The Globalization of Popular Culture: the Korean Wave in Japan

The Globalization of Popular Culture: the Korean Wave in Japan

Virginia Review of Asian Studies




The Korean wave (Hanryuin Japanese) refers to the dramatic spread of Korean pop culture across Asia through the dissemination of Korean television dramas, dance music, films, animation and games and fan clubs for Korean stars. Reports of an emerging “Korean wave” in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and other Asia countries first appeared in 1999 to much excitement and discussion not only in the pop cultural industry of Korea but also in government and academia. (Hayashi, 2005)

The immense popularity of Korean culture known asHanryuboom can be viewed as an exceptional phenomenon that refutes the past theories of cultural globalization based on the framework of cultural imperialism and cultural homogenization—which describes globalization of culture as a one-way flow of culture and ideology from the core, namely the United States, to the peripheral nations in the process of modernization. The Korean wave seems to be a manifestation of more complex and interdependent flows of culture; a case of “cultural hybridity” that has emerged in the globalization process of mixing and synthesizing the global and the local in a historical process (Robertson, 1995). According to Straubhaar, the regional formation of cultural markets assumes cultural proximity among nations in the area that share geography, language, history and culture. Empirical studies have revealed that domestic audience across nations prefer television programs that are close and proximate to them not only in language and history, but also in codes of culture, such as humor and dress, and ethnic and physical markers (Straubhaar, 1991).

When viewed from the theoretical framework of cultural proximity and cultural imperialism, it would be expected that the economic powerhouse of Asia, Japan, would spread its version of Asian modernity across the region. However, although Japanese trendy dramas in the 1980s did capture the interest of young urban audiences in Asia, this popularity was soon subsumed by the flood of Korean television dramas dominating the Asian airtimes. By 2005, Korean television dramas became integrated in the daily programming of terrestrial and satellite networks in almost all Asian countries, including Japan (Channel News Asia, 2005-04-19).

This paper examines the various cultural factors that may explain the phenomenal success of Korean television dramas in Japan through in-depth interviews of the fans of Winter Sonata orFuyu Sona,the drama series which triggered the surge of Korean wave in Japan. The interview findings have revealed that what primarily captured the interest of the core female audience of Korean television dramas (age 30-60) is their nostalgia for the past, a yearning for the emotional connection they cannot find in the westernized post-modernity culture of Japan where traditional Asian values have been lost. The findings show support the argument that the Korean wave is not an extension of western cultural imperialism but a new “Asian hybridity,” an adapted mix of Western modernity and traditional Asian values that help fill the cultural void that the Asian audiences have felt in the process of rapid modernization--an emerging post-colonial Asian cultural expression against the past domination of Americanized western modernity.

Korean Wave in the Context of Theoretical Frameworks of Globalization of Culture:

The popularity of Korean pop culture in East Asia since late 1990’s poses a theoretical anomaly which challenges the dominant theories of cultural globalization; namely those of cultural imperialism and cultural homogenization. The spread of Korean wave in Asia refutes the existing cultural imperialism model that seeks to analyze cultural flow as a one-way diffusion of cultural products from the core to the peripheral nations. According to Wallerstein’s theory of world system, “cultural products from the core countries served the interests of those dominating countries and their corporate interest in both economic and ideological ways, with the sacrifice of dependent countries.” (Wallerstein, 1974) Empirical studies in the 1970s supported this model of one-way flow of cultural and media products from Western core countries, especially the United States, to the rest of the world. (Nordenstreng & Schiller, 1979) This unilateral flow of culture is assumed to have led to homogenization or westernization of culture across nations in the process of modernization. Globalization has been analyzed in the past as an unequal flow of influence around the world in the context of modern history dominated by Western imperialism. The proponents of cultural imperialism contend that the West’s cultural, political, economic and military hegemony has forged a modern “world system” where the influence of modernity configured in Western capitalistic societies, namely the United States, pervades the world. (Wallerstein, 1974)

However, this cultural imperialism theory has been challenged by scholars like Straubhaar who asserts that “cultural-media flows among nations and cultures are actually far more complex and interdependent than cultural imperialism thesis presumed.” (Straubhaar, 1991) These scholars stress that modern experiences forced upon the non-Western countries have at the same time produced disparate forms of localized modernity. With the spread of Western modernity, differences and similarities of cultures interconnect at multiple levels with the dynamics of unequal and assymetrical global cultural encounters creating a global cultural complexity. (Hannerz, 1992) Hence, the transnational cultural flow is not a simple unilateral movement from core to periphery. The way cultural commodities flow across borders is diverse and complex and cannot be simply defined as a ‘global homogenization of culture’ driven by the powers of western capitalism. Hannerz, furthermore, defines globalization of culture in the twenty-first century as a process of ‘cultural diffusion amid polycentralism and local innovation.’ (Hannerz, 1992)

Amid this complex diffusion of culture via today’s world consumer markets, the global cultural flow is no longer a uniform replication of culture but a more complex process of adaptation where the original core culture becomes reproduced and spread with a different meaning as products of “cultural hybridity” or “glocalization.” In this process, a new culture emerges as “reciprocal borrowings and mixtures that occur at multi-levels and in different ways through historical process of cultural contacts, such as migration and trade.” (Robertson, 1995)

From this standpoint, the recent diffusion and popularity of Korean pop culture across countries in Asia since 1990s can be considered as a manifestation of cultural hybridity, a new form of “Asian modernity” that challenges the domination of western cultural imperialism. This point will be examined with the example of a Korean television drama, Winter Sonata, looking at its cultural dimensions, in particular the traditional Asian values, that led to the series’ successful reception in Japan. The traditional values portrayed in the Korean cultural hybridity may account for the reason why Korean wave was enthusiastically welcomed as a new form of Asian modernity despite the disparities across Asian countries, both in economic dimensions and in the process and experience of modernization.

Cultural Proximity—Why not Japan Wave?

Japan, a country that was considered in the past as a provider of technology with little influence on world culture, is today playing a new role in media and cultural globalization. Following the economic stagnation of the 1990s, Japan has transformed itself into a powerful popular culture-exporting country. There has been a significant increase of Japanese popular cultural products including anime and manga exported worldwide. Remarking on Japan’s increasing cultural influence in the last several years, Sankei Shimbun notes that: “The export value of Japanese animation and comics to the US market amounted to $75 million in 1996.” (Sankei Shimbun, 1996-12-14) With the phenomenal success of game software, animation, manga, Japan has come to be regarded by a large audience of young people in the United States, Europe and Asia as a country that produces “cool” animations, games and characters.

Success of Japanese Television Dramas in Asia

Japanese television industry has adapted and localized Western television format with sophisticated skills and today exports considerable number of programs to many parts of the world. In the 1990s, Japanese “trendy” dramas such as “Tokyo Love Story,” “Long Vacation,” and “Love Generation” became a huge success across Asia. The transnational popularity of Japanese “urban, trendy” dramas was seen by some scholars as an extension of Japan’s past colonization in East Asia in the context of cultural imperialism. (Barker, 1999) Other scholars attributed this success to cultural proximity based on such characteristics as language, race/ethnicity within the region. (Straubhauer, 1991) On the other hand, there are scholars like Iwabuchi who stresses that it is the “cultural odorlessness” of Japanese popular culture products seen as a Japanese adaption of Western modernization that actually appealed to the Asian audiences. (Iwabuchi, 1988)

“The cultural proximity the Hong Kong audiences feel when watching Japanese television series is based on a sense of coevality or contemporaneity stemming from shared socio-economic conditions.” (Iwabuchi, 2002) Experiences common to inhabitants of capitalist urban spaces—such as the spread of consumerist culture and lifestyles, the development of the media industry and market, the emergence of young middle-class people with considerable spending power, and the transformation of women’s status and attitudes—have all given rise to a sense of “contemporaneity.” This can be observed in the context of socio-cultural life, sexual/gender relationships, friendship and working conditions. (Iwabuchi, 2008)

In East Asia, there were many young viewers who were able to relate to the everyday happenings in the lives of young Tokyoites portrayed in Japanese television dramas and identify with their dreams and aspirations. For the Taiwanese and Hong Kong audiences in East Asia, Japanese media culture was embraced as proximate with a comfortable difference with their own cultures. Iwabuchi states that Asian viewers were able to empathize with Japanese characters because Japan is similar yet different. “The sense of realism in which sameness and difference, closeness and distance, and reality and dreams delicately mix elicits sympathy from viewers—the kind of sympathy that perhaps cannot be gained from American media cultures.” (Iwabuchi, 2008)

Japanese urban “trendy” dramas of romance among young professionals living in upscale Western apartments and dining in trendy locations in the city of Tokyo, was a visual symbol or metaphor of Western capitalist consumerist modernity. In the 1980s, it was this consumerist Western modernity that fascinated and captivated the audiences of Japanese trendy dramas in East and Southeast Asia, especially in those developing countries aspiring to live like modern Tokyoites and improve their material life.

It was these aspirational elements reflected in the Japanese localization of Western modernity that led to the favorable reception of Japanese popular culture among the young Asian audiences. Iwabuchi stresses that “the experience of cultural proximity must be viewed as something dynamic that describes what people, society and culture are becoming, not what they are.” (Iwabuchi, 2008)

However, in the late 1990s to early 2000, the popularity of Japanese television dramas was completely subsumed by the flood of Korean popular culture—films, pop music, and in particular, television dramas—that emerged in East Asia, coined in China first as Han liu or Korean wave.

The leading force of the Korean Wave is generally considered to have been television dramas. The export rate of TV dramas rose significantly after the year 2000. According to the statistics from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in 2001, South Korea exported to other countries of Asia US $ 12,356,000 worth of broadcast programs. Of these 20.1% went to Taiwan, 9.4% to Japan, 9.4% to Hong Kong, 7.9% to Singapore and 2.8 % to Vietnam. Of the total exports of popular culture products, 64.3% were dramas, consisting of 9515 programs. (Ministry of Culture and Tourism

By 2005, Korean television dramas became part of the daily programming of many terrestrial and satellite television stations in East Asia. “Turn on any television in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore or the Philippines and you are sure to see a Korean drama series or two on prime time.” (Channel News Asia, 2005-04-19) In contrast to Japanese cultural exports, Korean Wave cannot be analyzed simply as extensions of cultural imperialism in that Korea was a past colony of Japan. Moreover, modernization was experienced by Japan much earlier than Korea. Whereas in other Asian countries, Korean television dramas are generally accepted by young audiences, in the case of Japan, Winter Sonata had a strong appeal to middle-aged females who make up about 90% of the viewership of Korean dramas.

Although some argue that Korean television drama production has been influenced by Japanese dramas, there are significant differences between the two. Instead of simply copying Japanese shows, the Koreans have adapted the drama series, creating simpler plots and imbuing the stories with traditional Asian values. This unique appeal has helped Korean television series to be received more enthusiastically than the Japanese dramas especially in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.

One of the main reasons for the success of Korean television dramas is in their depiction of traditional Asian cultural values mixed with western modernity. This gave the Korean programs a broader appeal to the Asian audience than Japanese television dramas. Many viewers in Asia prefer Korean dramas to Japanese ones for their realism and because they are more easily able to relate to the characters and the world that is portrayed in the stories. The plots of Japanese TV series are more restricted in their appeal than Korean dramas, as they tend to focus on young corporate characters and their love lives. Young people’s romances also tend to be the central themes of Korean dramas, but the stories of these romances unfold in the context of the protagonists’ families, and are colored by the complexities of family ties and the powerful bonds between parents and children. This dimension, so prominent in many Asian cultures, is often lacking or peripheral in Japanese television dramas. This inclusion of the family theme thus seems to resonate more strongly with the real life experiences of the viewers in East Asia. Although the depictions of the trendy world of young Japanese people in Japanese dramas did have a wide appeal in Asia, Korean dramas seem to have achieved a greater level of realism and resonance among the Asian audiences.

This point was demonstrated clearly in the verbatim statements of the ten in-depth interviews that were conducted among female Winter Sonata fans in the age group of 30-60. The qualitative research was conducted in an attempt to determine the reasons why Korean television dramas appeal to a wide range of Asian audiences, even in Japan where local alternatives already exist.

The Background of Winter Sonata

Winter Sonata, a South Korean television drama series, was produced by the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and broadcast in South Korea in 2002. Directed by Yoon Seok-ho, a respected South Korean television drama producer director, Winter Sonata was first broadcast in Japan in 2003 on the NHK satellite channel (NHK BS2). In Japan, within only 21 months, NHK broadcast this drama series four times. The first airing was from April-September 2003 on NHK BS2 satellite channel. Here it achieved an average viewer rating of 23.1%. The second showing took place from December 15-26 on the same channel and the viewer rating was higher than the first broadcast. Strong re-run requests flooded into NHK leading to the drama making its appearance in 2004 on the NHK terrestrial channel, this time with subtitles and no cuts.

The Plot of Winter Sonata

Winter Sonata is a love story between a male character Jun-sang (played by Bae Yon-joong, who following the success of Winter Sonata became a household name in Japan) and a female character Yu-jin who fall in love (both for the first time) in high school. Jun-sang, however, has to leave for the U.S. for higher education, and prior to his departure the two arrange to meet on New Year’s Eve. Yu-jin keeps waiting but Jung-sang never appears. The next day, Yu-jin learns that Jun-sang was killed in a road accident on his way to meet her. Yu-jin is devastated. Fifteen years later, Jun-sang reappears in front of Yu-jin but now his name is Min-hyung. Jun-sang does not recognize Yu-jin because he has lost his memory in the road accident. Although Yu-jin believes that Jun-sang is dead, Min-hyung’s resemblance to Jun-sang and Yu-jin’s memory of her first love leads to the two falling in love. After facing many difficulties, in the last episode, Jun-sang and Yu-jin meet at the house that Jun-sang designed as an architect. (Min-hyung is a famous architect) By this time, Jun-sang is almost blind as a result of the second road accident. The trauma of the car accident, however, has somehow restored his lost memory. In a moving scene, Jun-sang and Yu-jin recognize each other. Their first love is realized afresh.
While this is a fairly straightforward love story on the surface, the plot of Winter Sonata is quite complex. Akin to other South Korean dramas, an intricate web of family relationships undergirds the plot, and a sense of mystery sustains the audiences’ attention. For instance, Jun-sang transferred to the high school where he meets Yu-jin with the primary intention to find his real father. At a certain moment, the drama encourages the audience to believe that Jun-sang’s father and Yu-jin’s father might be the same person and, as a consequence, the two lovers might be siblings. As the story unfolds, the web of family ties is disentangled, resulting in a sense of mystery that dramatizes the primary story of pure love between the two protagonists.