case with Korean culture. “The commodification of Koreanness is disrupted by a general distaste for the national otherness represented by diasporic or hybrid Korean identities” (2004: 416). Resident Koreans have long been forced to live as a secondrate citizens in Japan and suffered considerable discrimination and prejudice and many of them have been forced to live by passing as Japanese, hiding their ethnic backgrounds and adopting Japanese names in public. Koreanness is not something that can be comfortably consumed as a mass exotic commodity in the Japanese public imaginary unless its origin is suppressed or “Japanized” as is often the case with celebrities who willingly or unwillingly conceal their ethnic descents in public. Resident Koreans’ cultural expressions have occasionally gained social recognition as shown by several writers winning prizes for their novels by but they are not for pleasurable mass consumption. “Impure” identity construction that is neither Japanese nor Korean in a full sense has been a serious issue for them. Their cultural expressions thus tend to deal with the agony and ambiguity about their own precarious lives in the social positioning as zainichi who are historically torn apart between the Japanese and Korean peninsula. And this in turn evokes something uneasy for Japan since its postcolonial subjectivity never allows it to cheerfully forget the history of colonialism.
In this context, the advent of the Korean Wave and the improvement of the images of Korea in general pose intriguing questions about its relations to the social positioning and recognition of resident Koreans. As Taylor (1994) argues, social recognition of difference is a significant aspect of the multicultural politics of the marginalized. Then, the question is how resident Koreans whose otherness cannot be easily contained by subjectless multiculturalism are recognized via the fetishization of Korean popular culture? Does the recognition work to empower or disempower resident Koreans? How are positive perceptions of South Korea through the Korean Wave related to the perception of resident Koreans in Japan? How is their untameable postcolonial subjectivity that resists easy cultural consumption repositioned within Japan through the positive consumption of Korean popular culture and the advance of bilateral cultural exchange?
Of course it depends. There are no straightforward answers to this nor can we generalize the diverse experiences of resident Koreans. It cannot be denied that the rise of the Korean Wave and the betterment of Korean images in Japan have significantly improved the imaged of resident Koreans, and this has empowered no small number of resident Koreans. Some, especially the younger generations, have gained the confidence to live as Koreans in Japanese society without naturalizing into Japanese. Others have become more willing to bridge the two countries by positively taking advantage of his/her impure existence through the activities that introduce various cultures such as film and popular music to each other. The presence and issues about resident Koreans have come to be more frequently dealt with and attract more attention in the public media space such as popular magazines and TV wideshows. While All under the Moon (1993) is the first commercially successful film about resident Koreans in Japan (see Iwabuchi 2000), recent films such as GO (2000) and Pacchigi (2005) are even better received.
At the same time, the impact of the Korean Wave still tends to be constrained by the dominant attention paid to inter-national relationships, which overpowers the concern with resident Koreans. The sense of frustration is often expressed by resident Koreans themselves in that Japanese people might embrace the Korean Wave but the structure of social discrimination and indifference has not changed. For many resident Koreans, job opportunities are still limited and it is at times difficult to rent a room. The improvement of these situations has not interested the Japanese government that is solely interested in using the recent cultural exchange for the easing of the historically strained relationship between Japan and South Korea. In August 2004, the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), the party in office, invited the director of Winter Sonata to a seminar on the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea and the then party secretary, Abe, also celebrated the development of mutual cultural exchange by referring to the popularity of the drama in his official visit to South Korea. Yet, he kept his silence to the Korean president’s question about the issue of history textbooks and the granting of voting rights for local elections to resident Koreans in Japan. In the above-mentioned survey (Hayashi 2004), about a quarter of respondents said that they had become more interested in resident Koreans and their history, which is not negligible but yet much lower compared to their increasing interest in South Korea. Even worse, according to Asahi Shinbun (21 August 2004), to the question about the interests that are roused by the Korean Wave, only few mentioned historical issues or resident Koreans.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the improvement of the image of South Korea is simultaneously occurring with the demonizing of North Korea. Since the North Korean government officially acknowledged their involvement in the abduction of Japanese nationals, there has been a massive and antagonistic media bashing of North Korea. Racist attacks have also been made against resident Koreans who identified themselves with North Korea. North Korea-affiliated high school female students who wore Korean ethnic dress as school uniforms were assaulted in the city and a self-claimed resident North Korean boxing champion’s homepage had to close due to a flood of blackmail messages.
A clear divide between North and South Korea in the public perception among Japanese has an influence on the recognition and naming of resident Koreans according to their belonging either to South Korea or North Korea. The naming of resident Koreans — zainichi chousenjin (resident North Koreans or resident Koreans in general as chousenjin signifies ethnicity rather than national identification), zainichi kankokujin (resident South Koreans to differentiate it from resident Koreans who identify themselves with North Korea) ,or zainichi kankoku-chousenjin (resident North and South Koreans to include both kinds of political identifications) — is highly political, as it involves the issue of political identification with two Korean countries. In either case, however, remaining as Korean nationals is important for many since it signifies the resistance against the disgraceful naturalization into a Japanese national, as explained earlier. Recently, resident Korean communities have tried to be more open to the diversity within and to widen membership irrespective of his/her nationality or national identification. The name, zainichi Korian, which uses the English term “Korean”, has been often used partly because of its apparent political neutrality, while it is often criticized for the very same reason. In addition, it has also the merit of making it possible to include those who have been naturalized into Japanese as the emphasis is put more on historically embedded “Koreanness” than on national identification or the kind of passport they have.
However, with the advent of the Korean Wave, the reference to resident South Koreans (zainichi-kankokujin) has become used more often than before in Japanese media. The new categorization of South Korean nationals living in Japan does not just accompany the suppression of resident Koreans who identify themselves with North Korea. No less importantly, this manner of naming signifies the ahistorical recognition of resident Koreans that is apt to understand their existence in association with the contemporary culture and society of the nation-state called South Korea which now produces attractive media cultures. For example, in a book titled, “I want to know that person’s country, South Korea” (2004), there is a small section about resident South Koreans, which is included in the chapter of the history of South Korea. The author of this section is a resident Korean and she introduces the ambivalent identity of resident Koreans who do not clearly belong to either nation in a positive manner. However, such an approving account of ambivalent identity construction embraced in the lives of resident Koreans is diminished by the categorization of their experiences as those of the people of South Korea. In this instance, zainichi-kankokujin signifies less resident-South-Koreans than South-Korean-nationals-living-in-Japan in an ahistorical and nationalized framework. Crucial in this nationalized recognition of resident Koreans is the disregard of the collective historical memories and experiences that are shared irrespective of nationality and that have been passed down from generation to generation. In the last scene of the popular film, GO, the protagonist, a third generation resident Korean man shouts to his Japanese lover when she calls him resident South Korean, “you Japanese do not feel at ease unless you categorize and name us in any way. Do not confine me in such a narrow category”. This line that strongly rejects the effortless categorization of resident Koreans takes on a more imperative meaning with the advent of the Korean Wave in Japan.
Tokyo Bayscape and the Representation of Resident South Koreans in Japan
While there are positive impacts of the Korean Wave on the social recognition and positioning of resident Koreans in Japan, there can be discerned a confusion in the understanding their existence through the prism of South Korea, which accompanies the segregation of shared historical experiences of resident Koreans. How the Korean Wave has constructively and unconstructively impacted on media representations and recognition of resident Koreans is elucidated in a TV drama series, Tokyo Bayscape (Fuji TV, Monday 9-10pm), which was broadcast from July to September 2004. The drama is about the romantic relationship between a third-generation resident South Korean woman and a Japanese man and their aspiration to overcome the obstacle of ethnic difference. The story begins with the scene in which the depressed heroine sends a message to a web site from a mobile phone, “please find the real me”. This is the key word of the drama and motif that signifies her desire to be recognized and loved just as she is, as a woman who was born in Japan of Korean ancestry. The production of the drama was clearly motivated by the recent popularity of Korean TV dramas and films as the producer clearly acknowledged. The drama is epoch-making in that it is the first TV drama series in the prime time of a major commercial TV station that features a resident Korean as the protagonist. This testifies to another positive impact of the Korean Wave on media representations of resident Koreans whose existence has long tended to be disregarded in the mainstream media.
However, it is apparent that the drama effortlessly uses resident Koreans as spice to the story in terms of acting as a hindrance to the relationship. In the drama, the story revolves around the anguish of a third generation daughter whose economically successful second-generation father stubbornly insists on her marrying resident Koreans and opposes her wish to marry a Japanese man. He is much concerned with the historically constituted discrimination against resident Koreans in Japan. At the same time, he has a bitter memory of his dead wife’s passionate but tragic relationship with a Japanese man before their marriage and how she never forgot her sense of longing for him. To him, the daughter appears to fatefully follow her mother’s forbidden love relations with Japanese men. While parental opposition to children marrying Japanese nationals might to some extent reflect the real life experiences of resident Koreans, the drama depicts the issue with an exclusive focus on the personal distress of resident Koreans without giving due attention to the structured discrimination in Japanese society. Issues are reduced to the personal anguish of well-to-do Korean residents in Japan and social and historical issues are separated from the personal. Furthermore, the stubborn closed-ness of the resident Korean community is to blame for her agony, as symbolized by the protagonist’s father who is represented as ethnocentric, obstinate and who thus cannot understand the developing relationship between Japan and Korea (Ogura 2004). It is as if resident Koreans were all responsible for drawing the sharp exclusive line between Japanese and resident Koreans.
In relation to this, the protagonist’s distress is depicted as the sharp divide between the two nations, South Korea and Japan. Japan’s relationship with South Korea and its people is again confounded with that of resident Koreans whose historically contextualized experiences and subjectivities are thus interpreted in terms of those of South Korean nationality. This is shown by the catchphrase of the drama, “the love that transcends the national boundaries between Japan and South Korea”. The father of the heroine often states that there is a deep gulf between Japan and Korea that is sharply divided by the Sea of Japan. Even a Korean star who acts in Winter Sonata appears in the end of one episode to send a message to the audiences that people of both nations will be best friends by going beyond what happened in the past.
This is a striking confusion between Koreans and resident Koreans in Japan, as one viewer sharply criticised on the web-site:
I think the issue of resident Koreans needs to be distinguished from the Korean Wave in Japan. Maybe they have the same nationality. Yet how is it plausible to deal with those Koreans who have been brought up in South Korea and those third generation resident Koreans who have been brought up in Japan on par? … It is very good in any case that the neighboring country South Korea is in the media limelight and the friendship between Japan and South Korea is being deepened. However, resident Koreans are someone living next to you, not in the neighboring country. They might be your neighbors, colleagues or friends, if you are not aware of this. No sea divides Japan and resident Koreans.
Yet, looking into the official web site of the drama series, most audiences’ contributions seem to affirm the drama narrative of inter-national relationship between Japan and Korea: “Unexpectedly I am addicted to the drama, because it deals with the contemporary issues between Japan and South Korea we are currently embracing”; “This drama aims to bring Japan and South Korea closer, isn’t it? If so, unless the drama has a happy ending, the relationship between the two nations will remain distant”; “I am deeply impressed with the drama that depicts the loves who struggle to overcome national boundaries”. These messages suggest that many audiences expect the drama series to contribute to the improvement of the relationship between Japan and Korea, but at the expense of the understanding of the complexity of experiences and social positioning of resident Koreans, as it is reduced to those of South Korean nationals living in Japan.
While the desire for suppressing the fallacy of racial and cultural homogeneity in Japan appears in the form of a subject-less multiculturalism in the case of the consumption of Vietnamese culture, Tokyo Bayscape confers a kind of social recognition to resident Koreans that renders them easily consumable historical subjects through interpellating them as South Korean nationals. The positive image of South Korea that the Korean Wave promotes eventually works to newly marginalize and suppress postcolonial complexity and nuisances embodied in the historical subjectivity called “resident Koreans”. This is an attempt to conveniently understand his/her precarious experience and identity formation, which resist clear categorization in any sense since they are constructed in the situation in which s/he is forced to live with the vague feeling of uneasiness and strain in Japanese society (So 2003). Social recognition is given only when historical nuisance is tamed by and for the majority. While showing new positive developments about the social recognition of resident Koreans in Japan, the representation of resident Koreans in the drama nevertheless displays a postcolonialism without history. The past is acknowledged as something that has gone and which no longer determines the present, an acknowledgement of the past not to remember but to leave behind.
The drama also displays the replacement of multiculturalism by multinationalism that attempts to understand the issue of multiculturalism in terms of nationality as a unit of analysis (see Iwabuchi 2005). The existence of resident Koreans in Japan is grasped from the view point of the international relationship between Japan and South Korea, which disregards those whose experience and identity formation are torn between the two nations. The existence of South Korean nationals living in Japan rather than resident Koreans in Japan can be publicly recognized as they are more tolerable foreign nationals who are safely separated from the past, present and future of the Japanese imagined community. The factual mark of difference in terms of nationality and passport, the lack of the right to vote and the lingering difficulty of marrying Japanese nationals are dealt with in the drama, but not in a way in which the myth of Japanese homogeneity that has severely marginalized resident Koreans is fundamentally questioned. This is reminiscent of the Japanese government’s recent encouragement for resident Koreans to acquire Japanese nationality. As Tai (2004) warns, even if the naturalization process becomes softer and resident Koreans can more easily “come out” by publicly using Korean names and/or acknowledging his/her ethnic roots, this does not ensure the acceptance of resident Koreans as full-citizens. Unless the lingering social discriminations and the racially and ethnically essentialist definition of “Japanese” are seriously overcome, “resident Koreans are encouraged to ‘come out’, but only in a contained way”. The naturalization with Korean ethnic marks would result in their assimilation “only as a secondclass Japanese” (369).
Critique for the Future
My critical analysis of the impact of the Korean Wave on the social positioning and recognition of resident Koreans in Japan should not be taken as totally rejecting positive changes. Critique is a necessary detour to further the potentiality of the emergent change and to actualize transnational dialogue through media consumption. Thus it is no less imperative to carefully attend to the sign of change as well. Pessimism of the intellect needs to be embraced by optimism of the intellect. One should not dismiss how the Korean Wave, especially the popularity of Winter Sonata, has made Japanese people understand Korea and resident Koreans much deeper than before. Let me end my arguments by looking at such promising signs in audiences’ responses to Tokyo Bayscape on the web site.
Tokyo Bayscape was discussed on the fan sites of Winter Sonata too. Apparently the fans were motivated to watch the drama by their interest in how its production was influenced by Winter Sonata, but there were also many comments on the issues of social discrimination against resident Koreans such as the historical dis/continuity, the adaptation of Japanese names and the categorization as “resident Koreans”. One person who began the discussion was so overwhelmed by the intensity of discussion that followed that she concluded that she would like to keep on studying the history of the two countries and how it had had significant impacts on resident Koreans in Japan. While, as she states, the vivacity of the discussion itself is the impact of Winter Sonata, the production and consumption interaction of the two dramas, Winter Sonata and Tokyo Bayscape positively actually urge audiences to rethink the history of Japanese colonialism and resident Koreans in Japan.
In the official site of Tokyo Bayscape that is organized by Fuji TV, there are also some insightful comments about the relationship between Winter Sonata and the drama:
Watching the drama, I came to think more about the historical relationship of Japan and South Korea. I am a Japanese who is sick of the recent Korean boom … Its craze looks so superficial and I thought that there was no consideration about history … It is not Winter Sonata but Tokyo Bayscape that roused my interest in the history of Japan and South Korea.
I am also a third generation resident Korean and attending a Korean school. To tell the truth, I have some reservations about the recent Korean boom in Japan. I am frustrated with the craze of Japanese people who do not even know about our history … But Tokyo Bayscape changed my view. We should try to let such people know about ourselves!!
The positive suggestion of the latter comment, apparently from a young female resident Korean to educate Japanese people about history and resident Koreans should not be regarded as a one-way appeal from resident Koreans. Such an attitude would easily lead to the evasion of responsibility by the majority who are inclined to effortlessly ask the minority to teach them what to do. Her comment should be read as an appeal for both Japanese and resident Koreans to work together. She might have been encouraged by the fact that the Japanese mass media produced a drama that dealt with the anguish of young resident Koreans as well as by reading various comments on the web site that are critical of the current situation in Japan. In any case, her expression of hope embodies a possibility of cultivating a new kind of alliance through the consumption of media culture.
Similarly, many resident Koreans, who sympathetically identify themselves with the protagonists, express a sense of empowerment by watching the drama:
I am myself a third generation resident Korean and had the same experience of the break-down of marriage with a Japanese man. So the drama does not look like another person’s affair … I was also distressed about who I am, but could not tell of my anguish of living as a resident Korean in Japan to my Japanese friends. But I now feel healed by the drama.
I am also a third generation resident Korean. I am really empowered by the drama that having two homelands is a nice thing. … Thanks a lot.
I have never felt it wonderful to be born a resident Korean, but the drama encourages me to straightly face what I am. Thanks to all the production staff for giving me a touching story.
While these comments make us realize the significance of the drama that deals with the hitherto disregarded issue about resident Koreans, there are also critical comments against the drama in that it fails to attend to the complexity of the lives and existence of resident Koreans by confounding South Koreans and resident Koreans and lacking historical depth.
I am ambivalent about the recent Korean boom. I am glad that many people have more interests in South Korea but they still continue to be uninformed of resident Koreans. The drama story is nice but it is still far from our reality, as it is depicted from a Japanese point of view.
I had quite a mixed feeling when I first watched this drama … My grandfather was forcibly brought to Japan during the colonial rule. There are many children and grand children of such people living in Japan. Young people would think that such old incidents are none of their business, but at least for the first generation resident Koreans it is not something of the past that is finished. The recent Korean Wave has improved the relationship between South Korea and Japan. To further mutual understanding, the history needs to be more firmly grasped.
I am sure that the drama has let many Japanese people know about resident Koreans whose existence has long been out of the front stage of Japanese society (but, let me remind you, not as foreign nationals who are living in Japan but as resident Koreans who are living traces of a tragic history). Still now, it is not easy for resident Koreans to rent an apartment. Fact is stranger than fiction. There are more intricate troubles and incidents in reality. I wish those who watch Tokyo Bayscape will become more interested in resident Koreans. And I wish more dramas will be produced that deal with the issue of resident Koreans.
The co-existence of divergent views on Tokyo Bayscape expressed by resident Koreans is a testimony of diverse social positions and experiences of resident Koreans who cannot be understood as a homogeneous ethnic group. However, either positive or negative, they are expressed by someone who has long been positioned as a second-rate citizen in Japanese society. We need to understand the complexity and the depth of the issues by seriously listening to the voices of resident Koreans who sympathetically find their anguish and hope in the drama, without effortlessly celebrating the empowering effect of the drama.
None of my good friends knows about my ethnic roots. I always fear that they would dislike me when the fact is known. I was really moved by the scene where Mika (protagonist) confesses her ethnic background and nationality to her lover. I had the same experience once. I was so moved to shed my tears … I really wish for a happy ending.
Needless to say, her tears do not simply testify to the positive impact of the Korean Wave or the moving narrative of the love story. It is a historical present of resident Koreans living with the lingering structure of social discrimination that give a special power to the drama narrative.
Answering to the wishes of many audiences, the drama has a happy ending. Yet, her wish for a happy ending is not of the same kind as that of Japanese audiences. Here lies the expectation for real life. No matter how much strongly resident Koreans are empowered by the drama and the Korean Wave in Japan, the crucial question still remains as to how to connect cultural empowerment with actual social transformation. The above-mentioned appeal of “let’s work together” by a resident Korean needs to be more actively made from the people whose social positions are more privileged ones. For this purpose, a critical examination of how the transnational media flows intersect the postcolonial and the multicultural is imperative.