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Complicated Currents

Chapter 3



Alison Tokita, Monash University

Alison Tokita is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. Her research interests include Japanese performing arts, international marriage, Japanese popular culture, and Japanese diaspora. She is co-editor of The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music.


In the long history of interaction between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago, Korea has always served as a major source of cultural and human resources for Japan. It has suffered from Japanese incursions, most notably in the Imjin Wars in the 1590s and the imperialist acts of establishing a protectorate (1905), annexation (1910) and a lengthy Occupation (1910–1945), acts that were legitimized by the international community at the time (Dudden 2005). Korea’s first sustained tastes of modernity and economic and industrial development occurred during Japan’s Occupation, and Korea has continued to view Japan as a developmental model, and often also a source of technological and financial support in the post-colonial (post-liberation) era,1 while simultaneously retaining bitter memories of exploitation and hardship. Herein lies the dilemma of Korea’s ambivalent attitudes towards Japan.2

Relations between the two Koreas and Japan have been fraught with complications and difficulties. Often dubbed ‘distant but close neighbours’, normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea did not occur until 1965. Relations since then have fluctuated between openness and suspicion. The reality is that Korea’s economy is inextricably entwined with that of Japan, and the high degree of complicity between political, business and industrial leaders of each country was a factor in the decision of the Roh Moo Hyun regime (2003–2007) to institute a systematic campaign to investigate ‘Japanese collaborators’ (Jager 2005).

How can the legacy of the past be overcome?

Among the causes for pessimism about the future of the relationship are the ongoing unresolved issues of Japanese history textbooks, compensation for Korean comfort women and forced labourers, Japanese prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, ownership of the Dokdo islets, and the name of the sea between the two countries. Some reasons for optimism are also visible: the lifting of a ban on the import of Japanese cultural goods in four stages from 1998 to 2004, the joint hosting of the Soccer World Cup in 2002, the regular summits that have taken place between the Japanese prime minister and the ROK president, and also the less visible stream of citizen-level exchanges, school excursions, and tourism. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of Korean learners of Japanese in recent years, and the study of Korean in Japan has also increased, demonstrably as a response to the Korean Wave.3 In 2004, the Korean Wave crested in Japan with the Winter Sonata boom, and barely showed any signs of ebbing in 2005, which had been designated the Korea–Japan Year of Friendship.

However, 2005 got off to a bad start with the dispute about the Dokdo islets flaring up when the Shimane prefectural government declared them Japanese territory in January. Public anger concerning Japanese territorial claims was expressed in dramatic protests at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, with demonstrators burning the Japanese flag and some even cutting off parts of their fingers (Jager 2005). Furthermore, also in January, the South Korean Foreign Ministry released archival documents concerning the 1965 normalization treaty with Japan and compensation for colonial victims. Another black spot was the publication in July of the Japanese manga Hating the Korean Wave (KenkanryKenkanryu; see Yamanaka in this volume), whose success revealed a substantial backlash against the popularity of the Korean Wave.


The crucial underlying question I wish to address in this chapter4 is the role popular culture might play in Korea–Japan relations. What power does popular culture have in influencing mutual images and enhancing mutual knowledge and understanding? Does consumption of popular culture flow on to engagement with the real world, or is it limited to just a virtual or fantasy world? In their analysis of the Korean Wave, Dator and Seo (2004) claim that although popular culture may reflect a dream world, it is not to be dismissed lightly, because the economy of the future will be based above all on what they term ‘dream icons’, rather than actual information per se.

It is not uncommon for young Koreans to hate the concept of Japan as a national entity, but to love its popular culture. A large body of evidence suggests that people in general are able to bracket off consumption of culture, popular and otherwise, from negative feelings towards the country of its origin (cf. Otmazgin 2008a and Otmazgin 2008b).

Indeed, opinion polls in Korea and Japan continue to show gaps and imbalances in mutual perceptions and knowledge, often hinging on issues of war atonement and guilt (Gluck 2007: 55–56). It often seems that although Japan wants to improve its image and performance in Asian countries, it does not want to apologize or atone for the past. Similarly, there is ambivalence in Korea’s consumption of Japanese popular culture: even before South Korea officially opened to Japanese cultural products in 1998, Japanese manga, music and TV dramas were avidly consumed through pirated translated editions, which often masked their Japanese origin. And yet, even now, South Korea does not permit the broadcasting of Japanese television dramas (Kim 2005: 46), accessible though they may be via cable or satellite television channels and the Internet.

Japan’s Winter Sonata boom in 2004 was part of the Asia-wide Korean Wave. Although Korean cinema and music had come into vogue in Japan around 2000, the popularity of KBS’s 20-part miniseries, Gyeoul Yeonga (Fuyu no sonata, Winter Sonata), was startling in its intensity and suddenness. First broadcast on NHK’s BS2 satellite channel in 2003, popular demand caused it to be aired again on NHK’s general channel from April to August 2004. On both occasions it was condensed from the original and dubbed in Japanese. When it was re-broadcast once more at the end of 2004, in intensive format (two hours a day for 10 days), it was left uncut, with its original sound track and subtitled.

By May 2004, signs of a massive fad had started to appear. While it was clear that the drama’s biggest group of fans was middle-aged women, it had a significant following throughout society, including netizens who (as they had elsewhere in Asia) established numerous blogs (Hayashi and Lee 2007: 206). The fever for Fuyusona, as it was familiarly known in Japanese, soon led to a rush of Japanese tourism to Korean locations from the drama, as well as a record 5000-strong crowd of fans going to the airport in April 2004 to meet the lead actor Bae Yong-jun, who was affectionately dubbed ‘Yon-sama’, a nickname that drew on a Japanese honorific used only for the most respected. Sales of related products, such as books and magazines, DVDs, Polaris necklaces, and novelty goods soared. Korean language courses, as noted above, experienced a boom. NHK TV’s regular Korean language course featured a selection from Winter Sonata each week, in the form of a short section of dialogue used for language study, chosen from a dramatic or romantic highlight of that week’s episode.

According to Hayashi and Lee’s analysis, Japanese society was divided as to how to interpret the boom. The mass media gave constant attention to the drama and its fans, portraying them patronizingly as obasan (a somewhat derogatory word for middle-aged women) who were not to be taken seriously, and presenting images of ‘a hysterical, uncontrollable crowd of middle-aged women’ (Hayashi and Lee 2007: 205–207). By the end of 2004, it was unlikely that anyone in Japan had not heard of the drama, and nearly 70 per cent of Japanese had watched at least one episode. ‘Yon-sama’ became the word of the year, and Prime Minister Koizumi joked in an election speech that he wanted to be as popular as Yon-sama, and even be called ‘Jun-sama’. Japanese fans chose to reject much of the over-commercialization, however, and were sensitive to the way the Japanese media tended to ridicule them.

The international success of Winter Sonata took Koreans by surprise, particularly its success in Japan. The Korean government made a diplomatic response by appointing the series’ lead actress Choi Ji-woo as cultural ambassador to Japan. The online Japanese version of the Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo created a special feature archive on Winter Sonata running to about 500 articles, commencing in April 2004, for its Japanese readers, although there was no corresponding feature in its Korean or English versions. All Koreans, it would seem, came to know Bae Yong-jun’s Japanese nickname, ‘Yon-sama’. The Korea Tourism Organization seized on images of Korean actors to promote tourism, and airline companies and private tour operators took advantage of the opportunities for Korean Wave tourism.

It seemed at times, however, as if Korean commercial interests were making fun of Japanese consumers, degrading fans’ enthusiasm by producing plastic life-size images of Yon-sama, a Bae Yong-jun bear doll, gloves and socks with Bae’s image upon them and a Winter Sonata theme park at Chamshil, Seoul, as well as calendars and necklaces. Like Japan, Korea fully exploited the commercial opportunities of Bae’s popularity with the Japanese.

The Korean media discourse about the popularity of Korean dramas in Japan, as analyzed by Hayashi and Lee (2007: 208–213), focused not on the gendered nature of the response, but predominantly expressed national pride, boasting of ‘the superiority of Korean culture’, and seeing this transnational cultural influence as having the potential to create an ‘imagined Asian cultural community’.

The intensity of the Winter Sonata boom in Japan outstripped its popularity in Korea and other countries. By contrast, Daejanggeum (Jewel in the Palace, 2003, shown in Japan in 2005 as Changumu no chikai), a historical drama set in sixteenth-century Korea, had the highest ratings ever for a television drama in Korea, and achieved phenomenal popularity in Hong Kong and Singapore (commented on in Chua 2008 and Lin and Tong 2008), but had relatively little impact in Japan.5 Its appeal lay in its depiction of a strong woman who rose from slavery to royal favour, and the interest it generated in the culinary and medicinal arts of the time.

The impact of Winter Sonata in Japan was far greater than that of earlier milestones in improving relations and hopes for reconciliation between Japan and Korea. Although the commercialized nature of the boom surrounding Winter Sonata followed the pattern of other hyped media phenomena in Japanese consumer culture, this boom had significantly different political implications. The drama’s predominantly middle-aged female fan base was noted not for passive consumption, but for active engagement with both the text and the reality of Korea. The television drama arguably played a role in ‘bringing into memory’ the existence of Korea for fans.

My analysis below indicates that the key theme of Winter Sonata is memory and forgetting, and I argue that this was subliminally recognized by Japanese female viewers as relevant to Japan’s relationship with Korea. We can hypothesize that the enthusiasm for Winter Sonata in Japan was not only greater but also qualitatively different from its popularity in other countries because of the history of Japan’s colonization of Korea, and Japanese obliviousness (or perhaps amnesia) about that shared past, which has resulted in the discourse of ignorance of Korea discussed by Yamanaka in this volume. For this reason, the drama can serve as a useful test case for the potential of transnational consumption of popular culture to affect mutual images and attitudes, even behaviour. It offers a counter-narrative to official state-centric discourses of soft power that attempt to harness popular culture for diplomatic purposes, showing ‘the possibilities of cross-cultural or transborder dialogues from below’ (Lee Kee-hyeung 2008: 185).


I situate my discussion of the Japanese reception of Winter Sonata in debates about the politics of memory, or the ‘historiography of oblivion’, that is, the attempt to rewrite or excise certain parts of national history, whether through the efforts of revisionist historians to sanitize textbooks or the glorified depictions of war in controversial manga such as Kobayashi Yoshinori’s SensSensoronron (Morris-Suzuki 2005: 7–8).

Japan was encouraged by the United States and Allied Occupation to forget its colonial past and to turn away from Asia: ‘[T]he Occupation contributed to a nearly total amnesia of empire’ (Gluck 2007: 51). The War was renamed the Pacific War, reflecting the US perspective, rather than the East Asian War. Japanese memories of empire and war were constructed within a victim narrative according to which the populace was misled by a few militarist tyrants, and then suffered the carpet bombing of major cities, two atomic bombs, and extended civilian privation. However, since 1990, the post-Cold War era has done away with the viability of ‘single national narratives’; Japan has been confronted with the need for what Gluck calls ‘memory work’ to achieve regional integration with Asia by generating transnational memories of war (Jager and Mitter 2007: 8–9). Leo Ching (2006: 145) explains Japan’s ‘oblivion’ as an ‘incomplete project of decolonization ... [which] enabled postwar Japan to construct and constitute itself as singular, homogeneous, and exclusive and thereby subsequently disavow and efface the traces of the empire’. Yamanaka (this volume), in examining the theme of ‘ignorance about Korea’ in popular Japanese discourses, argues that domestic discussion of the Winter Sonata boom claimed ‘we knew nothing about Korea’, a belief clearly illustrating the oblivion that has dogged postwar Japan’s attitude toward Korea.

The popularity of Winter Sonata in Japan has been variously attributed to its story and its themes, its characters, the actors, locales, music and fashions. I concentrate here on the story and its themes to argue that they offer clues to a particularly Japanese reception of the drama. It is impossible to give a detailed account of the twenty, hour-long episodes of Winter Sonata, but the following outline will provide a basis for analyzing the most significant themes.

The drama is located in three points of narrative time: firstly, a few crucial weeks from autumn into winter, when a romance blossoms between the two main characters, high school friends Jun-sang and Yu-jin. This portion occupies the first two episodes and part of the third. Next, the main narrative spans two or three months as winter passes into spring ten years later, and occupies eighteen of the twenty episodes. Jun-sang’s amnesia has led to his assumption of a new identity as Min-hyeong and this central section of the narrative relates the tortuous process of the gradual recovery of his old identity. The third temporal phase occurs in springtime three years later, suggesting a wakening to new life, the past put away. This portion occupies just a fraction of the last episode, almost an afterthought, a resolution to satisfy viewers; it suggests the final consummation of the relationship, but is achieved at the expense of the romantic lead’s blindness.

The high school period, in which Jun-sang comes as a new student to the provincial city of Chuncheon and falls in love with classmate Yu-jin, contains several iconic foundational scenes for the drama:

•   Both late, they clamber over the school wall to avoid detection; she removes her shoes and climbs up by stepping on his back; she sits on the wall, which he easily scales; Jun-sang puts Yu-jin’s shoe back on her foot before helping her down. This shoe image is evoked a number of times in later episodes after he has lost his memory. It serves as a trigger of memory: for example, when he surprises her trying on her wedding dress and she fumbles with her shoe, he helps her put it on, which brings the memory painfully back to her. Again, when he is at the airport he stops to help a child put her shoe back on, and the old memory comes to his mind, part of the process of his regaining of memory.

•   Yu-jin intends to help Jun-sang learn the piano piece (Schumann’s Träumerei) set for their music class, but she learns he is already a competent pianist. (It later transpires that his mother is an international concert pianist.) He plays for her instead a contemporary-style piece, Cheoeum (First time); this piece is used not as soundtrack but as part of the dramatic development; the tune recurs in later episodes, always diegetically, to evoke memory and to unlock secrets. (On the role of the soundtrack in the drama, see Tokita 2006).

•   When the school friends go on a weekend excursion in the mountains, Yu-jin gets lost, and is found by Jun-sang. They talk about the Pole Star (Polaris) remaining constant while other stars move with the seasons. Polaris becomes a leitmotif in the drama, symbolizing the theme of being lost and finding one’s way, and having something or someone to rely on.

•   They skip after-school study one day and go to an island in a lake where they enjoy bike-riding and innocent play, and also have a serious conversation about seeking their fathers: Jun-sang’s mother has never told him who his father is; Yu-jin’s is dead. They are punished for their truancy by being made to incinerate leaves for a month, which only brings them closer.

•   Jun-sang and Yu-jin agree to meet again at the lake on the day of first snow. This extended sequence of playing in the snow serves as a thematic reference point for the rest of the drama. They next agree to meet on New Year’s Eve. Meanwhile Jun-sang has made efforts to find out his father’s identity and comes to believe he might be Yu-jin’s half-brother; he decides to go back to the US as his mother wants. However, on the way to the airport he has a traffic accident that causes amnesia, and his friends are told he has died.

The main part of the drama takes place ten years later: Yu-jin is about to marry high school friend Sang-hyeok. She has set up her own architecture company, which she has named Polaris, and takes on a job constructing a ski lodge for a company whose CEO, Lee Min-hyeong, is physically identical to Jun-sang, but quite different in personality. Yu-jin is shaken and disoriented. She is certain that Min-hyeong must be Jun-sang, but he has no memory or knowledge of her. She puts off her engagement to Sang-hyeok. Through this encounter, her suppressed love for Jun-sang is rekindled.

Gradually, Min-hyeong comes to respond to her presence in a physical way, as if he holds a subconscious bodily memory of her; he falls in love with her, breaking off his own current relationship. Over time Min-hyeong comes to realize that he is Jun-sang. The facts of his past are pieced together: the secret of his parentage, the deliberate interventions of his mother in having a psychologist use hypnosis to supply him with a new identity after the accident; and the lies his mother has told in order to cover this up. Min-hyeong/Jun-sang gives Yu-jin a pendant necklace of stars, representing Polaris, the symbol of their romance. She later returns this necklace to him at a point when they have to break up. Later still, it drops and breaks, symbolizing the impossibility of their relationship when it is revealed they are half-siblings. They then learn that such is in fact not the case, but Jun-sang discovers he has a life-threatening medical condition which he decides to have treated in the US, and he leaves Yu-jin to be looked after by Sang-hyeok.

The drama’s final scenes are in essence an epilogue set three years later: Yu-jin has returned from study in France; in the last scene she meets Jun-sang, who has now lost his eyesight. This encounter takes place in the house she has designed and he has had built as a memento of her in an idyllic island setting.

The plot, as can be surmised from my synopsis, relies heavily on tropes such as loss of memory and shock revelations of parentage. Underlying these hackneyed plot devices, however, are profound themes that have arguably contributed significantly to the appeal of the drama, especially in Japan with its history as former colonizer of Korea.

On the surface, a major theme of the drama is the enduring and haunting nature of first love. The evocation of first love is important in the dialogue, and is underlined in the reading of a poem by Sarah Teasdale on that theme. The story tells of an unrequited ‘pure’ love, whose fulfilment is indefinitely deferred, and indeed prevented by myriad plot twists over twenty viewing hours. The scenario involves karmic consequences from the previous (parents’) generation. Most commentators argue that Japanese middle-aged female viewers experienced nostalgia for such a pure type of love, which is regarded as no longer possible in Japan. Such a view relies on ‘a refusal to accept that it [Japan] shares the same temporality as other Asian nations’ (Iwabuchi 2002: 159). In reality, such a ‘pure’ love has probably never been possible in Japan (if anywhere), and the desire for such an illusion stems from the world of girls comics, a world which in turn derives from Western popular romance genres.

More important to the story, and central to my argument, is the theme of memory and forgetting. Memory is always selective, and so is forgetting. Forgetting can be unintentional (a ‘lapse of memory’), or it can be a purposeful suppression, an excising of traumatic events from consciousness. At the personal level we conveniently forget more than we remember. At the national level, collective memory is deliberately constructed by creating and perpetuating narratives about the past, memorializing past events through ritual and ceremony, and re-writing history books. Typically, national histories select past events that build up national pride and community solidarity, and conversely, through a ‘historiography of oblivion’, attempt to ‘obliterate the memory of certain events from public consciousness’ (Morris-Suzuki 2005: 8).

The plot of Winter Sonata revolves around the concealment of past events and relationships, loss of memory, the deliberate substitution of a fabricated new identity for a painful old one, and the lies that have to be told to maintain a fictional world. I have no intention of claiming that the creators of the drama were thinking of Korea–Japan relations when making the series, or consciously thinking of historical narratives, unlike the producers of many recent Korean historical dramas depicting foundational histories of Goguryeo (e.g. Jumong and Daewangsasingi [Legend]). However, the Winter Sonata narrative is permeated by the theme of ‘coming into memory’ (Gluck 2007) of what had been forgotten. The second half of the series concentrates on the gradual awakening of memory. This focus makes it possible to read the story allegorically in various ways, centrally as a metaphor for a Korean desire to forget a dark past, including Japanese colonization, the national division, and the years of economic hardship and dictatorship, and replacing that memory with a bright modern present that is affluent, optimistic and cosmopolitan, especially for the younger generation which has not experienced a painful past. The drama can thus be seen as an allegory of Korean modernity and progress, achieved at the expense of a rupture with the past and tradition, and the imposed necessity to forget (Calinescu 1987: 41; Jager and Mitter 2007).

It can be assumed that many Japanese viewers (bearing in mind that some Japanese fans are known to have viewed the drama several, even dozens, of times) would relate to such a theme, Japan having also experienced rapid modernization and the loss of traditional values. In addition, when placed in a sympathetic viewing relationship with the drama, it is likely that they would at some level recognize and be confronted with Japan’s colonial past vis-à-vis Korea. Such responses are particularly likely with female viewers, and have been noted in Hayashi and Lee (2007), by Mouri (2008: 138–139) and by Hyangjin Lee, who reports in this volume (page 7.11): ‘Interviewees often mentioned that their interests in Korean drama led them to think about public memories of the war and the suffering of neighbouring countries under Japanese colonial rule, as well as issues relating to prejudice and discrimination against Korean residents in Japan ... [They] became better informed about historical issues and felt sympathetic to people who suffered during the war and under Japanese colonial rule’.

Hayashi and Lee’s study shows that 60% of their 830 respondents confirmed that the drama had improved their image of South Korea and ‘a significant number of viewers have come to develop a newfound respect for South Korea through watching Winter Sonata even though the drama itself centres mostly on the tragic love of two young people and provides hardly any knowledge about the contemporary social and political conditions in South Korea’ (Hayashi and Lee 2007: 206). Hayashi and Lee further report Korean journalist Kwon Ri’s understanding that the enthusiasm of Japanese women for Winter Sonata was an ‘emancipatory moment’ giving them freedom from the patriarchal family. Others, they note, have written about the ‘redemptive potential’ of the Korean Wave through female fans who counterbalance (male) right-wing tendencies in Japan, and contribute to the reduction in tensions between the two countries. One Korean journalist even opined that ‘the Korean Wave in Japan [was] a sort of self-inflicted expiation by women seeking relief from the Korea-bashing perpetuated by their husbands’ (Hayashi and Lee 2007: 212).

In my reading of the drama, the loss of memory by the male lead represents suppression of a dark past, and the desire to replace it with a new bright present, in which there are no shadows. This is first suggested by the theme of shadows introduced early on in the playful dialogue (when they skip school and go to the lake) about a ‘land of shadows’, where Jun-sang is cast as unhappy, sad and resentful, a ‘shadow-boy’. When his memory is lost through a car accident, he is treated clinically by being somehow implanted with a new identity as Min-hyeong, so that he has no past to weigh him down. Min-hyeong gradually regains his memory and identity as Jun-sang, largely through a subconscious recognition of Yu-jin, but in the process he loses his bright confidence, and regains some of the insecurity of the old, shadowy Jun-sang.

In contrast to shadow is snow, which evokes a separate, timeless world beyond memory and forgetting. The brightness of snow transcends the everyday: it is cold and cleansing; it effaces shadow; it is energizing, soft, playful and malleable. The drama contains a number of snowscape scenes where snow is made a medium for pure joy and physical engagement, a separate world where inhibitions are lost, and no shadows are cast. These scenes, the visual and emotional heart of the drama, are reflected in the title. (Winter Sonata or Fuyu no sonata, both free translations of the Korean title, which literally means ‘winter love song’, are equally lyrical evocations of a winter aesthetic.)

The frequent references in the dialogue to ‘first snow’ echo ‘first love’. The initial snow scene is the setting for the protagonists’ first kiss as high school students by the lake. The next snow scene involves a visit to winter ski fields ten years later, where Min-hyeong and Yu-jin are engaged in the construction of a ski resort as working partners but ‘strangers’. In the repeated visits to this location, snow takes on a symbolic function: it is able to efface dark memories of the past, to create a new bright world with neither past nor future. The snow fields function as a foil to the routine normality and modernity of life in Seoul. Similarly, Yu-jin’s hometown, the provincial city of Chuncheon, functions not only as the site of school (an agent of change), but through Yu-jin’s home, as a site of a traditional past life, where family expectations rule. The snowscapes are outside both present and past, but can provide a catalyst for memory and healing.

The theme of the absent father serves as an adjunct to that of erasure and recovery of memory. Min-hyeong seeks, as teenage Jun-sang had done, to know who his father is, his father having been deliberately erased from his life and his identity by his mother. Unlike Yu-jin’s family, Min-hyeong and his mother do not carry out memorial services for the dead; they have no connection with the past until the love triangle of the parents’ generation starts to emerge and cast a shadow on the love relationships of the narrative present. Again, we can read this erasure as an allegory for a vanished past too painful to remember: for Korea, it is the receding of authoritarian military rule, replaced by an affluent urban lifestyle of consumption; for Japan, it is the turning aside from the pain and guilt of colonization and aggression into a comfortable inward-looking amnesia.

The gradual and painful restoration of memory (the return of the father) involves guilt and recrimination, and points to an ethical dimension in the story and its themes. A desire for apology and forgiveness is suggested in the constant expression of remorse, self-blame and betrayal: ‘I will be punished for this’, ‘I will never forgive you’, ‘God, forgive me’, ‘Let’s not hurt those we love’. ‘I’m sorry’ is a refrain. This is suggestive of the refrain of apology in Japan–Korea relations: sought, given and nullified.

The frequent occurrences of accident and injury, in which characters are hurt protecting a loved Other, point to a theme of self-sacrifice and atonement, such as when Yu-jin shields Min-hyeong from a falling beam on the construction site and is injured herself. Jealously, Sang-hyeok accuses her of revealing her desire to protect Min-hyeong. A number of eclectic spiritual practices, including Christianity and fortune-telling, tarot cards and piles of stones on a mountain, belief in fate and karma, are depicted matter-of-factly. These spiritual practices underline the drama’s ethical dimension and form a significant part of the texture of the drama. For example, Yu-jin prays for Min-hyeong’s recovery in the hospital; he prays for forgiveness when deceiving her. Their candid commitment to each other is sealed in the playful building of a small stone cairn on the snowy mountain.

Other themes and motifs in Winter Sonata are loosely connected with the ethical dimension just alluded to. For example, the many scenes in cafés or at shared meal tables, and the ritual sharing of birthday cakes, can be interpreted as pathways to physical, social and emotional restoration. Eating takes on a symbolism of wholeness and reassurance: characters regularly exhort each other to ‘eat well, sleep well, work/study well’, as a kind of incantation or blessing. Food features in buying, preparing, serving and eating as a social, restorative act. Although such scenes and exhortations are not uncommon in Korean dramas, they would strike a Japanese audience as fresh and meaningful.

It is worth noting the images of other countries in Winter Sonata for what they imply about Korea itself. The modern West serves as an escape from Korea for various characters at crucial points. Japan is marginal, but as the destination of concert tours, fashion shows, and an architectural business venture, it is cast as a site that confers success, providing recognition of professional ability. Interestingly, there is no hint of the Japanese colonial past in this drama. Japan is rather an extension of Seoul’s modernity. The United States, however, is the ultimate source of legitimacy: Min-hyeong is constructed as having ‘grown up’ there; his mother’s career is established and developed there; Min-hyeong retreats there when life becomes untenable in Korea. Nonetheless, any hint of US presence in Korea is avoided, even though there was a US military base in Chuncheon at the time of the drama’s ‘past’, and in Seoul in the drama’s narrative present. The drama suggests that France, on the other hand, provides the ultimate cultural capital: it is a destination for study abroad, arguably another form of escape, even a kind of play. Chae-rin, Min-hyeong’s later love interest, meets him there, when both are presumably studying. France also functions as an escape route for Yu-jin too, as her mother remarks. In contrast, Korea is implicitly depicted as dangerous, dark and threatening, full of conflict and unpleasant memories of the past. Min-hyeong’s dark Korean past is effaced and replaced with a bright American past, present and future. The love triangle of the parents’ generation forms part of the dark past from which his mother wanted to escape, and she has created lies and fictions in order to do so.


Of course, Winter Sonata does not present a realistic representation of life in contemporary Korea. And yet, its setting is geographically determinable, as tourist agencies have been quick to point out. For Japanese viewers, does the Korea in Winter Sonata offer something more than a snow-fantasy, a form of escape from a harsher reality? Certainly, tourism to the sites where the drama was filmed shows that its fans want to bring the fantasyland of this drama into their lives, into the real world.

In conclusion, I ask, with Lee Wook-yon (2005: 132), ‘whether the exchange of popular culture at the private level can result in the formation of a regional network that is capable of transcending the conflicting interests of the multinational cultural industries’. Can consumption of popular culture improve the image held of the country that produces it? Are the settings of the texts of popular culture just fantasy worlds whose national location is of little or no importance? I believe that the majority of the fans who fell in love with Winter Sonata and its lead actors also fell in love with Korea at some level. The virtual nature of this infatuation means it is fragile and volatile. However, the fans are reversing the directionality of a model of Japan as a provider of culture and development to the rest of Asia; they are resisting the official discourse of Japan’s Gross National Cool, and implicitly proclaiming that Korea can be more desirable than Japan. These women are being subversive by claiming a place in popular culture as middle-aged fans, by studying the Korean language and going to Korea, and by learning how to use new technologies.6 Many have found new meaning in their lives through an experience of Korea created by the drama. Once people go to such lengths to understand a desired Other, they are on a trajectory that can become totally compelling in their lives, whether this affects policy makers or not.

In addition to confirming that intensive consumption of this television drama changed fan behaviour, we need to ask why. If, as I have argued, Winter Sonata plays out an allegory of modernity and a dark past that has been buried, it is reasonable to assume that Japanese fans responded to this at some level as a past that must be acknowledged and which Japan needs to come to terms with. This narrative is not only about Korea; it is also the story of Japan’s own modernization and its relationship to traditional values. Furthermore, in this reading, the theme of ‘coming into memory’ is capable of touching the nerve of Japan’s suppressed memory of the colonization of Korea. Japanese fans have thus responded not just to an attractive male actor but to the deeper themes of the drama, themes that have touched their lives. If Winter Sonata has contributed towards a reckoning with the past and provoked awareness of the harm Japan has done to its neighbour, and thereby allowed one small step towards reconciliation, it has indeed performed a great service for Japan and for Korea.


1   Ching (2006) argues that the use of the term ‘post-colonial’ is awkward in the case of Japan, because the process whereby Japan lost its empire was passive; it was divested of its colonies, neither through the struggle of the colonized, nor through negotiation, but through Japan’s surrender to the United States and the subsequent Allied Occupation. This process, according to Ching, led to Japan’s oblivion of empire, and its inability to come to terms with its loss: ‘[T]he relative lack of the term postcolonial in Japan ... suggest[s that] we see that absence as a symptom of an incomplete project of decolonization ...’ (145).

2   From here, Korea means South Korea (Republic of Korea), unless otherwise stated.

3   Korea has the largest number of Japanese language learners of any country at 910,000 in 2006 (up from 890,000 in 2003), followed by China and Australia. See (Accessed 9 September 2009). According to the online journal, ‘Japan saw a large increase in the number of the students enrolled in Korean language schools there, growing 128 percent to 3,854 in 2007 from 1,693 a year earlier, according to the ministry figures. The Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported Wednesday that more Japanese high school students are choosing the Korean language as a subject in Japan’s state-administered college entrance exam, making Korean the third most popular foreign language in Japan after English and Chinese’. See: (Accessed 9 September 2009).

4   An earlier version of this paper was published in 2008 as ‘Conflict, popular culture and Korea-Japan relations: changing identities and networks’, Proceedings of the Second Afrasian International Symposium, Changing Identities and Networks in the Globalizing World: Negotiation, Conflict Prevention and Conflict Resolution in Everyday Life, edited by Hamashita et al., Afrasian Centre for Peace and Development Studies, Ryukoku University and Japanese Studies Centre, Monash University (ISBN 978-4-903625-63-8): 215–226.

5   My personal observation is that Daejanggeum (Changumu no chikai) appealed to men in Japan, including many who normally did not watch television dramas at all.

6   Hambleton (2005: 37–38) reports that respondents in their fifties who had previously had little interest or experience with technology such as DVDs, VHS videos or the Internet found themselves compelled to learn in order to obtain new hallyu information. ‘I used a computer you can record from the television on to for the first time and I connected everything by myself and was able to record directly on to the hard disc. I also bought the DVDs because you can’t record from BS to video ... I had used the Internet before but for the first time I looked at foreign (non-Japanese) homepages too’. Hyangjin Lee (in this volume, page 7.7) similarly reports that many of her interviewees and respondents purchased new electronic goods, became daily users of the Internet, purchased or upgraded their mobile phones to receive and share Internet services and so on.


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Cite this chapter as: Tokita, Alison. 2010. ‘Winter Sonata and the politics of memory’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 3.1–3.12.


©Copyright 2010 Alison Tokita

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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita