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Hallyu resurges in Japan amid diplomatic rift

Fan base for Korean culture continues to expand on COVID-19, Netflix

By Park Ji-won

Culture is an integral part of a country's soft power, and can sometimes exercise greater influence on other people than so-called hard power, such as economic superiority and official diplomacy.

This idea is well illustrated in the recent resurgence of hallyu or the Korean wave in Japan, with Korean pop culture once again sweeping Japanese people off their feet despite diplomatic feuds between the two neighboring countries over historical and trade issues.

BTS continues to rewrite history in K-pop music, topping Japan's Oricon chart for six consecutive days with its fourth Japanese album "Map of the Soul: 7 ― The Journey" as of Wednesday by selling 564,000 copies. The top three videos on top 10 lists with Netflix Japan were Korean dramas Tuesday; "Crash Landing on You" topped the list, while "It's Okay to Not Be Okay" and "Itaewon Class" came in second and third, respectively.

Japanese media are calling the resurgence of Korean music and dramas in Japan "the third wave of hallyu."

Japan has been an epicenter for hallyu. Beginning in the late 1990s with the unprecedented popularity of the KBS TV series "Winter Sonata," the boom there has prospered in three distinct phases ― each of which evolved with striking changes in the characteristics of fandom, including the broadening of the fan base with the inclusion of new age groups.

Middle-aged housewives, who were mesmerized by actor Bae Yong-joon, were the founders of the hallyu boom in the neighboring country. The first wave (from the late 1990s to the late 2000s) was a phenomenon among the married women who were nostalgic about first love.

The second wave began in the mid-2010s with the strong showing of K-pop bands on Japan's music charts. Boy band TVXQ and girl groups SNSD and KARA were the most popular groups that broadened the hallyu fan base into teenagers and women in their 20s joining forces, as well as men who "loved" girl groups.

K-pop superstars BTS have been a game changer for the business in Japan, opening the third wave of the phenomenon. The seven-member boy band, along with girl band TWICE, has drastically expanded the hallyu fandom to almost all age groups. Addictive dramas and well-made movies such as "Crash Landing on You" and "Parasite," broadened the industry landscape. In the ongoing third phase, hallyu is no longer a subculture ― it has joined the mainstream of pop culture in Japan.

Japanese singer Yukika said the third wave of the hallyu boom in Japan is real, not media hype.

"One of my acquaintances who would be the last man I expect to enjoy Korean culture started watching Korean dramas. I was also recommended Crash Landing on You," the 27-year-old Japanese K-pop singer based in Korea, said during a phone interview with The Korea Times, Monday.

She released her first album "Seoul Lady" in Korean, or "Soul Lady" in English, Tuesday, which expresses her hopes as a dream-seeker in Seoul. Yukika moved to Korea to become a singer in 2016 after working as an actress and voice actress in Japan.

"When I was in my elementary school, people of my mother's age liked Korean dramas. When I was in high school, SNSD and Kara were very popular among my generation including me. Korean cosmetics were also very popular. I was always very interested in the industry. So when I had a chance to participate in a Korean audition program, I didn't hesitate to apply."

Yukika was one of many who moved to Seoul to become a star in the K-pop industry. For them becoming popular in the Korean market also means becoming popular internationally as many entertainment companies put Japanese trainees under their education system to help them become an entertainer who can perform in Korea and overseas as well.

Unlike fans in the first and second wave, experts say Japanese hallyu fans now stay unfazed by the fallout from Korea-Japan diplomatic tensions.

President Lee Myung-bak's Dokdo visit in 2012 poured cold water on Japanese fans, according to a Japanese journalist based in Seoul.

"Japanese Korean culture fans used to insist on remaining stuck in the past when the political and diplomatic situations between the countries deteriorated such as when then President Lee Myun-bak visited the Dokdo Islets in 2012. Korean singers and actors were not shown on TV and Japanese broadcast companies didn't air programs featuring Korean culture," reporter-turned-author Aya Narikawa told The Korea Times, Monday. The former Asahi Shimbun reporter is now a culture critic for KBS and contributes articles to Japanese media.

"But after spending years of such turbulence, Japanese fans started to care less about changes in the political situation, because these would continue anyway, and started to enjoy what they liked regardless."

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and Netflix have given a a boost to hallyu in terms of adding fans, as many people had to stay home and they watched Korean stars' shows and dramas through the international video streaming service.

"Parasite and Korean dramas released through Netflix helped broaden the hallyu fan base in Japan, and now it is a phenomenon for Japanese men, too. This is progress, considering that K-pop and dramas were "consumed" by women and younger people in the past. Now it is broadly accepted regardless of gender and generation…... Even elementary school students like K-pop stars such as BTS and TWICE," Narikawa said.

She pointed out that people are more exposed to Korean culture by consuming free online content, which is lacking in the Japanese market due to intellectual property concerns.

"More Japanese people, especially the younger generation watch Korean dramas and movies on various online media such as YouTube and they no longer watch TV broadcasts or read newspapers. They simply pick and choose what they like to consume. During a pandemic, the origin of content is meaningless. Also, the K-culture industry is actively releasing works online for free and stars also actively communicate with fans directly online, meaning Japanese people are more exposed to hallyu content."

Some said that many Japanese think Korean content is simply more entertaining than that of Japan.

"Some Japanese still prefer Japanese music and feel more intimacy with Japanese stars, but when it comes to skills and talent, it is obvious that Korean performers and Korean content are way better. Once Japanese people see well-trained K-pop bands or watch Korean dramas, they find it difficult to watch Japanese dramas or listen to Japanese music," Kyoko Hamahira, a radio DJ in Kobe, said Tuesday. She used to live in Korea and Japan commuting weekly by plane, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to stay in Japan.

Hamahira is optimistic about the future of hallyu in Japan.

"Korean culture is no longer a boom or a subculture in Japan. It is mainstream … Of course, there is a group of people who are not open-minded to Korea. They don't watch and see Korean culture. But, the third wave was so powerful this time that these radical people find it difficult to spread hatred about Korea. If Korean entertainment agencies continue to create such quality content, I think no one can stop hallyu," Hamahira said.

Source: @koreatimescokr, The Korea Times
Tags: culture, political news
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