Winter Sonata and Cultural Practices of Active Fans in Japan: Considering Middle-Aged Women as Cultural Agents

Yoshitaka Mōri. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Editor: Chua Beng Huat & Koichi Iwabuchi. Hong Kong University Press, 2008.


On the day before Christmas Eve in 2003, I visited my parents in Tokyo. My mother, 65 years old, suggested that we should watch a TV drama together, by saying cheerfully that the hero was so handsome and the story was so romantic and so on. This was my first encounter with a Korean drama, Winter Sonata.

I was a little bit confused by her suggestion, as I have not watched any TV dramas with her since I left home at the age of nineteen. To my knowledge, she has never been a big fan of TV home dramas, as she has always complained about the uncultivated taste of home dramas. Moreover, she had a strong prejudice against Korea and Korean people. This had often created an unhappy tension between her and me in the past. When I had a parttime job teaching Japanese to Korean residents in Japan during my university days, she was not happy about it and told me to quit as she was worried that my students might seduce me, though they were only primary school students! After we had a bitter argument over her prejudice, I decided never to talk about Korean issues with her again. The fact that she disliked Korea and Koreans made me sad and even embarrassed, as I had many friends who were Korean residents in Japan, zainichi 在日.

During the 2004 New Year’s holidays, I watched the whole series of Winter Sonata with her. The drama was, in fact, more interesting than I had expected. However, what interested me more was the way in which she talked, like a young girl, about the drama and the hero, Bae Yong Jun (nicknamed Yon-sama in Japan), as if she were a girl. I found that she had exchanged information about the drama through the Internet or over tea meetings with her friends. She became interested in Korean culture and even traveled to Korea. I started to wonder why Winter Sonata fascinated her so much, why Bae Yong Jun could change her ideas about Korea, and what would eventually happen to her during and after the Korean Wave? This essay is motivated by my personal experience in relation to my mother; however, I believe that our situation is exceptional.

Puzzled by the prevailing Korean Wave in Japan, I started to ponder why middle-aged women like my mother were so attracted to this particular Korean melodrama, Winter Sonata. The following argument is based on interview research with twenty female fans, which I conducted in August and September 2004 at the peak of the Winter Sonata phenomenon. The face-to-face, unstructured interviews took mostly one or two hours. Three group interviews were also organized. Throughout the period, ideas were exchanged on the Internet after the interviews. In this essay, I will not ask why Winter Sonata became so popular in Japan, as the mainstream media including TV, newspapers and popular journals have already discussed this often in a generalized way. I will ask, instead, how Winter Sonata was being watched and talked about by the individual fans. This is because I want to avoid the risk of overgeneralizing individual fans’ activities, and would rather look at the differences among them.

The Korean Wave and Winter Sonata Phenomenon in Japan

Let me start by summarizing what the Korean Wave has been like in Japan and try to situate the Winter Sonata phenomenon within a Japanese context before entering into detail examination. There are different levels of definition of the Korean Wave in Japan. It is roughly defined as a cultural and social phenomenon in which Japan accepts Korean contemporary popular culture. Called either Kanryu or Hanryu 韓流 in Japanese, it initially appeared around 2004, and is still prevalent today (though it may have peaked already). Bae Yong Jun, Lee Byung Hun, Won Bin and Jang Dong Gun were the most successful Korean actors, and were called ‘the Big Four of the Korean Wave’, Hanryu Shitennoh (韓流四仧壬). The Korean Wave often includes the popularity of Korean films, although some of them, such as Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy and Kim Ki Duk’s Bad Guy succeeded not only as part of the Korean Wave, but as experimental films that attracted enthusiasts who are always seeking cutting-edge films. It may also include Korean contemporary music, such as Paik Yongha, Rain (Pi) and BoA. However, their impact was relatively limited in the Japanese market. Moreover, BoA is likely to be seen as a Japanese pop star as she often sings in Japanese, and an ‘Asian’ star rather than as a Korean. Consequently, Korean music (K-Pop) is not always understood as part of the Korean Wave in the Japanese context. The Korean Wave in Japan is primarily the popular movement of Korean TV dramas. Therefore, Winter Sonata should definitely be located at the center of the Korean Wave.

It should be noted that Winter Sonata was not the first drama that was introduced into Japan, though it might be the first mega-hit Korean drama in the Japanese market. The Korean Wave was not the first entry of Korean culture into Japan either. It needs to be situated in the history of the cultural exchange in Japan. Looking back, it was during the 1988 Seoul Olympics that the image of Korea changed dramatically in Japan. It created a new representation of Korea, a more developed and urbanized one than was previously supposed in Japan. But it was not until the late 1990s that mutual exchanges in the field of popular culture were clearly activated. The delay was because while colonial memories had been kept alive in Korea, Japanese politician’s repeated blunders over issues that arise from the memories of the period, often severely damaged diplomatic relations. In addition, a Korean cultural policy that banned the import of Japanese popular culture made it difficult to establish mutual understanding through cultural exchanges during the 1990s. The 2002 FIFA World Cup was definitely a crucial turning point. Although both countries had initially reluctantly accepted co-hosting, it eventually resulted in creating unexpected mutual cheering for each national team and created a friendly atmosphere, particularly among young people. The new cultural exchange was also accelerated by the gradual abolition of the Korean government’s policy of banning Japanese popular culture imports.

In the early stage of the Korean Wave, films had been more successfully promoted than TV dramas: Shiri was a moderate hit in 2000, followed by JSA in 2001, My Sassy Girl in 2003, and by SILMIDO in 2004. All the films gained their own popularity as part of the ‘Korean New Wave’ cinema. An increase in popularity of Korean culture and South Korea as a tourist destination could also be noticed in Japan. Kusanagi Tsuyosi, a member of the hugely popular Japanese idol group SMAP, learned Korean and introduced Korean culture on his TV programs in a rather oblique way. As for TV dramas, in 2002, a Japan-Korea collaborative drama Friends, featuring Fukada Kyoko and Won Bin was broadcasted by TBS in Japan and achieved a certain degree of popularity and received a lot of attention mainly because it was one of the first ‘collaborative’ effort; the program was not particularly impressive in terms of ratings. Since then, some Korean dramas were shown mainly by BS (Satellite TV); Autumn in My Heart, Kashikogi, A Wish Upon a Star, All about Eve, but it is difficult to say that they were widely supported as they were welcomed only by a small number of avid fans of Korean culture. Nevertheless, taking films and TV drama together, it could be said that there had already been a pro-Korea sentiment before the Winter Sonata phenomenon began.

Winter Sonata was first broadcasted at 10 pm every Thursday from April 2003 by NHK BS. The average audience rate was about 1.1%. This was not that bad as it was on satellite, but the viewership was limited due to the nature of the satellite broadcasting. However, it rose gradually in popularity by word of mouth and in the end, NHK received considerable inquiries about re-broadcasting. Following popular requests that were sent to the station, NHK BS decided to air the drama again during the 2004 New Year week. The DVD was also released and available at rental shops before the rebroadcast. The media had slowly started to report the start of Winter Sonata ‘s popularity by that time.

A critical moment in the Winter Sonata phenomenon came on 3 April 2004. On that day Bae Yong Jun arrived at Tokyo International airport. Five thousand fans, mostly middle-age women, gathered to welcome him. This was exceptional, considering that five hundred fans came to the airport when footballer David Beckham arrived in Japan. This particular news shocked the Japanese people and the Winter Sonata and Yon-sama phenomenon drew great attention as a new boom. In the same month, NHK started to terrestrially broadcast the drama at 11.30 pm and gained more than 20% of the audience rating at the highest and about 15% on average. Considering that it was aired around midnight and that average audience ratings were about 10% even during prime time (7 pm-10 pm), the rating was incredibly high. The drama series also contributed financially to NHK which earned about 3,500 million yen ($3.5 million) from Winter Sonata related products. It also sold 330,000 sets of DVDs and 1,220,000 copies of a novelized book. In the end of 2004, NHK broadcasted a complete, original director’s-cut version of Winter Sonata again. This was the first subtitled version on TV broadcasting which had been dubbed in Japan.

Winter Sonata is unique in the history of Japanese culture’s relationship with Korea in three senses. Firstly, it has played a crucial role in reconsidering the cultural relationship between Korea and Japan. It may be true that the relationship was getting closer over the 1990s because of the success of the FIFA Korea-Japan World Cup, and increasing popularity of Korean films and other popular culture among young women, such as travel and food. But it was the mega hit of Winter Sonata and the subsequent Yon-sama phenomenon that changed a stereotypical image of Korean people and culture in Japan in an unprecedented way. This seemingly took place out of the blue. It was something that most of those who had been sincerely involved in Korea-Japan cultural exchange were unable to fully understand; some even warned that this may be merely superficial and ephemeral. Of course, it is still too early to conclude what the lasting effects of Winter Sonata would be, but I would like to take this phenomenon positively rather than critically, as it definitely made a crucial change in the cultural field.

Secondly, Winter Sonata is important because it made middle-aged women, roughly between 30 and 70 years old, visible as its audience. They have often been marginalized and invisible as cultural practitioners in both journalism and academia. Academic studies of popular culture have looked at youth culture, subculture, girls’ culture, ethnic culture and working class culture, but have marginalized and/or ignored middle-aged women. The Yonsama phenomenon and its relation to middle-aged women has been reported in the mainstream media seriously, as well as contemptuously, almost everyday. For instance, on 29 August 2004, some TV chat shows reported pejoratively that fans organized birthday parties in different Korean BBQ restaurants in Tokyo to celebrate Yon-sama ‘s birthday. This is one of the examples that show how the media deal with Winter Sonata and the Yon-sama phenomenon, focusing on fans that were sometimes described merely as a stupid audience. On the other hand, there are other media which look at middle-aged women in a more sympathetic way. A weekly journal AERA analyzed more seriously what was happening to middle-aged women through detailed research and concluded that Winter Sonata provided a new sensation to women who were not happy in Japanese patriarchal society. In any case, the drama made middle-aged women a central topic in popular television culture for the first time.

The third issue is related to the second one. The Winter Sonata phenomenon goes beyond just watching a TV drama. It created more social and cultural practices in its fans’ everyday lives. As we will see, many fans have started to show a general interest in Korean culture, to organize fan meetings, to participate in Winter Sonata tours in Korea, and even start studying Korean language and culture. Some Japanese fans even suggested ” Winter Sonata has changed my life!” It may sound exaggerated, but when one interviews the fans, one finds them to genuinely believe so. This broad influence on their life is a characteristic feature of the impact of this drama. This is hardly surprising. Studies of TV drama fan culture in the US and the UK consistently suggest that fans are neither merely passive nor poor audiences who are manipulated by the media industry, but complex agents who actively decode and re-interpret media products and eventually create their own culture by themselves.

In the mainstream media, the middle-age women Winter Sonata fans are often seen as passive, manipulated and poor ‘consumers’. This pejorative perception is often uncritically reproduced both in academia and in the circle of critical leftist intellectuals. I would suggest that, on the contrary, once their activities are examined in detail, a lot of complicated and interesting cultural, social and even political possibilities can be discerned. Winter Sonata has given me a good opportunity to discover the importance of middle-aged women as active cultural agents. My research interest is fandom of active audiences and the cultural and political potential within it.

How Do Audiences Watch Winter Sonata?

To examine how audiences watch Winter Sonata, I should reiterate that due to the limited number of fans interviewed, I do not intend to generalize the activities of all fans. It has to be emphasized that ways of watching differ between interviewees of different genders, ethnicities, ages and cultural backgrounds. For instance, as I interviewed those who thought of themselves as Winter Sonata ‘maniac’ fans, I found considerable differences in the extent to which they are ‘fans’ in the fandom. The relationships between Bae Yong Jun, Winter Sonata, and Korean culture are complicated in various ways. Some are very crazy about Bae Yong Jun, some love only Lee Min Hyung (a character played by Bae in Winter Sonata) but do not like Bae very much, others only like Winter Sonata. Generally speaking, younger fans in their twenties were more interested in Korean culture than Winter Sonata, while older fans favored exclusively Winter Sonata. As above, I must emphasize again that we should not over-generalize their tendencies.

I would like to point to three characteristic features that I have found through my interviews: repetitive ways of watching, the intertextuality of Winter Sonata, and active fans as performers. I would also like to highlight the complicated relationship between the experience of Winter Sonata and postcolonial memories expressed in the interviews.

Repetitive Watching

It is surprising that most interviewees repeatedly watch Winter Sonata either by recording it on video or by buying DVD sets. Some of them have watched it more than ten times, while the others did so at least a couple of times. As the series consists of twenty 60-minute episodes, it takes twenty hours to watch the whole story. There were two interviewees who did not remember how many times they had watched it because they are continually watching it in an almost addictive way.

Ms A (60+) had watched the drama twelve times. She began to watch it when she was asked to record it for her friend. She did not know what it was like, but once she watched it, she quickly got ‘crazy’ about it. She started to make her own recordings and watched them almost everyday. She watched Winter Sonata from the beginning to the end and then from the beginning again. When I asked if she watched other dramas or programs, she answered that she wanted to watch Winter Sonata again and again, rather than to watch a different one. Ms A is not an exception. I guess that those who did not remember how many times they had watched it might have watched it more than ten times.

Not only housewives, full-time workers also watch it repetitively. Ms C (40+) watched the series at the end of 2003 and then bought the DVD set. She did not know how often she watched it but do so regularly after she came home from work. It is interesting that she would play the DVD even when the drama was broadcast on NHK, because she did not like the dubbed version on the NHK broadcast. However, after enjoying the subtitled DVD version, she would switch to NHK in time to watch the TV broadcast of the original program — she could not ignore it even if she did not like the dubbed voices.

Winter Sonata may be seen as having the same form and style as other melodramas, but people’s way of watching it is quite different. Ordinary dramas are consumed only once or twice at most while repetitive watching was a characteristic feature of Winter Sonata. Similar patterns of repetitive watching can possibly be found among animation or cult sci-fi fans, known as otaku, a Japanese term which means a nerdy maniac who is crazy about comics, animation, video games and computer media entertainment. While most audiences of animation or sci-fi programs are young or recently young males, most of Winter Sonata ‘s audiences are female and middle-aged. One may say that Winter Sonata ‘s audiences were the first middle-aged female group who had practiced an otaku -styled way of watching it.

In fact, most of them said that it was the first time that they had watched a TV program in such a repetitive and even addictive way. But there were three interviewees who said that they had done this once before, when they were in their twenties. These three were fanatical supporters of the Japanese idol group SMAP. It should also be pointed out that most of Winter Sonata fans used be big fans of other entertainers, like Elvis Presley, James Dean, or Queen. It would therefore be wrong to assume that they had been culturally poor before the Winter Sonata phenomenon. On the contrary, the different cultural practices had given way to an otaku style of watching, after ‘discovering’ Winter Sonata. As we will see, the practice of watching Winter Sonata is not a passive exercise but a very active one.

As part of their active consumption practices, most interviewees, particularly the younger ones, use media technology adeptly to gather information. For example, a university student, Ms G, watched Korean dramas by internet-streaming services of Korean TV stations such as KNS, MBC and SBS. Because her Korean was not good enough, as she had only just started to learn the language, she downloaded Korean drama scenarios and translated them into Japanese by using an OCN translation service on the Internet. Likewise, most interviewees often use the Internet in different ways to get information on Korean dramas because information was limited in the mainstream media. Apart from the Internet, four out of twenty interviewees purchased a region-free DVD player to watch Korean dramas because Japanese players do not play Korean DVDs, though a region-free DVD player is very difficult to find. This use of new technology is also a good example of the similarity between these middle-aged women’s way of enjoying the drama and otaku culture.

Intertextuality of Winter Sonata

The obvious question is, why do fans repeatedly watch Winter Sonata? Significantly, some fans did not like the drama at the beginning. Two interviewees said that they gave up watching during the first episode. Ms D (40+) watched the first couple of episodes but gave up following the series because she found it somehow ‘vague’, and not well-made. She started watching it again after one of her friends, returning from China, told her that the drama was popular in Shanghai. Ms C could not watch through the first episode in April 2003, because she found it strange that actors and actresses spoke Korean even though they appeared very Japanese, and because she thought that the filming technology was not good enough. By the end of the year, she started to watch it and was gradually carried away by it. The same is true in the ‘Bae Yong Jun syndrome’. For instance, Ms E (30+) did not think that Bae was attractive at first sight. She thought that he was chubby and not her type. But as she got into the drama, she slowly came to like Bae.

These examples show the process through which the audiences are gradually attracted to Winter Sonata. Most interviewees suggested they constantly discovered something new while watching it. Ms. A pointed out that the most attractive point was that Winter Sonata made her understand the cultural background to the drama, sometimes by reading mail fanzines circulated through the Internet. Apparently, ‘discoveries’ were made not only by watching the drama, but also by reading magazines, by surfing websites, and by discussing in meetings. Many agreed with Ms A, and said that they were learning about Korean culture while enjoying the drama. Ms. F (40+) found it intriguing to see cultural differences in the way of having dinner, or even sitting together. Ms. C was interested in the changing way of calling characters’ names according to the degree of intimacy. These nuanced changes in address were not translated into Japanese because Japanese has only a couple of words san, chan and kun as a title. She said that she discovered the nuances as she watched a subtitled version and could hear the Korean. During group interviews, once someone started to talk about their discoveries, others responded with their own, and eventually the overall discussion continued with enthusiasm, sometimes for more than an hour. The space for interview was often so transformed into an opportunity for the women to exchange information.

How can we understand this particular way of watching the drama? A Japanese cultural critic, Otsuka Eiji, suggested that in the late 1980s, children who were eagerly collecting hundreds of stickers from the packets of Bikkuriman chocolate wafers (a huge phenomenon in Japan then), were not only consuming the fragmented stickers, but also creating, editing and then consuming a ‘big narrative’, what otaku called sekaikan (world view) through the practice of collecting. I would argue that fans of Winter Sonata also actively produce their own narratives even if at a first glance they were seen to be passively consuming the drama. They associated the story of Winter Sonata with other Korean stories, culture, history and even their personal experiences and memories by reading and watching other media. Their narratives were very much varied. The narrative’s productivity and re-productivity was a key for understanding the repetitive practices of watching and thus the distinctive success of Winter Sonata. It added addictive attraction to the drama. What Otsuka called sekaikan may be seen as ways of understanding Korean culture and history, but they are, however, never singular but plural because they are being produced through the practices of different audiences.

Fans as Performers, Not as Consumers

The Japanese mainstream media depicts the stereotype of a Winter Sonata fan as a rich, middle-aged (fifty-something) housewife who obsessively and even shamelessly loves Bae Yong Jun, goes wherever Yon-sama appears, and buys anything related to Winter Sonata. My question is how the fans themselves see this often over-exaggerated and pejorative stereotypical media image of the fans of Winter Sonata?

In contrast to the media representation, I found almost all the fans whom I interviewed to be, in fact, very frugal. Certainly most had Winter Sonata DVDs but only full-time workers bought the DVDs themselves, while housewives and part-time workers had them only because their husbands or relatives bought it for them. This was also the case with the Winter Sonata tour in Korea. Virtually all who went on the tour were full-time workers. Some of them traveled with their daughters as part of a family outing. It was clear that they spent money only with agreement from their families, in particular their husbands. Even full-time workers just spent reasonable amounts of money, compared to the expenses of men on alcohol, cars, and golf.

Some, particularly young interviewees, disliked the stereotyping. For instance, Ms G, who likes Korean dramas in general rather than just Winter Sonata, said “Well, they [the middle-age fans] are not in our generation. I am impressed by how much they spend on Winter Sonata, but I am totally different from them. I do not want to be seen in the same way as they are”. Ms H (40+) told me, “I do not understand why they put Bae’s poster on the wall. I have never done it.” However, it should also be noted that more than half of the interviewees had more sympathy with stereotypical fans than was originally expected. For example, Ms E and Ms K (20+), whom I interviewed together, said that they would call the fans in the media their ‘sisters’! In fact, Ms E, who was fortunate to get a press pass as she works in the film industry, went to Tokyo to attend a press meeting with Bae Yong Jun. Another said, “We do not do what the maniac fans are doing in the media, but we do understand why they do it”. However, their sympathy did not mean that they totally identify with the way fans were represented in the media. Even Ms E told me that she was scared of her ‘sisters’ when too many ‘sisters’ turned up as a mob, and that they seemed to believe that all women should love Bae Yong Jun. How should we understand this complicated relationship between fandom and the representation of fandom in the media?

Ms D’s self-analysis may be suggestive. She said that fans loved not only Winter Sonata, but also themselves as they uncritically love Winter Sonata. According to her, fans loved themselves because they were like someone who can be ‘crazy’ with a pure, romantic love story even when they are middle-aged. She said that fans want to be on the news; they are happy to hear, for instance, their husband sighing ‘my wife is crazy about Winter Sonata ‘ or their daughter complaining ‘my mum loves Bae Yong Jun too much’. In the same vein, Ms C said that she enjoyed it when she asked herself what a seemingly stupid thing she was doing in her midlife. This complicated sentiment was also seen in group interviews when they talked both proudly and bashfully about what kind of ‘stupid’ things they were doing, for example, letting others listen to Winter Sonata ‘s theme music set as their mobile telephone ringtone. This combination of ‘pride’ and ‘bashfulness’ was one of the characteristic features shared among the fans. When I asked Ms D if it meant that the fans were manipulated by the media, she replied, “No, no, we believe that it is ‘we’ who manipulate the media!” In fact they were ‘performing’ as fans, as if they were actresses. Pretended ‘stupidity’ was a performance, a game.

It should be added that Ms D’s reply contained an intellectual sense of humor. It should also be noted that most fans believe that the Winter Sonata phenomenon was created by the fans, not by the media. As we have seen, the fans gather and exchange information through independent media, especially the Internet. They are critical of the mainstream media as they think that the latter only report what the fans already know. This imbalance between what the media see in the fandom and what the fans see in the media is characteristically interesting in the phenomenon. I would argue that we should see the fans as performers, not merely as consumers. While they are fans, they also perform as fans, acting as fans.

Winter Sonata and Memories of Colonialism

Finally, I would like to look at the way in which the image of Korea and Korean people in the fans’ minds has changed through watching Winter Sonata. In the interviews, I found that the most common comment is that Korea had become closer to them. For example, for many, Korea was a ‘close but far’ chikaku te toi country, a conventional Japanese description of Korea. Although the phrase ‘close but far’ was repeatedly heard, there were very different nuances in the expression, when examined in detail.

For example, Ms I, a middle-aged woman in her fifties, said that she had not learned anything about Korea before. She reluctantly said that women in her generation knew only a few things about the Korean War and about the 38th Parallel North, because school did not teach anything about contemporary Korea. As she had not been interested in any other aspects of Korean culture, such as football in the FIFA world cup, watching Winter Sonata was truly her first contact with Korea. Ms L (50+), a big fan of Bae Yong Jun who both proudly and bashfully showed me her Winter Sonata mobile phone strap, told me that she knew almost nothing about Korea. She had believed that all Korean women still wear Korean traditional dress even today, until she watched Winter Sonata. What surprised her most was that Koreans live their lives in the same way as the Japanese do. She said that she was also impressed by the development of technology, such as mobile phones. By and large, middle-aged women in their fifties have a sense that they have not learned about Korea in the existing education system. They also feel that their access to Korean cultural has been very limited.

In contrast, interviewees in their thirties and forties already knew about Korea to some extent, while they also think Winter Sonata had dramatically changed their image of Korea. Ms M (30+) had Korean resident friends in Japan, zainichi, when she was a child. She traveled to Korea with her professor when she was a university student. What she felt in that trip was that Koreans were ‘rough’, and their fashions were ten years older than the Japanese. She also had good relationships with Korean friends when she studied in Mexico. Now she realized that she likes Korea and its culture, in particular the fashionable style of the characters in Winter Sonata. Ms H (40+) thought that she knew Korea, as she had been taking care of Korean students in a Japanese university as part of her work. They were always polite and kind, as were the characters in Winter Sonata. However, the drama had changed her impression of Korea, too. She certainly recognized through the drama that the Koreans live their lives in completely the same way as the Japanese do. Until the drama, she thought Korea remained behind Japan. She had started to study the Korean language to know more about Korea.

It is difficult to summarize how the fans thought and think about Korea before and after the drama as I had the impression that they found it difficult to talk about how they felt about Korea before Winter Sonata. This might be because of the lack of language of how to speak about Korea in Japan. Generally there have been two ‘official’ ways of speaking. The first is a comparatively liberal one which says that Japanese need to understand colonial history properly, to apologize sincerely for Japan’s past and to establish a new relationship with Korea. This is an official postwar discourse shared by liberal and even leftists, often in education institutions. I believe that though most of us academics share this perception, it sometimes sounds too moralistic and even authoritarian. The other is an exclusively patriotic, nationalist discourse often expressed as honne, a hidden but real consciousness. It justifies Japan’s colonial past and never shows any regret or apology. This discourse has been more or less repressed in public, therefore ironically it sometimes sounds ‘radical’, so it attracts followers, particularly young people. Increasingly, these nationalist sentiments are seeping into even more casual conversations and articulations.

I would argue that the fans did not like to speak about their perceptions of Korea before they watched Winter Sonata, because they thought that these two discourses were not only too official and too authoritarian, but too superficial, merely produced from a male governmental perspective. To express their own ideas from their heart, they could not choose either of the two official discourses. Winter Sonata is important because it has provided for them a set of new, personalized and realistic vocabulary. I would like to introduce two examples.

Ms A (60+) said to me in the interview:

As I grew up in Omura city, where a camp for illegal migrants was located, I had a certain image of Koreans. They often had quarrelling with each other. They were always loud. Honestly, I looked down on them. But Yon-sama changed everything. I have learned about Korea through Winter Sonata and now understand that a large part of Japanese culture came from Korea. This reminded me that I was born in Manchuria [during Japanese colonial time] where my father worked.

It is interesting to see how she associated Winter Sonata with her own personal experience during the war. She had her own stereotypical image of Koreans, based on her childhood experiences in Japan. Through watching the drama, she re-organized and re-constructed her personal history including her colonial experience.

Ms C (40+), who participated in the Winter Sonata tour in Korea, said to me:

Korea was very far from me. I thought that they just copied us. I was only thinking what we could give to them, but I thought there was nothing I could receive from them. After watching Winter Sonata, Korea got closer, but a strong gap still exists: it is in our history. We can easily say that we love Yon-sama, we love Korea, but they cannot. I have Korean Japanese friends and Korean American ones, but not real Korean friends. I was confused when I saw, during my tour, what the Japanese military authority did in Korea. But now I believe that women like me can be a good breakthrough, by loving Korean dramas and actors, even if Korean people may be surprised at us.

Ms C, unlike Ms A, does not have any memory concerning the war as she was too young to experience it. Being a big fan of American culture before Winter Sonata, she was not interested in Asian culture at all. But as she was disappointed with the US, in particular after the Iraq War of 2005, she turned her eyes to Asia. During her tour, she found a history of more hardship than friendship between Japanese and Koreans. This made her reconsider how she should understand history, and eventually led her to believe that her fandom is necessary to overcome it.

I found it very intriguing to see the way in which these women spoke about Korea in their personalized vocabularies. They were persuasive, although different from the two official discourses, liberal or nationalist. The emergent vocabulary provided by the Winter Sonata phenomenon opens up the political potential of re-constructing and understanding an old and new Korea-Japan relationship in different ways.


It is still too early to evaluate what the Winter Sonata phenomenon and the Korean Wave means. It is difficult to judge whether Winter Sonata will produce better political relations between Korea and Japan. However, it is clear that a significant number of middle-aged women, who have often been marginalized and even looked down upon as merely media consumers, have started a variety of interesting cultural practices after the phenomenon.

I would like to end the chapter with an experience that I had during my research. After the publication of the book, Nisshiki Hanryu (Japanese-Style Korean Wave), which I edited, I was sometimes asked to give talks at symposiums. In January 2005, I was invited to speak on the Korean Wave in Akita prefecture by a local civil organization. When I discussed the matter with them, I learned that the organization was a women’s support group for female immigrants in Akita. I wondered why they wanted to know about the Korean Wave and Winter Sonata?

They answered that in Akita, there are many new brides from other Asian countries, in particular from China. These brides are one of the effects of globalization. The widening gap between metropolises and rural areas, north and south, and advanced countries and developing countries promotes the mobility and fluidity of labor forces at a global level. Even the family, which used to be regarded as a basic unit of community and as the foundation of a nation-state, is getting fragmented by the effects of globalization. National boundaries are gradually invading even into private spheres such as the family.

In Akita, an agricultural prefecture, as in all rural areas, finding Japanese brides is increasingly difficult because farming is hard work and men are getting old. As a result, some Japanese farmers chose to find brides from other Asian countries, especially from poor rural areas. These women came expecting a better life in Japan, but in reality they are often trouble, disillusioned with rural life and isolated from the local community due to language problems and cultural gaps. Winter Sonata and other Korean dramas are one entertainment which they can enjoy at home. The women’s organization in question supports language education for ‘Asian brides’ and finds Korean dramas a good communication tool, because some of them have both Japanese and Chinese subtitles. This is why they invited me as part of the educational program.

It is interesting that Japanese and Chinese housewives share an experience of watching the same program and utilize it to establish new relationships among themselves. It can be said that the local organization, most of whose members are housewives, is intervening in their everyday practices of culture. Watching Korean dramas at home is not political in a traditional sense. It may be a small but definitely an important step which we should continue to be concerned about. How can we perform new transnational identities, through enjoying transnational cultural production and consumption?

Today, neo-liberal and post-Fordist modes of production in the late capitalist society are now trying to incorporate all people, including women workers, housewives, students and even children, as flexible and mobile labor force, within the globalizing market. In order to respond to this shift, an urgent task is to find different ways of understanding politics and of organizing people. Popular culture may not be an answer, but it helps us to rethink a new way of understanding politics for those who have been historically marginalized in politics. Considering the Winter Sonata phenomenon definitely enables us to examine the transnational potential of middle-aged women’s politics in the age of globalization.