The Korean wave (hallyu) began with the efforts by private groups and the government to promote Korean culture abroad. When Korean TV drama programming was offered to Southeast Asia at low rates, Asian viewers began to develop an interest in Korea's popular culture. The presence and popularity of Korean popular culture throughout most of the Asian region has done much to boost Korea's reputation as a cultural exporter as well as an advanced economy.
Crest of the Korean Wave: 'Winter Sonata'
As Korean television dramas were increasingly aired in Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, Korean actors and actresses became ever more popular. In the second half of the 1990s, Kim Nam-ju, Jang Dong-gun, and An Jae-wook enjoyed superstar popularity, especially among Vietnamese audiences. Yet, the Korean wave hardly created a ripple in the world of Korean pop culture. But as Korean TV dramas gained popularity in Taiwan, the potential for their commercialization became more apparent. All of Taiwan's major broadcasters, including GTV, competed fiercely to import and televise TV dramas from Korea, transforming TV drama series into a hot Korean export.
Thereafter, the world of Korean pop culture was forced to take notice when the hallyu wave reached and took hold in Japan. In 2003, the TV drama "Winter Sonata" was broadcast by NHK TV, signaling that the Korean wave had indeed begun to flow through Japan, Asia's leading economic power. According to a NHK broadcast research and survey prepared by the Public Opinion Research Division of the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, and recently published in Korea, 38 percent of the entire Japanese population said they had seen "Winter Sonata," which has been televised four times since 2003.
The popularity of Korean TV dramas has yet to subside among Japanese viewers. According to the March edition of "World Broadcasting Information," published by the Korean Broadcasting Institute, there are four Korean TV dramas being aired regularly by Japanese terrestrial broadcast networks. Nihon TV broadcasts a regular feature entitled "Dramatic Korean Wave," while Fuji TV has created "Korean Wave Hour." In addition, there are a total of 63 terrestrial broadcast stations that regularly televise some 70 different Korean TV drama programs. It seems safe to assume that TV dramas which have proven popular in Korea, such as "Daejanggeum," "Stairway to Heaven," "Romance in Paris," and "Stained Glass," are likely to appeal to audiences in Japan as well.
Positive Perceptions of Korea
As a result of the broadcast of "Winter Sonata" in Japan, the perceptions of the Japanese people toward Korea underwent a dramatic transformation. In a survey to assess Japan's national sentiments conducted by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, 26 percent of the respondents said, "My image of Korea has changed," while 22 percent responded, "I have become more interested in Korea." The growing fascination of Japanese consumers with Korean pop culture has also had a remarkable economic impact. A report dated December 10, 2004 of the Daiichi Insurance Economic Research Center estimated that the economic effect of "Winter Sonata" in both Korea and Japan amounted to 2.3 trillion Korean won (about $2.3 billion). In addition, the sites of TV drama film-sets have suddenly become popular tourist destinations, which in part is behind an increase of 187,000 Japanese tourists who visited Korea from April to October last year.
As such, the Korean wave has attained a critical mass that is capable of generating substantial economic benefits. Now, when Korean pop stars devise marketing strategies, they are mindful of the entire Asian region, Japan included. Concerning the Korean wave, Shin Hyun-joon, a researcher at Sungkonghoe University's East Asian Research Institute, noted: "The reason Korean popular culture has been able to achieve so much popularity in Japan is because the cultural affinities between Korea and Japan have increased. Japan thinks of Korean culture as a kind of diverse consumption culture, like Hong Kong movies."
In late 2004, in an Associated Press article that described the Korean wave in Japan, a 51-year-old housewife said: "I was deeply impressed at how Korean young people respected their parents in 'Winter Sonata.' This is especially refreshing since traditional values have been disappearing in Japan." There has been considerable analysis within Japan as well, in regard to why middle-aged Japanese women have come to refer to "Winter Sonata" star Bae Yong-joon as "Yonsama" ("sama" being an honorific suffix used to address an elder or respected person) and are so fanatical about him. The most likely explanation seems to be that they are moved by his character's unconditional love for a woman, which reflects a psychological backlash against the traditional values of Japanese society, where women are forced to suppress themselves to the dominance of men. As for the popularity of Choi Ji-woo, the female lead character of "Winter Sonata," her former manager observed: "I think viewers gain a vicarious satisfaction from her character, who might appear gentle but was resolute in not compromising her values even for her first love."
The co-stars of "Winter Sonata," Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo, enjoy incredible popularity among adoring Japanese fans, who refer to them "Yonsama" and "Jiwoohime" ("hime" means princess in Japanese). Chiezo 2005, an encyclopedia of current terms published by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, recently selected "Yonsama" as Word of the Year. Meanwhile, Bae Yong-joon was also No. 8 on Dentsu Advertising's "2004 Top 10 Hit Products and Hot Topics List," along with "Korean wave" ranking eighth on a list of top-ten news items in Japan, as selected by readers of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. In addition, the Japanese are keenly interested not only in actors such as Lee Byung-hun, Kwon Sang-woo, Won Bin, Jang Dong-gun, and Park Yong-ha, but also Korean singers such as Rain, Seven, and BoA.
Sustaining the Korean Wave
The question now on the minds of everyone is how long the Korean wave can be sustained. In particular, much caution is advised in regard to this phenomenon, which suddenly erupted within a matter of one year. Last year, Korean film exports to Japan surged to 4.24 billion yen (42.4 billion won, or about $42 million), representing a threefold increase from 2003. However, volatile changes may be ahead in Japanese consumer trends related to the Korean wave. Revenue generated by "Winter Sonata" declined sharply from 1.2 billion yen (12 billion won, or about $12 million) in May to 200 million yen (2 billion won) in December. In addition, problems related to the administration of Korea's music copyrights are another negative factor. Korean music copyrights had been managed solely by the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers, and Publishers (JASRAC), but recently the Asia Copyright Association (ACA) has taken over the management of the copyrights for 2,800 songs, which has created various difficulties.
Osawa Tsutomu, head of the Japanese Cultural Center in Seoul, said in the March edition of the Cultural Center's News from Japan: "It is very meaningful that middle-aged Japanese women who had shown little interest in Korea have since turned their eyes toward Korea. Yet the scenes of thousands of middle-aged Japanese women swarming to the airport whenever a popular Korean actor visits Japan will not last long. This is because not all Korean pop culture is as big a smash hit in Japan as was the case with 'Winter Sonata.'"
A recent edition of Nikkei Business reported that there were "signs the Korean wave may have reached its peak in Japan." Also, reporter Yi Su-hyang of Japan's Kyodo News warned: "Now is the time to proceed with a view on the long term rather than on the profits right before our eyes. We must accurately understand the entertainment industry in Japan and undertake effective measures." A representative for a Japanese event company commented: "The Japanese press might now attempt to find fault with the Korean wave stars." In other words, there are those in Japan who look upon the Korean wave with jealousy and envy.
The most critical need for now is to ensure that the Korean wave can remain a continuous cultural phenomenon by not overestimating the potential of the Japanese market and not being too eager to grab quick gains. Entertainment stars and their agencies need to go about their business with an awareness that they are serving as cultural representatives, while the government needs to focus its efforts on establishing a system that can help promote long-term expansion of the economic benefits of Korea's pop culture.