“Japanese wave” set off in South Korea before “Korean wave”

I think the word for “Korean wave”, hallyu, started to be used in Japan in around 2003, when “Winter Sonata” became very popular.

Hallyu originated not from Japanese or Korean but Chinese, actually. Hallyu in Chinese means something like “South Korea’s.” I believe Japan was the first to use hallyu for the Korean boom.

It is believed in Japan that Korean TV dramas became popular suddenly, but South Korea had background knowledge about Japanese culture. The background is the so-called policy of Japanese cultural deregulation started in 1998 by President Kim Daejung.

In South Korea before then, Japanese culture was taboo owing to the history of South Korea’s colonization by Japan.

However, young people longed for Japanese popular culture and read its magazines in secret. When I was in my girlhood in South Korea, I read Japanese magazines on fashion and entertainment, holding admiration for Japan.

Japanese popular culture, regarded as an underground hobby, was released and widespread in South Korean society with some bumps and detours.

For example, the movie “Love Letter” released in 1999 in South Korea scored a big hit becoming something of a national movie. The lines in the movie became buzzwords, which comedians still feature in variety shows on TV.

There are perhaps many people who remember that South Korean visitors crowded into Otaru in which the film was set.

A boom started in Japanese literature. Murakami Haruki, Yoshimoto Banana, and Higashino Keigo are especially well known as the three major writers from Japan. Their works always rank in the best sellers even now.

In addition, idol singers of Japan and manga were widely appreciated. Surprisingly, South Korea had created the word for “Japanese wave”, illyu(1).

So, a wise decision in some respects by President Kim Daejung allowed his people to officially admire Japanese popular culture, which they had to enjoy secretly until then. That sparked the illyu boom in South Korean society.

The popular culture of South Korea was backed by the illyu boom in its development and then started to be accepted by Japan.

K-pop is at the center of the 4th Korean wave

Meanwhile, it appears that the largest reason Japan embraced South Korea was the 2002 FIFA Korea/Japan World Cup. People in Japan rooted for South Korea’s national team. I feel that this probably helped Japanese people open up a sense of intimacy with and interest in South Korea.

I was asked by a Japanese close friend “Do you have a TV set in your house?” around the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. That was shocking for me.

She does not have a sense of discrimination against South Korea because she made friends with me, a South Korean. However, she had a subconscious prejudice that my country lagged behind. This might have been many Japanese peoples’ image of South Korea back then.

The Policy of the Japanese cultural deregulation in 1998 and the 2002 FIFA Korea/Japan World Cup caused significant changes.

“Winter Sonata” in 2003 helped kickstart the first Korean boom. “Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace)” also found success in 2005, when TV dramas mainly attracted women and men in their middle and old age. At the same time, BoA and TOHOSHINKI (TVXQ!) gained popularity. Korean music started to spread among young people.

In 2011, TOHOSHINKI (TVXQ!), GIRLS’ GENERATION, and KARA appeared in Kohaku Uta Gassen, the annual singing contest on New Year’s Eve in Japan. That was the second boom. Since then, K-pop has been welcomed by the younger generation and has took root in Japan.

Around 2017, Shin-Okubo Korea Town was often featured by mass media and drew public attention. In the third Korean boom, not only entertainment but food and cosmetics earned popularity.

Now, the fourth boom is surging. K-pop is leading the surge. For the younger generation, these days, K-pop has become a culture which they not only listen to but dance to.

For instance, Meiji University has a dancing circle covering K-pop, which is so popular that 150 students want to join the club despite its fixed number of 30.

Contests among such dancing groups belonging to universities in Tokyo are held yearly and effervesce with great enthusiasm. Many spectators cannot enter the site although they want to watch the performances.

Do they just consume Korean entertainment? No, they don’t!

For example, the number of students taking my class in Korean as their second language has increased. They take a cue from K-pop and try to learn the history and traditional culture of Korea with interest.

When I gave students in my seminar a presentation work about their interest in Korea, some of them studied the Joseon Dynasty period and others did Goryeo, Goguryeo, and Silla earlier than that. It is the same as non-Japanese being interested in and studying the Tumulus period. I have been really surprised at this.

New Japan-Korea relations opened by the younger generation

It seems that the younger generation these days in Japan, Korea, and the West have similar sensitivities. Music which is a hit in Korea also becomes a hit in Japan. Music which becomes a hit in Japan does so in Europe and the United States as well. It might be said that real globalization is progressing among the younger generation to some extent.

I believe such hobbies help people to learn about each other’s history and traditional culture with interest, which promotes true mutual understanding.

For example, there are many western people who are attracted to manga first and then visit Japan, expanding their interest to the kimono and katana samurai sword. In the same way, there are many Japanese people who like K-pop first and then visit South Korea, enjoying traditional Korean clothing, hanbok, and traditional Korean food.

That is, things people appreciate, like popular culture or entertainment, have no border in our time. Rather the things bring about interest in and respect for the country.

So, it is important that nations and elders should not force them to become friendly or not.

If people adopt things they appreciate, mutual communication is naturally raised. The things nations force might change depending on the circumstances surrounding them or the decisions they made at that moment. However, naturally generated mutual communication and understanding will definitely gain a foothold.

The current fourth Korean boom shows something interesting. It is a drama called “Crash Landing on You” webcasted to enjoy popularity. This is the story of a daughter of a South Korean financial conglomerate who made an emergency landing in North Korea due to a paraglider accident and the North Korean commissioned officer who helped her.

I myself indeed changed my image of North Korea thanks to this drama.

In South Korea, the supreme leader of North Korea has an animal face in cartoons, and starvation and food shortages in the country are often reported by the press. I wonder whether people are really living there.

It may be a similar situation as how Japanese people in the 1980s thought South Koreans did not have a TV set at home. “Winter Sonata” and K-pop have changed the image.

I expect “Crash Landing on You“ to change our and Japanese people’s image of North Korea in the same way.

When today’s younger generation were born, the Korean and Japanese booms already existed, so they are the generation of the Japan-Korea boom. This generation does not have any negative preconceptions and subconscious prejudices. Nations and elders try to plant such concepts in them.

Authorities and seniors should not stand in juniors’ way. Young people who come into contact with different cultures without preconceptions will build new relations between Japan and Korea.

Experiencing diverse history, European countries established the EU and came to have a sense of closeness to each other. I wonder why Japan and Korea can not do the same.

I can’t help thinking what the pressure is that blocks this movement. At least it is not something from the younger generation.

Note (1) : Regarding the expression ‘illyu’, reference was made to “Hallyu (Korean Wave)” and “Illyu (Japanese Wave)”: Opening the New Era of Korea-Japan Relations (KWON Yongseok, NHK Publishing, 2010)

* The information contained herein is current as of July 2021.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
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