Wed, Nov 26, 2003 - Page 16 News List

South Korean soaps cleanse turbulent past with Japan


Michiyo Kobayashi, 29, checks out brochures on tours to South Korea at the Korea National Tourism Organization office in Tokyo. The yellow poster and the blue brochure are about a tour for Winter Sonata, a South Korean TV drama.


Animosity between a colonizer and the colonized does not easily fade. For decades, South Korea and Japan have remained politically and culturally distanced, despite Tokyo and Seoul being only two-and-a-half hours apart by airplane.

However, the cultural separation has shifted inward recently, thanks in part to the rising popularity of South Korean television programs in Japan.

Middle-aged Japanese women have fallen in love with South Korean TV dramas and their actors. The excitement is a recent phenomenon in Japan -- one of Asia's most finicky entertainment markets.

Japan's popular TV dramas, as well as their actors, tend to garner a wide-ranging viewer base in other Asian nations. But for outside Asian pop culture, Japan is not an easy place to achieve popularity.

"But things have changed very recently," writes Chikayo Tashiro in her book on South Korean television dramas.

Although South Korean television has captured the attention of audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other Asian countries, it was only last year that headway was made in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Political relations between Japan and South Korea continue to be kept at a distance because of Japan's colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 and 1945.

But on a cultural level, relations have thawed thanks in large part to the arrival of Korean TV dramas in Japan, along with the successful co-hosting of last year's football World Cup, says Tashiro.

"Japan and South Korea should realize how much they have in common," says Aidan Foster-Carter, senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in Britain.

He says culturally and geographically, Japan and Korea share a dual heritage of Buddhism and Confucianism, both gained from China. Both nations are sea-girt, hilly, resource-poor, densely populated rice cultivators, which learned to live by trade and on their wits.

But it has been the cultural exchange through television that has recently replaced animosity with mutual acceptance.

Winter Sonata, a South Korean TV series that aired on Japan's NHK TV this summer, is the latest South Korea drama to steal the hearts of many Japanese viewers, mostly women in their late 30s and older.

"The drama evokes a feeling of nostalgia. We don't see such romantic dramas in Japan these days," says Yoshie Kakuta, a 46-year-old Japanese fan of Winter Sonata.

Like Japanese dramas in the 1970s, amnesia and birth secrets are common themes in the South Korean series, with most characters driven to tears by heartbreak. Japan's audience appears to be attracted to the show's recollection of youthful love themes.

"That is something we, Japanese, had forgotten," says Kakuta, who also enjoyed the popular South Korean All About Eve series, aired by Japan's TV Asahi last year.

Winter Sonata is NHK TV's first extended drama series imported from South Korea.

"We're surprised with the popularity. Thanks to requests for repeat broadcasts, we decided to air it again in December," says a NHK TV spokesman.

The story is about the heroine, Choi Ji-woo, in her late 20s and recently engaged. Her high school sweetheart, Bae Yong-joon, suffers from amnesia after a terrible car accident. Choi believes her true love is dead when he fails to return one day. He eventually recovers and reunites with his love before she marries the other man.

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