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Complicated Currents

Chapter 1



Stephen Epstein, Victoria University of Wellington

Stephen Epstein is the Director of the Asian Studies Programme at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He has published widely on contemporary Korean society and literature and has also translated numerous works of Korean and Indonesian fiction, including a recent co-translation with Yu Young-nan of Who Ate Up All the Shinga? (Columbia University Press), an autobiographical novel by Park Wan-suh (Bak Wan-seo). He is currently working on a book entitled Korea and its Neighbours: Popular Media and National Identity in the Twenty-First Century.

The seeds for this paper were first sown during a research trip to Seoul in August 2004 when I was struck by a dramatic flowering of popular culture connections between Japan and South Korea.1 By that point reports on Winter Sonata’s success in Japan and the Yon-sama phenomenon had become a regular occurrence, but at least as noteworthy was an accompanying, if more subtle, surge of Korean interest in Japan. My friends from the Seoul punk community were then buzzing with the success of the recent Korea–Japan Oi! Festival, which had brought punk fans from the two countries together for shows in Seoul and Tokyo. On a trip to Korea’s most prominent bookstore, Gyobo mungo at Gwanghwamun, I noted the newly permitted display of J-pop in the CD section. More to the point, several customers were browsing through it with interest. I was also startled to observe how much of Gyobo’s travel literature selection had come to be occupied by accounts of trips to Japan, with a table reserved for a special book display. Most astonishing of all was the appearance among them of Jeon Yeo-ok’s Satporoeseo maekjureul masida (Drinking Beer in Sapporo). Jeon, then the spokesman for the Grand National Party, had achieved fame – or perhaps better put, notoriety – a decade earlier with her best-selling Ilboneun eopda (There is Nothing to Learn from Japan; lit. ‘Japan does not exist’), a vitriolic diatribe against Japan based on her two years living in the country as a special correspondent for KBS. But here now was a volume subtitled kwaerakjuuija Jeon Yeo-okui ilbon jeulgigi (Hedonist Jeon Yeo-ok’s Enjoyment of Japan), with a cover blurb that read ‘Ten years after Ilboneun eopda Jeon Yeo-ok is now enjoying Japan. Here are her novel suggestions about a new Korea–Japan relationship’. With the lifting of restrictions on Japanese pop culture imports continuing apace, Korea–Japan Friendship Year 2005 slated to begin in a few months, and even Jeon prepared to reassess her venomous stance, the time seemed right to engage in a detailed examination of changing Korean representations of its close yet distant neighbour and the role that the rise in transnational travel and flows of media and popular culture might play in overcoming a lengthy history of antagonism.

Nonetheless, the events of 2005 made it apparent how fragile Korea’s relationship with its former colonizer remained, and how easily apparent gains in popular rapprochement could evaporate. Ilboneun eopda. Ilboneun itda. ‘There is nothing to learn from Japan’. ‘There is something to learn from Japan’. The mutually exclusive titles of Jeon’s and Seo Hyeon-seop’s attention-grabbing texts of the mid-1990s exemplify the contested nature of image and text that emanates from Korea on Japan. By April 2005, the positive outcroppings so conspicuous in 2004 had become submerged under a fresh tidal wave of anti-Japanese sentiment brought about by tremors over history textbook controversies, Yasukuni Shrine visits, concern over Japan’s mooted entry into the UN Security Council and, above all, a seismic jolt over the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute unleashed by Shimane Prefecture’s proclamation of a ‘Takeshima Day’. On a trip to Gyobo mungo that April, I discovered that the book display that I had found so striking several months previously had disappeared, and I was the only person to show interest in the J-pop CDs available.

Elsewhere in this volume, Peter Murphy argues with vehemence that ‘powerful culture industries ... have no political effects whatsoever’. While his iconoclastic determination to detonate the very notion of ‘soft power’ may lead him to overstate his case, Murphy’s admonitions provide a salutary reminder that we attribute transformative agency to cultural products at our peril. Certainly, the Korea–Japan relationship offers a useful site for testing Murphy’s provocative hypotheses, for although the two countries share a fraught history and a political relationship subject to ongoing friction, their popular cultures and the industries behind them have become increasingly intertwined, and one can readily find large numbers of citizens in each nation who admire the cultural productions of their neighbour. Pace Murphy, I would argue that powerful cultural industries have an inevitable political effect in their impact upon mass sentiment; popular attitudes are a human security issue that ruling elites, not least in East Asia, must take cognizance of. What is crucial, however, is that this impact differs considerably depending on context. That such reactions are volatile and embedded within multiple contradictions, moreover, does not detract from their importance. Quite the contrary.

The stark asymmetry in the exercise of hard power between Japan and Korea over the course of the last century has had a determining effect on how the unprecedented growth in mutual popular culture flows over the last several years is felt, understood, and re-expressed by the populace of each country. Others in this volume (in particular Lee and Yamanaka) discuss the extent to which Japanese attitudes towards Korea have been subject to evolution as a result of the Korean Wave and its attendant media flows: here asymmetry has meant that many Japanese came to discover Korean creative capabilities, with resulting feelings of respect and affection; for others, resentment over Korean popular culture’s ‘uppity’ challenge engendered a determination to re-solidify existing hierarchies through defensive expressions of contempt.2

Conversely, the Korean popular imaginary operates within a collective discourse, virtually monolithic, that issues frequent reminders of the brutal dose of Japanese hard power the peninsula received during the Occupation years of 1910–1945 and urges that Japanese political encroachments be resisted at all costs. Iwabuchi’s influential book Recentering Globalization (Iwabuchi 2002) and his central thesis that Japanese products have managed regional success through their ‘cultural odourlessness’ has garnered much attention, as evidenced throughout this volume,3 but in examining contemporary Korean images of and attitudes towards Japan, including the reception of Japanese popular culture, one cannot escape what may be termed the lingering stench, for many Koreans, of festering historical grievances. If, therefore, trust in Japanese political intentions remains perennially low, Japan’s growing exercise of ‘Gross National Cool’ (McGray 2002) in lieu of hard power can still occasion unease about the spread of Japanese influence within Korea and affect the images of Japan propagated in Korea’s own popular culture.

The situation, however, is rendered more complex in that, to the surprise of many, South Korea has come to wield considerable soft power of its own, regionally, through the rise of its cultural industries from the late 1990s. The potential threat of Japan’s Gross National Cool is experienced very differently when Koreans feel that their own Korean Wave has won over other countries around the region, most significant among them Japan itself. Although restrictions on the importation of Japanese popular culture into Korea have now largely been dismantled, if the Korean Wave proves to be a short-lived phenomenon and the new Japanese Wave breaking upon Korean shores comes to resemble a tsunami, calls for restricting Japanese imports may resurface.4

In what follows, I excavate the accretion of images of Japan that have accumulated over the years in Korea, in order to unearth both continuities and changes in modes of representation. Japan has necessarily remained a constant presence within Korean popular discourse for well over 100 years. While South Korea shares complex relationships with numerous national Others, such as North Korea, China, and the United States,5 as of the new millennium no other country offers such possibilities for knee-jerk South Korean antipathy as Japan, or evokes such a conscious sense of rivalry. In the terms of Christopher Jaffrelot (1996), Japan represents a threatening Other that is both stigmatized and emulated. I thus present here but a tiny selection from the plethora of contemporary Korean images of Japan to tease out tropes that colour Korean representations of and attitudes towards Japan – attitudes that, it must be emphasized, contain considerable diversity. Desire and enmity commingle, often within the same person.6 Trends toward open acceptance of Japan move in concert with a distrust that arouses resentment and anger in even modest crises, individually or collectively. As prominent travel writer Han Bi-ya observes (Han 1996b: 69–70), although a common East Asian background can enable close and rapid friendships with fellow Japanese tourists,7 the barest slight can trigger irritation and antagonism. She herself provides an excellent example: when a Japanese man she meets in Chile expresses condescending astonishment that a Korean has the economic wherewithal to travel there, she takes it upon herself to humiliate him with her superior English, a reversal that she describes with palpable glee.8


Before proceeding to individual Korean texts that have played a role in representing Japan at a mass level in recent years, let me offer snapshots from 2005 that highlight this point about the reactive and competitive nature of Korean images of and attitudes towards Japan. On my first morning back in Korea after an absence of several months, the front cover of the Daily Zoom, a tabloid given away in Seoul subway stations, greeted me with a cutely pugnacious full-page advertisement for Spris sportswear that one may regard as a cynical or humorous (or both – they need not be mutually exclusive) ploy to enlist national feistiness over the Dokdo issue. A kangaroo with boxing gloves, and giving a kick, appears next to a word balloon that reads ‘I strongly insist! Dokdo is ours! Spris is also ours! Republic of Korea! Rah! Rah!’ On the first page of the newspaper proper, the Daily Zoom then ran as its top story an account of a professor who was campaigning to have the Japanese language expurgated from references to raw fish. ‘Sashimi’ and ‘wasabi’, he argued, used as borrowings in Korean much as in English, should be banished in favour of the equivalent native Korean terms saengseonhoe and gochunaengi.9 Turning the page, one then arrived at an article comparing travel statistics from 2004 and 2005, in which the Korean Tourism Organization found a substantial increase in visits from Japan to Korea, fueled by Korean Wave-inspired tours, while travel from Korea to Japan had dropped slightly, the implication being that the brouhaha over the islets had caused Koreans to express their collective sentiments towards Japan with their wallets and pocketbooks.10 The imbalance was mirrored in other April 2005 surveys, such as one conducted shortly thereafter by the Dong-a Ilbo revealing that Korean attitudes towards Japan had descended to their lowest point in 20 years, with 63 per cent reporting they disliked their neighbour, in contrast to only 22 per cent from Japan who stated they disliked Korea.11 The Joongang Daily chimed in with a report that Japan had displaced the US as the country South Koreans found most threatening, with 37 per cent surveyed giving it that designation, in contrast to only 7 per cent the previous year.12

The Daily Zoom’s cover ad raises further intriguing questions about contemporary expressions of competitive and reactive anti-Japanese nationalism, the extent to which they are mobilized in the service of commercial interests, and the imagery that may be called upon within them. While the use of the kangaroo to capture a quintessentially Korean spirit may itself be incongruous, its juxtaposition with the notice that one week was left in Spris’ sale of all products by Converse cannot help but raise eyebrows. Spris itself may well be ‘as Korean as Dokdo’, as proclaimed, but one could scarcely find more iconically American footware than Converse. Spris’s tactics were similarly employed during the height of the 2005 crisis by a 7-Eleven outlet that linked sales of its triangle-shaped gimbap to the campaign on behalf of Dokdo: a poster on the front window announced in large lettering, ‘If I eat spicy triangle gimbap, I too am helping to keep Dokdo’.13 Below (Figure 1.1), the advertisement went on to explain that the outlet would donate five per cent of the proceeds of its triangle gimbap sales over the period from April 1 to April 14 to the fund to preserve Dokdo for Korea. Images of triangle gimbap juxtaposed with the vaguely pyramid-shaped islets reinforced the offer.14 The irony evident in Spris’s assertions of national pride and solidarity being used to sell Converse All-Stars is even more striking in this case: since 1991 the majority stakeholder in 7-Eleven has been a Japanese holding company.

Figure 1.1 Eating triangle gimbap for Dokdo.


While these images invoke Japan only implicitly, they reflect all too well a key function of ‘Japan’ in Korean popular discourse: perceived Japanese encroachments on Korean sovereignty are referenced in order to assert Korean solidarity and identity. In this ad, one can observe the very outline of Dokdo evolving into a symbol around which defiance towards Japan coalesces. The centrality of Dokdo as a signifier for the ostentatious proclamation of Korean national self-definition has continued through the first decade of the new millennium, but with significant developments that further suggest the intersection of media flows, soft power and commercial products – a loop has been established in which national identity is mobilized to sell merchandise and enhance brand power, and commercial potential is marshalled in turn to boost a sense of national identity, regardless of a product’s original provenance. Particularly popular has been clothing apparel that allows its owners to make a pro-Korean and anti-Japanese statement of allegiance.15 Perhaps most strikingly, in 2008 Dunkin’ Donuts outlets in Korea joined the fray with limited edition t-shirts that read in English ‘Do you know? [dok-do] Dokdo belongs to Korea’. The company also offered contributions to a fund for international publicity about Korea’s claim to Dokdo; the choice of August 15, Liberation Day (gwangbokjeol), which commemorates the end of Japanese rule on the Korean peninsula, as the final day of the week-long promotion campaign again places the exclusion of Japan at the centre of this shared, postmodern public discourse.16

What has also become conspicuous is the extent to which the jockeying for position is now expressed on a global field with the rise of new media. Since the early years of Japanese activity on the Korean peninsula, diasporic Koreans have been involved in the fight for maintenance of Korean nationhood (cf. Schmidt 2002) and have taken their grievances overseas to win attention for their struggles. Recent years have seen a qualitative change, however, as new technologies allow for the dissemination of points of view in once far-flung locales. Sloganeering over the islets, for example, found its way into renowned alpinist Park Yeong-seok’s expedition to the North Pole: he and members of his team held a placard containing the rallying cry Dokdoneun uri ttang (Dokdo is our territory), when photographed near their goal, in a gesture that was propagated over the Internet, with potential world-wide reach, and linked the Korean expedition’s conquering of the pole with an aggressive assertion of territorial integrity back home.17 As other chapters in this volume suggest, the field for assertions of Korean sovereignty and identity has expanded to encompass the wider East Asian region and the globe itself: a recent New York Times story (Fahim 2009) relates how the slogan, adapted for an American target audience (‘Dokdo Island is Korean territory’), together with a photo of the islets, has been appearing on dry cleaning bags in New York City. Most striking of all, perhaps, in this attempt to achieve international recognition and to control the image of Korea vis-à-vis Japan, is a song recorded in English by Korean singer Seo Hui,18 entitled ‘Do You Know Dokdo?’ which has been made available on YouTube, and whose lyrics lurch between the jingoistic and the absurd:


Dokdo the beautiful islands have been part of Korean land

For the last two thousands of years they are Korean land

Located in the middle of East Sea we call

They comprise two main isles East and West Islets

Everybody wants to be there cause of the holy sights

Everybody wants to be there hoping to meet seagulls

Yes nobody is greedy for them cause of the holy sights

But some people covet them that is real nonsense!

Korea Korea proud to be Koreans

I’m willing to die for the peace of Korea

Dokdo Dokdo I’ll keep it for my sake

I love I love Dokdo forever.


Once more, the studied exclusion of Japan as the country that shall not be named (although the manifest referent of ‘some people’) endows it with a stark discursive presence.


While the examples that I have concentrated on thus far point to a volatile and adversarial relationship, unduly emphasizing a recrudescence of fear and loathing in Korea with regard to Japan because of an ongoing territorial dispute distorts a more complicated reality that encompasses attempts at more neutral representations. For the rest of this paper, I offer an overview of several texts about Japan, aimed at a popular level, that have come out in the last decade and the images propagated within them. Yi Won-bok’s (Rhie Won-bok) successful illustrated series Meonnara iutnara (Distant Land, Neighbouring Land) also includes a volume on Japan. As his celebrity and his avowed educative goal have made his work influential in disseminating representations of the outside world, his epistemological framework for understanding Japan deserves attention. To Yi’s credit, he at least strives for an objective view that dispenses with emotive language and to move beyond the Ilbon itda/Ilbon eopda mode of discourse, which he regards as filled with bias.19 In the book’s introduction he notes that his overall series title is most apt for Japan (Yi Won-bok 2000: 6), because although it is South Korea’s closest non-peninsular neighbour, it also feels most distant. Indeed, this tension between proximity and distance underpins much Korean discourse about its relationship with Japan, and the phrase ‘close but distant country’ (kakkapgado meon nara) recurs frequently in Korean writing on Japan.

To expedite understanding for his visual medium, Yi frequently opposes Korea and Japan: for example, in a selection of items from everyday culture Yi contrasts Korean food, which he characterizes as pujim (‘plentiful’), and Japanese cuisine, which is cast as jeonggal (‘trim’; ‘dapper’); Koreans, he adds, serve their food piping hot, while in Japan there is preference for a lukewarm temperature. Likewise, he notes, Koreans take their rice with a spoon from a bowl that is left on the table, while the Japanese hold the bowl to their mouths and ingest it with chopsticks.

In other words, binary oppositions are embraced in order to underline difference at basic cultural levels and to enhance the depiction of Japan as Other. Yi has been influenced by the Nihonjinron school of writing and he explicates Japanese culture for his Korean audience on the basis of ‘uniquely Japanese’ concepts that are as difficult to translate into Korean as they are in English (e.g. kikubari, wa, honne, tatemae and so on). At the same time, he emphasizes the difficulty of pinning down a precise ‘essence’ of Japan (Yi Won-bok 2000: 228). Indeed, in one of his more imaginative metaphors, he likens Korean culture to pure soju and Japan to a cocktail that mixes Western liquor and sake, the implication being that Korea retains a less adulterated essence.

Japanese cartoon

Figure 1.2 Contrasting Korea and Japan in Yi Won-bok’s Meonnara iutnara.

Meonnara iutnara (Yi Won-bok 2000: 57). Reproduced with permission.

Yi’s depiction thus produces some intriguing (if readily questionable) conjectures based on national characters and cultural frameworks. He lays stress on what he sees as a firmer sense of individual boundaries among the Japanese, in contrast to the powerful forces of jeong (‘affection’; ‘human sentiment’) by which Koreans are bound. For Yi, such boundaries produce a more finely developed sense of etiquette and politeness in Japan and have also meant that Japan has had greater success in producing a docile, conformist work force (120); but also that Koreans have much more energy because they are joined by the cement of jeong and not forced into rigid social boxes (79). Implicit in Yi’s reading, too, is that Japan’s cultural sensibilities and structural difficulties make it incapable of adjusting to an age of globalization and information (226), and that great opportunities now exist for Korea, which can at last surpass Japan.

Amidst this generally straightforward account, revealing images intrude: while Japan’s economy undeniably received a boost from the Korean War, Yi’s depiction (Yi Won-bok 2000: 113) creates images of a Japan that not only profits from its neighbour’s misery, but revels in doing so. Cartoon panels offering such captions as ‘a heaven-sent opportunity has arrived’ and ‘one man’s calamity is another’s windfall’ are accompanied by another in which a rock labeled ‘Korean War’ is depicted as catapulting an elated-looking Everyman identified as ‘The Japanese economy’ sky-high. Even more striking is the following panel in which prime minister Yoshida is depicted grinning gleefully at news of the war. ‘Ije ilboneun salatda!’ he exults: ‘Japan is saved!’ (Figure 1.3).

Japanese cartoon

Figure 1.3 Depictions of a Japan resuscitated by the Korean War in Yi Won-bok’s Meonnara iutnara.

Meonnara iutnara (Yi Won-bok 2000: 113). Reproduced with permission.

Japanese cartoon

Figure 1.4 Japan and Korea as eternal competitors in Yi Won-bok’s Meonnara iutnara.

Meonnara iutnara (Yi Won-bok 2000: 157). Reproduced with permission.

This is not to say that the tables cannot be turned: the imagery is mirrored later in the depiction of Korean delight over the high yen a few decades later (Yi Won-bok 2000: 157), but Yi’s view of economics suggests a zero-sum game and a world in which one person’s gain is another’s loss (Figure 1.4). In Yi’s construction the two nations are doomed to remain eternal competitors.

Others, however, turn their attention towards complementarity and cooperation between Korea and Japan. Over the last several years, director/columnist Yi Gyu-hyeong (Lee Kyu-hyung), for example, has written well-received works such as 2000’s Nitpon, Nitpon bunka (Japan, Japanese Culture) in which he attempts to serve as an intermediary between the two nations. Aimed in large part at a younger audience, his books portray a culturally vibrant and enticing Japan. Much of Nitpon, Nitpon bunka is taken up with introductions to what are, in his estimation, Japan’s best films, pop stars and manga. Also from 2000, Igeosi ilbonida! Hanguk cheongsonyeoni bon ilbon, ilbonin, ilbonmunhwa (This is Japan! Japan, the Japanese and Japanese Culture through the Eyes of Korean Youth) is a similar collection of essays culled from writing by students from the Daejeon Foreign Language High School that joins the sensibilities of (truly) junior scholars and a fanzine in attempting to explain the appeal of Japanese popular culture to Korea’s younger generation.

Certainly, surveys and journalists, both domestic and foreign, regularly note the contrast between the attitudes of different generations in Korea. Hugh Levinson (2002), for example, in a report for the BBC, quotes a graduate student from Seoul who says, ‘I don’t have any bad feelings towards the Japanese people ... But for parents’ generation [sic], I don’t think they can forgive’. Likewise, in a Time article, Donald Macintyre (2001) contrasts the deep resentment of an elderly Korean woman who lived through the Occupation and her grandson, a fan of Japanese anime who states, ‘Feelings for a country and appreciating a work of art made there are two different things’. An encouraging feature of works by younger authors is that although Korea’s historical relationship with Japan is not forgotten, they are largely willing to view their neighbour through the lenses of the present rather than the past.20

It is, in fact, precisely the rare encounters with the past on an individual level that set more positive contemporary visions of Japan in relief. The title of 22-year-old Seo Hwan’s 2005 collection of essays states plainly Naneun soljikhan dokyoga jota (I Like Candid Tokyo). Seo clearly enjoys Japan, and regards unpleasant incidents as exceptional. She encounters a drunk middle-aged man who proclaims that Koreans are congenitally suited to serve as colonial subjects and is shocked at the continued existence of such ideas (Seo 2005: 41): ‘I was stunned that there are still, even now (ajikkkajido), Japanese who hold these senseless, unforgivable ideas’. Far more prevalent in Seo’s text, however, is the same hedonistic appreciation that comes through in Jeon Yeo-ok’s Drinking Beer in Sapporo. Seo subtitles her work Dokyomunhwa kwaerakesei (‘pleasure essays on Tokyo culture’), and she brings the city alive with a front-line report on youth culture.

Dokyo yeohaenggi (Tokyo Travel Journal), a co-production from cartoonists Hyeon Tae-jun and Yi U-il, offers brief essays, drawings and photographs that complement in a laddish way the vision of the lively consumer playground that Seo delights in. It is interesting to see what is left out in their report: the two see no need to justify their interest in Japan, which they treat simply as a neighbouring country that is worthy of a visit for its own intrinsic attractions, and their attitude towards Tokyo is one of interest, humour and even affection. As their book’s cover makes readily apparent, they treat Tokyo with whimsy: we see a cartoon of the two, looking like tourists and equipped variously with a camera, an umbrella and a flag protruding from a backpack that offers a self-deprecating sumimasen in hiragana. The Rainbow Bridge looms behind them in the foreground, and a giant lizard labeled Gojira (Godzilla) stomps unobtrusively across skyscrapers in the background. Hyeon and Yi portray the megalopolis as one of the world’s great cities, specifically because it offers fun and fascination. Shibuya functions as a defining image, and they invoke the district’s Blade Runneresque, futuristic aspects (Hyeon and Yi 2004: 21). Above all, however, Tokyo becomes a shopper’s paradise, and theirs is very much a consumerist view of Tokyo that focuses on the vast array of pleasures the city has to offer, especially for self-confessed quasi-otaku. Yi and Hyeon revel in J-kitsch, if I can coin the term, and describe how Tokyo makes them feel (118) ‘excited, energized, sleepless, restless, thrilled’ – grown-up children run amuck in a gigantic toy store.


But if Japan here functions as a site in which to indulge nostalgic fantasies of childhood, it also regularly receives attention as a place to indulge fantasies of a more adult nature. Prurient curiosity about Japan becomes especially apparent in, for example, Bak Chang-su’s 2003 Ilbon geugose gamyeon jeongmal gunggeumhan geosi manta? (Japan: Are There Really A Lot of Things You Want to Know?), subtitled ‘an erotic travel journal of Japan’ (ilbonui eroseu gihaeng) which mixes equal portions of critique, analysis and implicit advertisement. Bak (2003: 142; 161) cites Japan’s reputation as a sexual paradise and concerns himself in large part with examining the variety of Japanese sexual culture (163). Bak often assumes a mildly surprised tone over Japanese sexual openness, as in his comments on, for example, the casualness with which young women enter Harajuku’s Condomania store in broad daylight, almost as if entering a clothing shop (131), or witnessing a scholarly-looking gentleman purchasing adult videos (152). Significantly, at times (150), he speaks of this openness in positive contrast to Korea, when he hypothesizes that the availability of pornography serves as an outlet that leads to a decrease in sexual violence. Bak not infrequently offers a tip of the hat to Japan in other areas, as when (113) he criticizes Korean youth as spendthrift in contrast to those whom he sees going to Harajuku simply to shop for 300-yen ribbons. Occasionally these remarks become backhanded compliments: after remarking that it would be nice to see Korean youth learn some Japanese-style etiquette in the use of cell phones (48), he makes the gratuitous comment that, of course, Japan’s use of cell phones also has created problems with ‘compensated dating’ (wonjo gyoche).21 At others, however, his surprise turns to a more censorious tone, as when he tells lurid tales (22–23) of scandal at Waseda University. The final sentences of his work (248) manage to conjoin envy with disparagement: ‘Inasmuch as Japan has two Nobel Prize winners for literature, the diversity of its cultural offerings requires attention. The only problem is that in areas such as sexual culture this excessive diversity creates perversion’.

Bak’s didactic moralizing, as he dispenses Confucian praise and blame, reflects the normative approach of much writing on Japan, an approach that has a long history. As Han Seung-mi (2001: 195), quoting Koh notes, ‘Travelogues and diaries written by Korean officials during the Chosun period are filled with phrases looking down on the Japanese for their “not being Confucian enough” or “not being properly mannered” (Koh 1999)’. In fact, it is precisely Japan’s perceived flouting of Korea’s sense of Confucian propriety and lesser concern with chemyeon (face) that continues to arouse contempt. A crucial and ongoing aspect of Korean depictions of Japan thus remains the extent to which Japan is constructed as sexual Other.

Much of this discourse focuses on women, and Shin Yeong-suk’s sensationalist 2001 book Ogenki deseukka: ilbon yeojadeuri annyeonghasinji (Ogenki desu ka: Japanese Women, Are You All Right?) is a particularly egregious specimen. Basing her text on 17 years living as a hostess in Japan and taking tabloid stories to heart as gospel evidence of reality, Shin constructs a nation of nymphomaniacs (Shin 2001: 19): ‘It’s an extreme (simhan) expression, but when it comes to sex, Japanese women are spellbound’ (sajogeul mot sseunda, lit. ‘are unable to move their limbs’). For Shin, proof lies in lack of concern for face or the age of partners, and she accumulates a litany of anecdotes not merely about promiscuity, but about older women dating younger men – even, for example, teachers dating their students.22 And while Shin’s expression may be extreme, it is in fact a recurrent trope in Korean writing about Japanese women. According to Seo (2005: 73), for example, Japan’s so-called ‘Sista Girls’ are spellbound before black men,23 while Jeon (1994: 27) uses the same phrase to describe Japanese women when confronted by Western males.24 Jeon, to be sure, had directed the bulk of her criticism of Japan in Ilboneun eopda at the position and behaviour of the nation’s women, not least in regard to the far readier acceptance of intermarriage and thereby the dilution of national purity.25 Among her points of criticism are what she describes (27) as the romanticization of Japanese women being used and abandoned by Westerners, which she relates to Japan’s reception of Madame Butterfly, scoffing that Japan treats it as a love story because the nation as a whole doesn’t know the meaning of love. Jeon veritably seethes with anger over this benign interpretation of the tale (26), regarding it as a personal affront to her as an Asian woman. Madame Butterfly, and the geisha more generally, becomes a frequent visual symbol in Korean depictions of Japan, as witnessed on the cover of several books, including Ilboneun eopda and its sequel, Bak Chang-su’s volume, and Seo Hyeon-seop’s 2004 Ilboningwa eroseu, encapsulating a constellation of ideas that imply a gendered, sexualized and pejorative view of Japan.

An analysis of Korean images of Japanese gender roles merits a full paper in its own right, but as I move to the conclusion, let me offer another gendered image that returns me to my starting point. What occasioned the change in Jeon’s feelings about Japan that led me to begin investigating this topic a half-decade ago? In the introduction to Drinking Beer in Sapporo Jeon describes Japan as quietly aging, likening it to a grandmother who has lost her memory (Jeon 2003: 7). In her postscript she notes that in contrast to the numerous changes in her life over the last decade, the lives of her friends in Japan have remained the same (251). Ten years ago when Jeon first wrote about Japan, she saw a powerful and arrogant land, but economic stagnation and changing demographics has here transformed her view of the country from that of dangerous aggressor to aging grandmother.

Such changes in the perception of Japan are thus contingent on an ongoing Japanese evolution. However, they are also directly related to a change in Korean self-perception, which in turn has been conditioned by Korea’s rise as an exporter of popular culture to Asia generally and Japan specifically. Yi Gyu-hyeong (2000: 285) had remarked that if Korea did not find its own identity before its full opening to Japanese popular culture, it would be relegated to simply rehashing what it has imported. While Korea’s assimilation of Japanese influences in its popular culture is undeniable, as other chapters in this volume attest, it is also readily apparent from the successes of hallyu in the last few years that Korea has indeed established its own cultural identity, however hybridized it may be, for propagation elsewhere in the region. As Yi (161) indicates, the initial success of Shiri in Japan instilled self-respect within Koreans (‘uriege jajonsimeul simeo’), a self-respect that burgeoned into pride and even smugness as Japan revealed itself infatuated with Winter Sonata, hardly one of the great domestic triumphs among Korean dramas. For Korea, hallyu has allayed anxieties relative to Japan, and the nation no longer necessarily conceives of itself as behind its neighbour.26 Much as Iwabuchi argues in Recentering Globalization that Japanese popular culture achieved ascendancy by virtue of being ‘similar, but superior’ (Iwabuchi 2002: 175) to the rest of Asia, the successes of hallyu have allowed, justifiably or not, a sense in some Korean quarters that its popular culture is perhaps not just similar, but superior to that of Japan.

In other words, Korea has been flexing its cultural muscles, and enjoys the admiring glances that it receives from its neighbours. Certainly in recent years, Korea’s national branding of itself as ‘Dynamic Korea’ can be seen both in stark opposition to the quietly aging Japan depicted by Jeon, and as recapitulating what Iwabuchi writes of the Japanese appreciation of Hong Kong cultural modernity (Iwabuchi 2002: 192): ‘Here, we can see ... a conflation of a nostalgic longing for “what Japan has lost” and a longing for “what Japanese modernity has never achieved”‘. ‘Dynamic’ Korea through the middle portion of the 2000s came to enjoy a vision of itself as energetic and modern, and it now encounters Japan on those terms.

The fears once expressed about the removal of restrictions on the importation of Japanese pop culture (e.g. ‘Some Koreans worry that their culture is so similar to Japan’s that their emerging entertainment industry will be overwhelmed’.)27 rapidly became passé; indeed, such concerns evaporated, to be replaced by a confidence, fostered by Korea’s own media, that the nation has become a cultural kingpin in East Asia. As South Korea increasingly propagated an image of itself as the dynamic hub of the region, the nation reconfigured its perceptions of Japan as well. Nonetheless, despite the vigour of the Korean body cultural, as I have emphasized in this paper, the baggage of the colonial era has yet to be jettisoned, and stands at the ready to be repacked at a moment’s notice. The Korean Wave may well experience peaks and troughs in the years to come, but the experience of this decade’s remarkable surge has given Korea a confidence that Korea too can now become a player in any cyclical rising and falling of fads and trends. Regardless of whether the Korean Wave is ebbing and a new Japanese Wave is looming on the horizon, as has recently been mooted,28 the fact that the nation experienced a dramatic rise in its cultural influence in this decade will likely remain critical in Korean discursive practice for the foreseeable future.


1   I refer to South Korea henceforth as Korea except where disambiguation from North Korea is required.

2   For more on Japanese reactions to the Korean Wave, see, e.g. Sakamoto and Allen (2007), and Iwabuchi (2008).

3   For a more in-depth engagement with Iwabuchi, see Black and Jung, elsewhere in this volume.

4   See, e.g. ‘Why the Japanese Wave Just Keeps on Coming’, 200711290009.html; Jane Han (2008), ‘“Japanese Wave” Taking Root Here’, 2008/01/123_17628.html; ‘Fresh Japanese Wave Threatens Korean Pop Culture’ 200703/200703260027.html.

5   On images of North Korea, see Epstein 2009; on China, see Epstein (forthcoming).

6   Cf. Han (2001: 195–197) and Choe (2000: 7).

7   For example, Yasuo, the putative ‘half-brother’ Han meets in Iran (Han 1996a: 45), and Ikuo, a fellow student from her days pursuing a Master’s degree in the United States, with whom she later travels to Europe (Han 2001: 129–134).

8   Cf. also Han’s encounter (Han 1998: 188–192) with a Japanese traveller who comes across as especially repellent, and Hyeon Tae-jun (Hyeon and Yi 2004: 128), who describes himself as prepared to react to a slight on the part of the Japanese.

9   Min (2005). Such periodic calls for purging Korean of Japanese terms lie not only within a centuries-old tradition of the rectification of names, but more importantly, of course, within an ongoing program of decolonization, and the recovery of difference lost under Japan’s assimilationist policies during Occupation (cf. Han 2001: 195).

10  2005. ‘Ilbon gwanganggaek “geuraedo hanguk ganda” [Japanese tourists ‘going to Korea nevertheless’]’. Daily Zoom April 4: 1.

11 section_id=100&section_id2=267&menu_id=100.

12  Previously available from:

13  See

14 eat_trianglegim.html.

15  For a useful collection of examples, see

16 Interestingly the campaign began on 8 August 2008, the day of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, which also suggests a desire to tap into a Korean awareness of its own nationhood in relation to its two much larger neighbours.


18; Dokdo song in English on naversite:;

19  Cf. also Seo Hyeon-seop (1994: 4), who promises a more objective view of Japan in his introduction to Ilbon itda, noting that much is to be learned from Japan. Seo justifies this assertion with a nationalist argument: to learn from Japan is not for Japan’s advantage but for Korea’s. Yi Gyu-hyeong (2000: 51) similarly points out that Korea requires jiil (‘knowing Japan’) more than banil (anti-Japanese sentiment) and that Japan should be seen dispassionately. Even Jeon (1994: 84) writes of the need to look at Japan objectively, treating it not, first and foremost as a neighbouring country, but simply as a foreign country.

20  It is worth noting, however, that, in fact, the 20-year-old bracket has more negative feelings towards Japan than the 30-year-old cohort, presumably due in large part to a focus on the Dokdo issue in this decade. See Shin-Yun (2005).

21  Certainly there is popular recognition that Korea has caught up in the interim in finding that new communication technologies are providing new venues for illicit activity, if indeed it ever lagged behind.

22  The issue of women dating younger men recurs elsewhere: see e.g., Bak (2003: 101); Seo (2005: 113).

23  Jeon (1994) turns her disparaging comments about Japanese women’s willingness to form international relationships, and especially with black men (40–41), into a critique of Japanese men (47). Shin (2001: 29, 54) also expresses shock over Japanese women’s fondness for black men. Korean female commentators offer an interesting additional voice to those discussed in Kelsky (1994).

24  Seo (2005: 41) also uses the phrase of Japanese men’s reactions to Korean women, and Jeon (1994: 28) applies it to Japanese women’s helplessness when confronted by brand name handbags. Yi is the only author among the texts discussed to also apply it to Koreans, whom he describes as similarly spellbound by Japanese products (Yi Gyu-hyeong 2000: 49), regardless of what they think about the Japanese.

25  It should be noted, of course, that since Jeon wrote, intermarriage rates in South Korea have skyrocketed.

26 v8739282.html.

27  See Koh 1999.

28  See note 4 above.


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Cite this chapter as: Epstein, Stephen. 2010. ‘Distant land, neighbouring land: “Japan” in contemporary South Korean popular discourse’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 1.1–1.15.


©Copyright 2010 Stephen Epstein

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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita