Tuesday, February 12, 2013

'Hallyu' in Japan at a fork

The Korean melodrama “Winter Sonata” sparked a frenzy for Korean cultural products after first airing on Japanese television in 2003.
                                                                                                                  / Korea Times file

It was a decade ago when the Korean melodrama ``Winter Sonata’’ first reached a Japanese audience through NHK television and triggered a massive frenzy for Korean cultural products that soon exploded across Asia and beyond.

Hallyu, or the Korean wave, proved to be more than just about soap operas as international demand for Korean films and pop music, or K-pop, has risen sharply in recent years.

Fast forward to 2013 and the picture surrounding the Korean cultural boom is entirely different. There’s an irony in that at a time when Korea celebrates the emergence of its first globally-transcendent entertainer, “Gangnam Style” rapper Psy, hallyu is facing its most serious challenge where it all started ― Japan.

The Japanese taste for Korean cultural products has been affected by the icy diplomatic relation between the two countries. Things took a turn for the worse last year when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a surprise visit to Dokdo, the tiny islets Japan argues it has a historical claim to, and demanded an apology from the Japanese Emperor over the nation’s wartime atrocities.

Lee’s actions sparked anti-Korea rallies in front of Tokyo’s Fuji TV, with protestors demanding the network yank its Korean dramas off the air.

Japanese satellite channel BS Nippon postponed its plans to air the Korean drama, ``A Man Called God,’’ which stars Song Il-gook, after the actor joined dozens of other swimmers in a relay swimming event to Dokdo in protest of the Japanese claims over the island.

And last year was the first in several years that no Korean singers were invited to participate in NHK’s Kouhaku, the famous end-of-year singing program.  

Experts say hallyu is most sensitively affected by political and historical issues especially in neighboring Asian countries.

“We researched last year how many Japanese people believed hallyu was no longer culturally relevant in their country. In March, 15 percent of the 400 people surveyed answered hallyu was already moving toward its end. That percentage jumped to 41 percent by November,’’ said Park Sung-hyun, a researcher at the Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange (KOFICE).

“We interpreted this result as to be linked with President Lee’s demand in August last year for the Japanese Emperor to apologize. It seems that historical and political issues can have detrimental effects on the consumption of Korean cultural products abroad.’’ Even Psy’s popularity was lower in Japan than in other countries in the thick of the Gangnam Style fever.

Although the strained relations between the two countries are denting the popularity of Korean cultural products in Japan, other factors are in play as well, according to Jung Duk-hyun, a pop culture critic.

 “The one-way flow of content and its quality can be reasons why hallyu isn’t doing so well in Japan. Of course, the tense diplomatic relations is by far the biggest reason,” Jung said.

He said the export of cultural content had been lopsided until now with Korean content flowing in to Japan but not much Japanese content flowing back to Korea.

“These uneven exports must have cooled down the Korean wave. Too much Korean content could have offended the Japanese when theirs didn’t affect Korea. Also, the content of hallyu is becoming less impressive than when it first began. The K-pop groups that enter the Japanese market are quite similar and they might be boring Japanese consumers,” he said.

Park also said, “K-pop is still popular but Korean TV dramas became less popular due to their same old melodramatic storyline. Despite famous celebrities like Jang Geun-suk and Yoona starring, the TV series Love Rain showed low ratings.”

For hallyu to continue flourishing overseas the quality of it must evolve and the exchange should go both ways.

“Until now, hallyu was propelled by star power. Famous entertainers led the trend. But the content was unable to support them. We need to develop something unique to Korea because from now on, content will define the path of hallyu,” said Jung.

“We’ve seen from Psy’s example that one good song can overturn the trend. Just because something doesn’t succeed in Japan doesn’t mean it can’t do well elsewhere.”

The content distribution also must go two-way.

“It’s more important to smoothly progress two-way cultural exchange between countries instead of the government taking the helm to spread Korean culture,” said Park.

With the advent of Psy on the global market, the perception about the hallyu market has changed drastically in the past year. Until now, Japan and neighboring Asian countries have been considered major hallyu consumers. Now the market has expanded to the whole world, as the song first gained popularity in North America.

But this does not mean the Japanese market can be overlooked as it is still the biggest consumer of hallyu. To continue a hallyu presence in Japan, friendly diplomatic relations seems like a prerequisite though.

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