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Last Updated: Monday, 13 December, 2004, 16:18 GMT
Japan's showbiz fans look to S Korea
By Jamie Miyazaki
in Tokyo

South Korean actor Bae Yong-joon ( Yon-sama ) waves on his arrival at New Tokyo International Airport, Nov 25, 2004
South Korean actor Yon-sama has taken Japan by storm
Back in 1999, American cult rocker Tom Waits boasted about being "Big in Japan" in his song of the same name.

He might be surprised to know that he is now being toppled by some competitors from a country a lot closer to home - South Korea.

Korean entertainers are now among the biggest celebrities in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Their new-found popularity is all the more surprising considering the historical issues that have coloured relations between the two countries.

Japan's brutal colonial rule over the Korean peninsula during the first half of the 20th Century left many Koreans distrustful of their larger neighbour.

Yon-sama is more popular than me
Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi, referring to the popular South Korean actor
It was only in 1998 that South Korea's government began to relax a ban on distributing and selling Japanese pop music and films.

And while ethnic Koreans make up the largest minority in Japan, they have often faced discrimination and been treated as second-class citizens.

But these attitudes are changing, helped no doubt by the 2002 jointly-hosted World Cup, when Korea was firmly in Japan's media spotlight.

Korean pop star BoA now tops the Japanese charts and Brotherhood, a Korean war movie, took the Japanese box office by storm this summer.

But much of the current boom has been fuelled by a Korean soap-opera called A Winter Sonata, and its leading man Bae Yong-joon, or Yon-sama as he is affectionately known in Japan.

So popular is Yon-sama that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently joked, "Yon-sama is more popular than me."

Korean idol

Yon-sama's arrival in Japan at the end of November was greeted with the kind of hysteria normally reserved for Hollywood A-list celebrities.

At a photography exhibition about Yon-sama in Tokyo, Yuko Nakagama - one of the Korean actor's legion of middle-aged female fans - told the BBC News website what it was that made the man so popular.

"He's very gentlemanly and refined, he's not like young Japanese men these days. Yon-sama reminds me of the way men were 30 or 40 years ago," she said.

Savvy Japanese entrepreneurs and entertainers have been quick to catch on to the new cultural shift.

The critically acclaimed Japanese actor, director and comedian "Beat" Takeshi played a Korean immigrant in his latest film Blood and Bones.

Japanese fans, mostly over 40, take pictures of their Korean idol Bae Yong-joon at a photography exhibition in Tokyo, 21 Oct 2004
Many fans travelled long distances to a recent Yon-sama exhibition
And the Korea infatuation has not just had an impact on television and cinema.

Japanese travel agents are offering "Winter Sonata" trips to Korea, while dating agencies have even sprung up to satisfy Japanese women's appetites for Korean men in Yon-sama's wake.

"Of course I don't think all Korean men are like Yon-sama, but still..." Mrs Nakagama mused as she entered the photography exhibition for the fourth time that week.

She had come all the way to Tokyo from Hokkaido, in the north of Japan, to see pictures of her idol.

The media storm is also having another effect. Many Japanese have begun to learn Korean - including Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a celebrity who even launched a TV series of his exploits in South Korea.

Cultural shift

This is not the first time, though, that Japan has taken a cultural interest in its smaller and often overlooked neighbour.

A similar wave of interest swept the country during the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

But this time, part of the new Korea-mania is being driven by a general change in Japanese attitudes toward Asia, Chung Daekyun, a Korean professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, told the BBC.

"I think Japanese people's sense of goodwill to Koreans and their readiness to applaud Koreans has risen somewhat," he said.

But while showbiz may sell Korea to the Japanese, relations on a political level remain muddied by history.

Territorial disputes over islands, the continued lack of voting rights for Korean-Japanese and accusations of Japanese textbooks whitewashing the behaviour of Japanese troops during World War II all complicate the picture.

Fireworks explode over the Seoul World Cup Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2002 World Cup, Friday, May 31, 2002.
The jointly hosted 2002 World Cup improved S Korea-Japan relations
"In the short term, I don't think [the rise in popularity of Korean actors and pop stars] has any influence on issues such as textbooks," said Professor Chung.

"But I think Koreans realize that because of the boom this time, Japanese have a more positive view of Korea," he added. "And perhaps this will have the effect of easing the sense of rivalry between the two."

There is still some way to go, as exemplified by the comments made by one Japanese woman at the Yon-sama photography exhibition.

"I love Winter Sonata, but when I went to Korea three years ago I got the impression not all Koreans liked Japanese," she said.

And even ethnic Korean Japanese are not convinced that Yon-sama alone can change more than half a century of discrimination.

"I think awareness about South Korea as a country has changed [but] awareness about Korean Japanese hasn't. Discrimination exists even now," said Kim Kwang-Ja, a 57-year-old ethnic Korean Japanese from western Japan.

Korea's pop stars and actors still have some way to go before they can truly be rid of the ghosts of the past that continue to haunt relations between the two neighbours.

Korean star creates Tokyo frenzy
25 Nov 04 |  Entertainment
Japanese sumo returns to S Korea
14 Feb 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Korea's pop diplomacy
14 Nov 02 |  Asia-Pacific
World Cup's uneasy team-mates
30 May 02 |  Asia-Pacific

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