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Complicated Currents

Chapter 6



Kukhee Choo, National University of Singapore / University of Tokyo

Kukhee Choo is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Asian Research Institute, National University of Singapore and an Exchange Research Fellow at the University of Tokyo.


The recent popularity of Japanese anime and manga in the global market has sparked a variety of academic research. In Japan, both media fall under the term kontentsu (‘content’), and the Japanese government passed the Content Industry Promotion Law bill in 2004 in order to ‘officially’ promote anime and manga as a Japanese product globally.1 This change has come with the growth of the United States market since the mid-1990s. However, before the Japanese government decided to support the anime and manga industries, there was a wave of Japanese products – which included music , television dramas, manga, anime and video games – popularly consumed in Asia throughout the 1990s (Iwabuchi 2002).

South Korea (henceforth Korea) was no exception. Although the Korean government only officially allowed Japanese cultural products into the Korean market after 1998, a continuous backdoor for such products, mostly manga, had existed for many decades prior to Korea’s ‘open door’ policy. The Korean military government constantly tried to prevent the public from ‘exposure’ to Japanese products throughout the 1970s and 1980s due to a concern that they would corrupt Korean morals and sentiment. The primary concern arose from the colonial past: Koreans had a deep-rooted fear of Japanese cultural products as they reminded them of Japan’s Occupation.

As if mocking the government’s effort, Japanese girls comic books (shojo manga) were reprinted and reproduced in Korea throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, local artists either directly copied shojo manga or imitated their visual stylistics and narratives. Following this trend was an explosive black market in Japanese comic books, regardless of genre, since the late 1980s that eventually led to the open-door policy in 1998. Kwok (1998: 188) explains that the deregulation of the publication industry in 1987 established a ‘solid framework of illegal copying’ for publishers. Yet most of the comic books that entered the Korean market after 1987 were boys’ comics from Japan. The initial wave of pirated Japanese comics from the 1970s, however, revolved around those for girls.

In contrast to the extensive research on manga, comic book culture in Korea is an under-studied academic field. Literature on other Asian comic books has mostly focused on how Japanese manga have spread throughout the global market. Many studies have concentrated on fan culture, or feminist readings of texts, which are indeed important to understanding Japanese manga culture at large. Yet little research has been done on the implications of this vast distribution of Japanese manga on local productions elsewhere in Asia. Although many critical voices denigrate this ‘plagiarizing’ girls comic book culture in Korea of the 1970s and 1980s, this chapter suggests that Japanese shojo manga may have presented Korean females with a new means of expression under a military government that restricted gender roles. This study will explore the ramifications of Korea’s introduction to Japanese shojo manga in the context of Korea’s gendered politics and a social milieu oppressive of women. In order to distinguish early Korean girls comic books, sunjeong manhwa (‘romance’ comic books), and their Japanese counterparts, shojo manga, I will use both terms henceforward.2


Korea’s authoritarian military regime from the 1960s onwards built itself and in turn shaped the country’s environment under the influence of Cold War rhetoric against communism. This process occurred at the expense of women, who were not viewed as equal citizens because men were thought to be the primary nation-builders and defenders. Due to this social milieu, not only were women alienated from politics, but they lacked official outlets to have their voices heard. This study attempts to illustrate how Korea’s subaltern women tried to find an outlet for their voices within the rigid social constraints imposed under the military regime through unofficial routes.

The illegal import of Japanese comic books – especially such gendered ones as the shojo manga Candy Candy (1975) – into the Korean market and the surge that it precipitated not only popularized the girls comic book genre in Korea, but also provided a broader platform for females to express their creative desires; underground artists inspired by shshojojo manga started to emerge during the early 1980s. Though these women might have tried to ‘voice’ themselves, their attempt has been undermined in Korean scholarship on comic books. Korean girls comic book culture is often criticized for ‘mindlessly’ imitating Japanese shshojojo manga (e.g. Son 1998: 297). Spivak, in a vastly different context, has argued that Western interpretations of Sati, the widow-burning practice in India, undermine the actual voices and desires of the widows who burn themselves, thus erasing their subjectivity (Spivak 1988). Similarly, the underground Korean female comic book artists’ struggle has suffered from misinterpretation.

Before Japanese shshojojo manga were introduced to Korea on a massive scale in the mid-1970s, a few local artists were already producing comic books for girls. Though male, Kim Jeong-pa, Choe Sang-rok, Jo Won-gi, and Kwon Yeong-seop were all considered pioneers of the genre. According to a Hankyoreh 21 article, during the 1950s Korea saw the emergence of comic book narratives largely divided into three genres: action, cheerful/humourous (myeongrang), and family. Sunjeong manhwa emerged out of the family genre, and provided an alternative to the vastly popular boy-centred genres.3 Thus, when shshojojo manga entered the Korean market during the 1970s, they were often perceived as of Korean origin by readers and naturally fell under the umbrella of sunjeong manhwa rather than Ilbon manhwa (the Korean term for ‘Japanese’ comic books). In the 1960s, female artists started to emerge within the sunjeong manhwa scene. These artists include Eom Hee-ja, Min Ae-ni, and Song Sun-hee, who became so popular that publishers limited the print runs of their work with the claim that their success was creating a sales imbalance within the market (Park 2000: 53). The narrative sensibility of these artists, perceived as more ‘feminine’ than that of male artists, quenched the thirst of female readers, and thus their work may be considered the ‘true’ beginning of sunjeong manhwa.4

Although the work these artists produced was viewed as free of Japanese influence, Min Ae-ni has noted that when she started drawing comics during the early 1960s, there was already a plethora of copied Japanese titles in the market that influenced her drawing style (Park 2000: 58). This influence is a spill-over effect of the colonial period. Not only were most comic books published in Japan consumed on the Korean peninsula as well, but Korean artists also travelled to Japan to study drawing comics (Choe 1995: 82–83). Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Korean artists of the 1950s and 1960s continued to experience Japanese influence in their visual style. In addition, the dichotomous narrative structure of ‘good versus evil’ in Japanese shshojojo manga affected both Korean readers and artists. Within these narratives, Korean readers may have found solace from the menial state of postwar society. Korean sunjeong manhwa created by Min Ae-ni and Eom Hee-ja often depicted class struggle between the rich and poor and the contrast between urban and rural spaces; their female protagonists would typically find happiness after enduring hardship. Such storylines became prevalent owing to the military government’s control of printed material (Park 2000: 56). Cultural productions for and by women were often censored according to Confucian social values: skirts should not rise above the knees, flamboyant jewellery should not be worn, and glamorous lifestyles were not to be depicted without punishment. Therefore, the depiction of virtuous, humble women became a generic formula for sunjeong manhwa.

This political milieu may explain why the shshojojo manga Candy Candy, though of Japanese origin, was accepted in Korea so easily. Created by Igarashi Yumiko in 1975, it depicts an orphan girl who eventually finds love, money and happiness through her kind and enduring heart. Candy, as a female protagonist, fits perfectly the military era profile for a poor girl enduring social hardship. Korean readers readily identified with Candy, having already become familiar with the tear-jerker narratives of 1960s sunjeong manhwa such as Watanabe Masako’s Glass Castle (1969), another example of the nice-girl-triumphantly-finding-happiness genre that held immense popularity among Korean readers. The storyline focuses on the love, betrayal, and forgiveness of two sisters. Traditional Korean literature and literature of the colonial period also favoured allegories of good-versus-evil (Shin 2001: 250), a dichotomous narrative structure that the mass-printed comic book culture strengthened among younger audiences and in popular media after the Korean War throughout the 1960s. Similarly, Korean readers during the 1970s may have been attracted to pirated shshojojo manga because their narratives often portrayed females who endure hardship but eventually achieve happiness. Such formulae are still deeply embedded within various media in Korea and continue even in recent Korean television dramas such as Glass Shoes (2002), where an ‘evil’ sister switches her birth certificate with the ‘good’ sister in order to live as a wealthy heiress.


The pirated, illegal shshojojo manga were not sold at regular book stores, since the distribution system for comic books in Korea was strictly limited to manhwabang (comic book rooms), small establishments where customers could pay to read. As a result, a brief explanation of manhwabang is necessary. Korea underwent many changes during the 1980s both politically and culturally. One area that has not been often studied is the development of Korea’s comic book culture, due to its stigma of vulgarity and low-taste. However, it is pertinent to examine the close relationship between comic book culture and Korean identity during the 1980s, for in that period, comic book readership was high, though sales records may not indicate this.

Reading comic books had long been a major pastime owing to the widespread expansion of manhwabang throughout the postwar industrial period. In the early days, they primarily sprang up around K-12 schools and later spread to the vicinity of universities, factories, markets and train stations. Son Sang-ik notes that by the mid-1970s approximately 20,000 manhwabang operated throughout Korea (Son 1998: 208). According to a survey conducted in the late 1970s, up to 60 per cent of elementary-school children frequented manhwabang (Son 1998: 210). Furthermore, according to a survey conducted by the Korea Publication Ethics Commission (KPEC) in 1990, more than 75 per cent of the readers who accessed manhwabang were over 20 years of age. By 1993, the percentage of university students among these readers had risen from 35 per cent to 48 per cent, which was attributed to the increase in manhwabang near campuses (Son 1998: 215). In other words, the children of the late-1970s survey had grown up to become the manhwabang devotees of the early 1990s. Thus, although manhwabang may have initially begun as a children’s space during the 1960s and 1970s, they eventually became established as a solid part of Korea’s general culture.

Manhwabang were comic book library/tea rooms (similar to what the Japanese call manga kissa, but much smaller and cheaper) where, for a small fee, one could read as many comic books as one wanted (during the 1970s, this fee was as low as 10–20 won per book). People who accessed manhwabang, other than those located near educational institutions, were often imagined as under-educated, jobless, or belonging to lower social strata. This association also stemmed from the view that the educated read ‘literature’, not manhwa. Because of a stereotype about the gender distribution of their patrons, the image of manhwabang was that of ‘smoky rooms filled with men’ (Park 2000: 20), but female readers also spent time there.

However, stereotypes about manhwabang further widened the division between how each gender made use of them. As Park (2000: 20) asserts, men would go to manhwabang to read comics, whereas women would purchase comics to read. Similarly, Son argues that girls were ousted by boys’ domination of the manhwabang space, which led to the downfall of girls comic book culture between the late 1960s and early 1970s (Son 1998: 295). Therefore, it was often imagined that no ‘decent’ female would frequent manhwabang. However, imagining manhwabang as a masculine space certainly does not clarify how Japanese shshojojo manga became an integral part of manhwabang culture.

In a Marxist feminist reading, Kim Kyung-hee explains that Korea’s status as an aspiring capitalist society during the 1960s and 1970s makes it ‘hard to deny that some contradictions and inequalities have their origin in class’, yet, ‘patriarchal structure mixed with capitalism ... is the reason for gender constraints, not just capitalism’ (Kim 2006: 125). Thus, it was not necessarily class that shaped the belief that only ‘indecent’ women from the lower strata of society visited manhwabang, but perhaps that patriarchal hegemony may have felt threatened by female subjects entering ‘masculine’ space. The increase in pirated shshojojo manga in manhwabang and the advent of purchasable shshojojo manga in book stores and stationery stores near educational institutions became profitable for vendors. This increased accessibility of shshojojo manga may have led many younger female students to frequent manhwabang with less bias (at least in their minds) during the 1970s. Furthermore, although manhwabang did not initially have a book-lending system and one had to stay within its confined space to read, in the 1970s and 1980s, as manhwabang spread through residential areas including massive apartment projects, borrowing manhwa to read at home became normalized. Therefore, the manhwabang transformed into a more open space for females, who could visit briefly to rent manhwa.

The selection in manhwabang initially consisted mostly of boys’ comic books, but after the wave of illegal shshojojo manga during the mid-1970s, the number of book shelves dedicated to sunjeong manhwa increased and attracted even more female readers. In addition to Candy Candy and The Glass Castle, popular titles introduced during this period were The Rose of Versailles, Glass Mask and Angelique (all direct original copies with Korean translations pasted over the Japanese text). Obvious markers of ‘Japaneseness’ were erased from the drawings as well: kimono were redrawn as Korean hanbok, and food and architecture were redrawn and renamed as Korean. Therefore, many girls who grew up reading sunjeong manhwa were not aware of their Japanese origin. In some cases, the name of the author remained intact on the cover, yet still left young Korean readers oblivious to the author’s nationality because the name was written in either English or Chinese characters, which many were unable to decipher.

The ratio of male-oriented to female-oriented comic books in manhwabang may be an indicator of female readership: depending on location, approximately one third to half of manhwa during the 1980s consisted of comic books aimed at girls.5 However, this breakdown of readership did not correlate with the sex of the artists that produced the texts. As John Lent (1995: 192) explains, approximately 30 books per day were published for distribution to manhwabang during the 1980s, but the majority of comic book artists in Korea were men, and the few sunjeong manhwa artists did not produce enough titles to satisfy demand. Therefore, many publishers imported or copied large quantities of Japanese shshojojo manga in order to accommodate a female readership.


After Chun Doo-hwan’s military coup in 1979, there was a crackdown on Japanese cultural products. During the politically turbulent early 1980s, the new military government tried to strengthen national identity through implementing strict laws that regulated anything that carried ‘Japanese colour’ (waesaek). Comic books, which, interestingly, consisted mostly of shshojojo manga, became a target as ‘culturally corrupting’ material. The government carried out media stunts such as televising the burning of mountains of confiscated pirated comic books.

This crackdown interrupted the manhwabang supply system and the flow of girls comic books into an already illegitimate market. The owners of manhwabang and comic book distributors thus faced a dilemma. Given the demand of female readers, vendors naturally conjured up alternative methods of copying Japanese shshojojo manga. In order to fill the emptying sunjeong manhwa bookshelves, underground publishers hired local artists, or mechanical ‘tracers’, whose work was published under pen names. These ‘ghost artists’ reproduced shshojojo manga by quickly tracing or redrawing them, but the results were inferior to the original titles. Moreover, a single ghost artist could redraw various shshojojo manga under different names, which created the illusion of an increase in Korean sunjeong manhwa artists.6 The quality of the drawings did not matter much to distributors and readers, however, since the production and consumption of narratives was the priority for both.

Since the proportion of pirated shshojojo manga in most manhwabang was already sizable, these gauchely plagiarized comics that were copied so rapidly or ‘on the fly’ – or what I refer to here as ‘fly-copies’ – were easily accepted as an extension of the earlier pirated versions, but they had the advantage of not violating the government prohibition against Japanese products; the narratives and drawing styles were identical to the pirated series, yet now appeared under Korean authors’ names (Figure 6.1).7 In addition, redrawing Japanese originals proved more economical than pasting text over reprints.

Figure 6.1. A fly-copy version (left) of Itsuki Natsumi’s Maruchero SutSutoriaria (1982–1985) (right).

At this point, a divide between purchasable and rentable manhwa emerged. Unlike the direct pirated copies available in manhwabang and stationery stores near K-12 schools, fly-copies, which were low in quality, appeared only in manhwabang.

In rare instances, the rough Korean version was regarded as superior to the Japanese original, as was the case with the fly-copy of Morikawa Kumi’s Chimere (1978–1979). The mid-1980s fly-copy edition combined the two-book original series and resembled a 500-page Western paperback novel. The drawing style was rougher than the original, yet, owing to the narrative’s setting in the late-nineteenth-century Paris theatre district, the fly-copy’s sketchy pen strokes were considered more artistic and thus more ‘appropriate’ for the storyline. Although the identity of the fly-copy artist of Korea’s Chimere has never become publicly known, he or she inspired many sunjeong manhwa artists in Korea at the time.8

Though born out of unofficial market demand during the 1980s, fly-copying became an integral part of the sunjeong manhwa system. Some artists developed notable reputations through this process, for example Kim Yeong-suk, Hwang Su-jin and Jeong Yeong-suk. These artists became manhwabang favourites and are still remembered fondly among early sunjeong manhwa readers (Figure 6.2).

Figure 6.2. Kim Yeong-suk, a male artist under a female pen name, copied numerous manga originally by Uehara Kimiko (top); Hwang Su-jin was known for redoing the titles of Watanabe Masako (left); and Jeong Yeong-suk became famous for her renditions of Miuchi Suzue’s work (right).

Many titles published in the most popular shshojojo manga monthly magazines in Japan at the time, such as Ribon, Margaret, Nakayoshi, Princess, Bouquet and Ciao, were indiscriminately copied by Korean ghost artists. Due to the massive amount of plagiarized girls series that flooded manhwabang during the 1980s, readers of girls comic books in Korea could often access shshojojo manga narratives that were currently popular in Japan.9 In a sense, ghost artists reproducing popular shshojojo manga from Japan during the 1980s for manhwabang readers constructed a space where Japanese girls and Korean girls could share the same texts, and thus, the same culture. The Korean and Japanese readers simultaneously consumed the narratives of female protagonists portrayed in Japanese shshojojo manga and assimilated the accompanying narrative codes: how the protagonist interacts with her ‘Prince Charming’ and navigates her social setting. Sometimes, avid readers in Korea in this period even had more knowledge of Japanese narratives than their counterparts in Japan, because Korean fans could readily rent copied manhwa in manhwabang rather than having to buy the titles, as was the case in Japan.

Another interesting phenomenon that resulted from the crackdown on Japanese shshojojo manga in Korea was what I term ‘patchwork’ sunjeong manhwa. Patchworking, which was unique to sunjeong manhwa culture, involved a hodgepodge production of narratives, characters, and backgrounds from various Japanese shshojojo manga. Underground ghost artists would sometimes pitch narratives to the publisher and, if lucky, have their ideas selected. A number of ghost artists would then collaborate on the patchworked product, each independently in charge of a section, such as background, character or fashion. Such manhwa were literally ‘patched’ together without the artists actually drawing much. The labour cost was about 1,000 won per page in the mid-1980s (about US$1.50 at the time). Therefore, ghost artists could earn up to 150,000 won per book, which would take about two or three weeks to produce. However, considering that the starting salary for a university graduate at the time was approximately 300,000 won per month, ghost artists earned a minimal wage.10 Yet, this manual labour had advantages of its own, and aspiring ghost artists were able to identify themselves as valid comic book artists. A former patchwork artist stated that, ‘It felt great when the story I pitched got published. It was like I was an established artist’.11 These ghost artists, then, utilized their invisible position to maximum benefit: they empowered themselves as ‘artists’ while enduring menial labour conditions.

This patchworking process has developed into what is now called a ‘factory system’, in which over a hundred employees each draw a few pages under a given artist’s name, culminating in a book at the end of the day and approximately 40 titles a month. That it is indeed a factory system rather than a single artist’s work is indicated by the less-than-uniform drawing style. Successful artists whose names have become known in this format include Hwang Mi-ri, Han Yu-rang, Na Ha-ran, and the aforementioned Kim Yeong-suk. The factory system has continued to flourish, supplying works to commercial outlets for comics even a decade into the twenty-first century due to the proliferation of rental stores.

There are currently an estimated 10,000 comic rental shops (manhwa daeyeojeom) in Korea, which differ from the previous manhwabang. These stores limit themselves to rental only, a phenomenon that emerged in the mid-1990s. After the IMF crisis, Korea witnessed a surge to an estimated 20,000 rental stores, but the number has slowly decreased since. These rental stores are often considered the culprit in the deterioration of Korea’s comic book commerce (Park 2004). In addition, factory-produced manhwa titles are now supplied to online rental stores where readers pay a small amount to read books online. Nonetheless, the fly-copying culture of the 1980s has persisted and is still influencing the sunjeong manhwa industry in Korea.


Spurred by the burgeoning manhwa culture in Korea during the early 1980s, artists, including ghost artists, wanted to create their own narratives, so they formed amateur underground comic book clubs and magazines called donginji (the equivalent of Japanese ddojinshijinshi). The first club to organize was PAC, which was started in 1983 by the now established artist Kang Kyung-ok. By the late 1980s, seven major donginji clubs were based in Seoul: PAC, Aram, Narcissus, Zero, KGB, Art and Uri Maeul (Our Village) (Figure 6.3). Although these venues eventually became more dominated by women, members initially consisted of both males and females. Anti-government university students during the 1980s frequently utilized drawing styles akin to proletarian art, under the rubric of ‘minjung art’, which was often gendered as male.12 Men thus came to participate comfortably in donginji culture because it emphasized its underground rather than sunjeong (with connotations of a ‘pure’, ‘emotional’, feminine sensibility) aspects.

Figure 6.3. Covers of donginji published by PAC (left) and KGB (right) in 1989.

In addition, some established artists from the mid-1980s, such as Hwang Mina, Kim Jin, Kim Dong-hwa, Kim Hye-rin and Shin Il-suk – the second generation of Korean sunjeong manhwa artists – often depicted male protagonists and their political and emotional struggles, in which the boundary between male and female readership was often blurred.13 Such male-oriented narratives allowed male readers to participate in sunjeong manhwa culture more easily.

Though initially influenced by Japanese titles, established artists have openly expressed a nationalistic Korean pride. In an interview with The Dong-A Ilbo (19 December 2004), Hwang Mina stated that, ‘Even though Candy Candy was immensely popular throughout Korea in 1979, I was more impressed with works by Yi Hyeon-se, Yi Sang-mu, and Heo Yeong-man’. Shin Il-suk asserted that, ‘The pinnacle of Japanese comics was during the 1970s and 1980s. Recent Japanese comic books lack sincerity and seem to focus on stimulation. Since Korean artists create works with a sense of ‘depth’, I think that we will soon be able to discuss Korean comics on an equal ground with Japanese comics’.14

Such established artists inspired donginji artists both positively and negatively. The donginji artists viewed their predecessors with either admiration or contempt for producing narratives that they regarded as old-fashioned. Many donginji artists flaunted their affinity for the more contemporary and thus ‘modern’ Japanese shshojojo manga narratives of the time (Figure 6.4), rather than the narratives popular among established artists, which had quasi-medieval settings. However, donginji artists were nevertheless influenced by the epic political sagas depicting human alienation and social injustice that established artists produced.

Figure 6.4. Short story by an artist named Aki in KGB donginji, issue 20, March 1991.

Moreover, because donginji were free of government censorship, they allowed exploration of various narratives and stylistics. For example, both heterosexual and homosexual relationships were openly depicted. Also, donginji contained nudity, which could not be shown in regular girls comic books on the market. Japanese artists such as Takaguchi Satosumi, who often created works in the boys-love (yaoi) genre, and Kamijo Atsushi, whose comic book series To-Y (1985) featured gender-ambiguous characters, became donginji artists’ favourites. Adopting sexuality expressed in Japanese manga may be viewed as a form of resistance to the government’s strict regulations of free expression and Confucian society’s control over the female body. Therefore, donginji provided female comic book artists a safe space in which they not only nurtured their artistic creativity, but also articulated their sexual desires and political consciousness.


Manhwa historians often criticize the 1970s shshojojo manga wave as a negative influence on girls’ culture in Korea. Son Sang-ik argues that the Western aesthetics of shshojojo manga are based on a deep-rooted sense of inferiority on the part of the Japanese towards Western culture. This Japanese inferiority complex, Son claims, is detrimental to Korea’s sunjeong manhwa artists and female readers as it suggests a colonized outlook (Son 1998: 299). However, some critics dispute this dominant view and focus on the positive influence of shshojojo manga. Choe Yeol states that shshojojo manga epics during the 1970s often dealt with political issues amidst their dramas of love, hate, betrayal, and passion. This concern, he argues, thus instilled a political sensibility among female artists and readers, which elevated sunjeong manhwa to a more sophisticated form of expression (Choe 1995: 177–178).

Yamanaka Chie explains that many Korean artists who participated in the illegal copying of Japanese manga deny such a past and assert the Korean identity of their productions. Thus, the illegal copying of Japanese shshojojo manga during the 1980s has been ignored in the history of Korean comic books and also in the memory of Korean readers (Yamanaka 2006: 196). The point Yamanaka makes is a poignant one since, as evidenced by the brevity of Son’s ten-page description of sunjeong manhwa amidst his detailed 700-page history of Korean comics, girls comic book culture is still a neglected topic. The history of pirating is glossed over briefly. However, embarrassment over such a history is not shared by those artists who branched out from donginji culture. Rather, these artists, who were not only involved in what Yamanaka describes as ‘mechanically copied’ pirate manhwa (Yamanaka 2006: 198) but also published their own creations in donginji magazines, felt pride over their activity. When interviewed, these artists were open about their passion for Japanese manga; they reappropriated them without compunction. Therefore, nationalism, as implicated in comic book culture, may also be gendered – in that male artists (and researchers) have more at stake in losing their nationalist credentials than the female artists who freely adopted Japanese manga culture.

Undeniably, Korea’s colonial past complicates assessment of the relationship between shshojojo manga and sunjeong manhwa. Donginji artists’ open embrace of Japanese over Western culture demands further examination as well. A few factors in Korea contributed to a smoother process of accepting shshojojo manga. First, the comic book culture Korea shared with Japan during the colonial period continued after Liberation. Second, the Korean government’s regulations against Japanese culture in the post-World War II era were undermined by a black market in Japanese popular media, including music, magazines and films, thus making manga more accessible for publishers and distributors to copy. A third, often unexamined, issue is the fact that Japanese culture, though abhorred by many Koreans as that of the former colonizing power, was often still imagined as ‘superior’. The past decade, as other chapters in this volume show, has witnessed an increase of discourse re-examining the process of trans-Asian cultural flows. Analysts of inter-Asian cultural exchange during the 1990s have often viewed the penetration of specifically ‘Japanese’ (popular) cultural influences into neighbouring Asian countries as minimal due to their ‘nationless’ (mukokuseki) character (Iwabuchi 2002; Befu 2003). As this study suggests, however, these cultural flows can be empowering to local consumers through regional re-appropriations. Both views provide broader insights into the complex workings of cultural formations within the process of globalization.

And yet, how did the decolonization process unfold in Korea prior to globalization, especially given that cultural flows have always existed? Did the notion of ‘Japan as superior’ ever disappear from the Korean imaginary? Without the dismantling of such a notion, it appears impossible to separate Japanese cultural products from their ‘Japaneseness’. A further question is, then, how one culture appropriates from and negotiates with a dominant culture. Imitating the former colonizer entails the dilemma of both wanting to become and wanting to expunge, thus creating ambivalence. However, if we follow the arguments of Homi Bhabha (1994), Korea’s hybridization of Japanese shshojojo manga also subverts the narratives of the former colonial power and the dominant culture. This mimicry may upset Japanese viewers as it camouflages a Korean ‘Other’; such a reaction can entail both awe at the successful imitation of Japanese stylistics, and disdain, for ultimately it represents nothing more than Korea’s pale imitation. Yet, as the formulaic shshojojo manga narratives are deconstructed and infused with Korea’s gender politics, the hybridization of shshojojo manga into sunjeong manhwa creates a counter-narrative to the dominant Japanese discourse. Furthermore, Korean sunjeong manhwa artists have utilized Japanese culture to voice their political views in the face of Korea’s restrictive military government, as well as to resist the Japanese form of Westernization, creating a dual mode of opposition. Third-generation artists who had been donginji members in fact resisted the very Japanese style of Western depiction created by Japanese shshojojo manga codes, and thus further expunged the ‘West’ within Korea. As Stuart Hall (1991: 34) asserts, the emergence of new voices and communities among those excluded from mainstream social rhetoric provides these invisible groups with ‘the means to speak for themselves for the first time’.

However, as Korean artists experience generational change, the political stance of formative artists may be diffused, lost, or internalized. The outcome of this process may vary according to each artist; nonetheless, the cultural and conceptual hybridization at work manifests itself in a form that can stir up unease in both the colonizer and the colonized. Gung (2000), by Park So-hee (Bak So-hui) is a salient example of this unease (Figure 6.5). Set in contemporary Korea, Gung assumes a continuation of Korea’s royal family based on the fictional premise that Korea was never occupied by Japan. The story revolves around the crown prince and his fiancée, who are both high school students. A love triangle is formed as the crown prince’s cousin, another possible candidate for the throne, enters the narrative. At first sight, the narrative resembles closely the record-breaking Japanese shshojojo manga Hana Yori Dango (Boys over Flowers). However, unlike the self-absorbed love drama of the latter, Gung transforms itself into a political saga involving the royal family’s feud over succession as well as sunjeong manhwa romance code.

When Gung was introduced to the Japanese market as part of the Korean Wave phenomenon, Park presented at the Asia in Comics Exhibition held by the Japan Foundation in Tokyo in February 2004. At the time, Park openly expressed sentiments critical of Japan’s role in Korean history, but expressed no resistance towards the heavy consumption of Japanese cultural products by Koreans. Many Koreans of an older generation, including the former military regime, attempted to educate the public about the ‘dangers’ of Japanese culture entering Korea. Their rhetorical stance was that, since the annexation of Korea started with the increasing flood of Japanese culture that entered Korea during the late nineteenth century, history may repeat itself. Therefore, the third-generation sunjeong manhwa artists who heavily consumed and admired Japanese shshojojo manga viewed their own consumption with unease.15 However, this internal conflict no longer seems to exist with fourth-generation artists such as Park. Nonetheless, Park’s Gung still manifests strong political views that appear to have been carried over from the tradition of Korean sunjeong manhwa ‘resistance’ culture. Mimicking the Japanese shshojojo manga formula, but in combination with a Korean female desire for the political, Gung is a hybrid invention that confronts Japanese readers with their own history and possible blindness to their past. Gung thus provokes nationalism among Korean readers and ambivalence among Japanese readers, and functions as a political text within both cultures.

Figure 6.5. Park So-hee’s Gung has been both translated into Japanese and remade as a popular Korean television drama.


This analysis has attempted to historicize the shifting spaces of shshojojo manga and sunjeong manhwa within a Korean context. A better understanding of sunjeong manhwa culture throughout the 1980s may illuminate how Korean female artists have struggled to get their voices heard within an oppressive environment. Feminist scholarship in Korea has mostly focused on the ‘political’ realm, often examining prominent social bodies such as women’s organizations, professionals, or activists, or the struggles against labour conditions detrimental to females. This approach, however, has often ignored subcultures, which have been deemed less worthy of academic attention.

The postmodern trend of recognizing kitsch and pastiche during the late 1990s has occasioned a wave of nostalgia for the past in Korea, including the early days of comic book culture. Nonetheless, the gendered dynamics of the manhwabang associated with sunjeong manhwa culture have been largely ignored. The female realm has been contained within a space that has been safely preserved as a cultural vacuum away from the political. This nostalgia for sunjeong manhwa culture glosses over the social and political implications of the genre and the struggles of the actors involved. Although criticized for plagiarizing Japanese shshojojo manga, the subculture surrounding sunjeong manhwa took the form of both resistance against, and assimilation into, the establishment of Japanese shshojojo manga culture (cf. Hall and Jefferson 1993). That sunjeong manhwa culture formed a space where youth, feminine, and political identities were enmeshed and negotiated makes it a salient example of young Korean women’s invisible political struggles.


1   The kontentsu industry bill covers anime, video games, live-action films, television drama, music, manga, and character goods related to all of the media above.

2   Sunjeong manhwa is now considered an outdated, sexist term and has been replaced by yeoseong manhwa (females comics) since the late 1990s.

3   ‘Sesang-eul kkyeoanneun “sonyeo-ui gamseong”’ (‘“Girls’ sensibility” embracing the world’). Hankyeoreh 21, 28 August 1997. Interestingly, early sunjeong manhwa were mostly created by male artists such as the aforementioned pioneers.

4   Thus, they are regarded as the first generation of sunjeong manhwa artists.

5   In the case of manhwabang near women’s universities during the 1980s, the percentage of girls’ comic books was higher than that of boys’ genres.

6   According to Noh (2000: 52–53), even established authors participated in copying Japanese titles before they became famous. Noh further provides detailed interviews with established artists on this subject.

7   Source: Rose Garden blog [Internet]. Available from:

8   Author’s interview with a former donginji artist, October 2007.

9   Although the titles and names of the authors differed in Korea, the narratives followed the original Japanese texts. Therefore, readers of girls’ comic books from both Japan and Korea can be imagined, in a sense, as temporally homogenous. Some of the titles published include: Hollywood Game (Hariuddo geemu, 1985) by Kuramochi Fusako; Sayonara nante ienai (I Can’t Say Goodbye, 1985) by Ogura Fuyumi; Hanjuku Kakumei (Soft-boiled Revolution, 1986) by Makimura Satoru; Cipher (Saifaa, 1987) by Narita Minako; and Akuma no Hanayome (Bride of Satan, 1984) by Ashibe Yuho. Although these authors were popular artists in the 1980s Japanese shshojojo manga scene, and their most recognizable works were copied as well, the titles listed above are not their most prominent works, which indicates the breadth of material copied by Korean ghost artists.

10  The Korean government did not pass the Minimum Wage Act until 1988, so there are no records of what the minimum wage would have been for comic book artists during the mid-1980s. In some cases, artists who participated in the patchwork process but whose reputations were rising were paid a higher wage (see Noh 2000).

11  Author’s interview in September 2007.

12  The minjung is generally understood as composed of those who have suffered historical, economic, political and cultural exclusion, and is mostly drawn from the social classes of farmers, labourers and the urban poor (Kim 1995: 39).

13  Kim Dong-hwa, a male artist, depicted high-school teenage love romances in contrast to the grandiose historico-political narratives created by female artists.

14  In an interview in Renaissance, the first girls comic magazine in Korea, March 1991.

15  Author’s interview with third-generation manhwa artist Kim Eun-hee in September 2007, Kim stated that her education and upbringing made her feel guilty when she openly embraced Japanese manga as a donginji artist.


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Cite this chapter as: Choo, Kukhee. 2010. ‘Consuming Japan: Early Korean girls comic book artists’ resistance and empowerment’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 6.1–6.16.


©Copyright 2010 Kukhee Choo

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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita