Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Complicated Currents

Chapter 7



Hyangjin Lee, Rikkyo University

Hyangjin Lee has written extensively in Korean, English and Japanese on nationalism and transnationalism in Korean cinema and the hallyu phenomenon in Japan. After teaching in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield from 1991 to 2008, she is now a Professor in the Faculty of Intercultural Communication at Rikkyo University, Tokyo. She received her PhD from the School of Communication Studies at the University of Leeds in 1998. Her monograph Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics was published by Manchester University Press in 2000. Her most recent monograph, KanryKanryu no shakaigaku: fuandomu, kazoku, ibunka kkoryury (The Sociology of Hallyu: Fandom, Family and Intercultural Communication) was published in Japanese in 2008 by Iwanami.


I am a housewife addicted to hallyu drama. I want to watch the dramas wherever I like for twenty hours a day ... 1

The forms of masculinity seen in Korean film and TV dramas are new arrivals on the shopping list of ‘middle age’ Japanese women. Also included are idol groups and singers. New words such as ‘kkonminam’ (‘cute guy’2) and ‘momjjang’ (‘someone with a great body’) encapsulate the trendiness of Korean masculinities as promoted by the national mass media. The Korean Wave first came to prominence in Japan in 2003, and since then Korean representations of masculinity have become a significant part of Japanese visual culture as Korean dramas have come to be aired on a daily basis. Although no other show has had the remarkable success of Winter Sonata (2002), as of 2009 Korean drama has secured its place among regular Japanese TV programming.

Male star power is a key element in the success of hallyu. The masculinities described by the notions of momjjang and kkonminam are a new aspect of body politics aimed at attracting women viewers who desire an imaginary ‘toy boy’. The fantasy of a Prince Charming delivered by hallyu TV dramas triggered a wave of transnational media consumption by Japanese women. Leading the way were ‘middle-aged’, ‘middle-class’ female viewers. Members of this group are assumed to be the torchbearers of Japanese national culture and loyal fans of NHK morning dramas. However, hallyu has led them into new foreign ‘mediascapes’ (Appadurai 1996). Their movement into a transnational cultural space to find a personal Prince Charming underlines a critical shift in national TV programming and film exhibition in Japan, as a foreign culture has had an impact on a mainstream media industry previously dominated by Hollywood. New trends in transnational cultural mobility also have influenced the politics of cultural identity in Korean national popular culture and produced the desiring gaze of foreign female viewers.

This chapter discusses the hallyu fandom of Japanese women, focusing on their fetishizing of film and drama masculinities, and its impact on transnational media and film practices in Japan and Korea. Japanese hallyu fandom tends to be identified as occurring among obasan (‘middle-aged women’), who spend a great deal of time watching television between domestic chores, have developed a passion for Korean dramas and have considerable and stable consumer power.3 These observations in turn support criticism of hallyu fandom as a phenomenon representing nothing more than the romantic fantasies of naïve middle-aged women bored with their monotonous, mundane lives.

Korea’s late modernization and cultural lag relative to Japan has caused a tendency to focus on a cluster of sentimental associations in analysing hallyu fandom, such as family, nostalgia, purity and romance. Some observers, often from a speculative, journalistic viewpoint, have pointed to the general discontent of Japanese housewives regarding their sexless married lives as the main motive for their materialistic desires and adolescent fantasies. In a similar but more negative fashion, accusations of political naïveté, reckless materialistic desires and an absence of historical consciousness are key elements of the kenkanrykenkanryu-ron (anti-hallyu discourse) (Yamano 2005; O 2006; Tanaka and Itagaki 2007).

Despite these criticisms, the dynamic engagement of hallyu fans in transnational cultural practices challenges assumptions regarding the passive nature of audiences. Hallyu fandom should be considered as a process through which culturally marginalized citizens have regained confidence and created a social space for themselves. Hallyu fandom is not politically motivated: the favourite films and dramas of fans are largely apolitical. However, the impact of their cultural consumption is surprisingly political in that they have improved the popular image of Korea and Korean residents in Japan. I will discuss this process and examine how fans have become agents in transnational cultural practices and thus sought to achieve a cross-cultural identity by exploiting their status as consumers.

The hallyu fandom of Japanese women highlights the dynamic interactions of audience with program producers and can be seen as a process of creating a cross-cultural identity within global consumer society. Furthermore, such fandom attests to the power of transnational consumption of national popular cultures to enhance intercultural communication and promote diversity and transnational awareness.

In this study, I examine questionnaire surveys and in-depth interviews with hallyu fans conducted between 2005 and 2007 in order to highlight these dynamic features of fandom and assess its social significance. As discussed below, many hallyu fans are eager to redefine their everyday life environment and explore new cultural spaces through socializing. I argue that the social visibility of hallyu fandom indicates growing awareness of transnational cultural citizenship in Japan.


The hallyu boom in Japan is largely synonymous with male star fandom, and star popularity generates its sales. The most durable and influential fan groups are those associated with Bae Yong Jun, nicknamed Yon-sama.4 The surprising social and economic effects of Yon-sama fandom are widely seen as decisive in leading hallyu.

Bae played the protagonist in the TV drama Winter Sonata (2002), which was broadcast on NHK four times between 2003 and 2004. The show was an unanticipated sensation and broke numerous Japanese broadcasting records. Since then, Bae has been regarded as an icon by many Japanese female viewers. Estimates of Bae’s Japanese fans range from 150,000 to 200,000, according to Bae’s official home pages, run by BOF and IMX.5 One hundred thousand were expected at a Bae fan convention in September 2009, and the most recent drama in which he starred, Legend (2007), was aired four times by NHK between 2007 and 2009.

Between mid-November 2005 and January 2006 I surveyed 324 Bae fans, selecting respondents through snowball sampling and personal introductions, and distributing questionnaires through on- and off-line fan networks such as fan club homepages and chatting spaces linked to the BOF and IMX home pages, event venues and airports.

In many cases, brief encounters or conversations in the street or on a train developed into a long-term companionship between fans. Ms Murata, a 29-year-old librarian, contacted me after reading about my research in a newspaper and then introduced me to her Korean language class mates and hallyu fans in Kyoto and Osaka. Ms Toyota, 55, a freelance flower arranger and Ms Mochizuki, 52, an office worker, introduced me to their nakama (friends) in Tokyo. Some fans I met were actively engaged in online meetings, and they introduced my research to other fans in Japan and abroad, including Korea, Canada and Hong Kong. They already knew about my research before I was introduced because an article of mine on Korean national cinema and Japanese hallyu fandom had been translated into Japanese and appeared on online chatting sites, leading to heated discussions among fans.

My respondents were all women. The majority (67%) were in their thirties or forties.6 Full time housewives made up 33% of the total; 84% of the respondents were married, and 87% of them lived with their families; only 12% lived alone. A majority of the respondents were engaged in work outside the home and lived with families; 66% were college graduates or above.7 Just as their family incomes and professions varied, spending on fandom activities among the respondents differed significantly: 22% stated that they spent around 5000 yen per month on fandom; 16% spent up to 10,000 yen; 25% spent up to 20,000 yen; and 10% up to 30,000 yen. In sum, the majority of respondents were not housewives spending most of their time at home. They varied in respect of class, occupation and educational status, which raises questions about common characterizations of hallyu fands as ‘middle-class’ and ‘middle-aged’ housewives.

I also conducted in-depth interviews with a sample group of 15 persons. Some interviewees, whom I met through personal introductions, can be considered ‘intellectuals’ or ‘professionals’ working at ‘prestigious institutions’. They do not feel comfortable being labelled as Yon-sama fans publicly, but are regular viewers of hallyu dramas and films and do not hide their fondness for hallyu stars from friends and families. Although some display photos of their favourite stars in their rooms or offices, such fans do not actively engage in on- and off-line meetings. Hiroko, for example, a 39-year-old university professor in Tokyo, is a fan of Bae Yong Jun. For her, watching hallyu dramas is a relaxing time after intensive work at school, and domestic chores and caring for her young son at home.

Is hallyu fandom a symbolic gesture, then, or does it represent particular classes’ cultural tastes? Bourdieu (1986) argues that taste is socially structured, and largely an embodiment of symbolic gestures and rituals used to display the class dispositions and values of social groups. Cultural consumption expresses a desire for identification with a specific social class. The middle class of industrial society has expanded over the last hundred years and should, in fact, be divided into several sub-categories in terms of work, social status and relations to the market. The definition of ‘middle-aged’ is perhaps less contested, and I accept here the Collins Dictionary (2006): ‘middle age’ refers to ‘people between the ages of 40 and 60’.8 What is the relationship between Korean films/TV dramas and the designation of its Japanese viewers as middle-aged, middle-class women?

In fact, the age of my respondents varied widely, as did their social and economic backgrounds. The respondents cannot be considered as a specific age group, or social class in a strict sense. The majority were between 30 and 50, with more in their twenties (12%) than their fifties (9%). Some hallyu fans chartered their own flights and stayed at the most expensive hotels on their trips to Korea and had the privilege of attending private meetings, having dinner or playing golf with the stars. Such fans included the wives of successful businessmen or high-ranking governmental officers. For instance, Abe Akie, the wife of former prime minister Abe ShinzShinzo, is well-known as a fan of Park Yong-ha, who appeared in Winter Sonata.

Ms Toyota and Ms Mochizuki are ‘ordinary’ housewives, however, with part- or full-time jobs, who enjoy fan activities in their own way: they travelled to Korea, Hong Kong and Beijing in 2006 to attend various events where they could see Bae Yong Jun. They also spent a day at the luxurious hotel in Tokyo where Bae stayed on his first trip to Japan in 2004.

One of my informants, Ms Nagayama (65), is a retired school teacher and the wife of a wealthy doctor. She is a member of a singing group called the Bae Yong Jun Chorus. She often has lunch at a cheap Korean snack bar with other members after their rehearsals. She told me that she had never imagined she would become addicted to TV dramas, or become such a fan of a Korean TV star that she would go to the airport to welcome him. The class background of chorus members varies as well: during trips to Korea, some stayed at the most expensive hotels, whereas others took instant noodles with them to save on expenses; nonetheless they spend time together as hallyu nakama.

Hallyu fandom provides a counterargument to studies of popular culture and fandom in Japan that focus on class. Gender, however, remains a significant category when investigating hallyu fans: the vast majority are female. A consistently observed feature in fans’ accounts of their lives is family commitments. The majority are married and/or look after families regardless of their age or job. The figure of the obasan, the ‘middle-aged woman’, is used as a convenient trope by many researchers and media reporters in describing the social position of those women. It is generally assumed that they spend their time at home. Although they are not homogeneous in terms of class or age, their consumption style and the economic impact of that collective consumption is homogenous enough for them to be categorized as a demographic with a distinct market sector profile. Furthermore, the designation hallyu obasantachi (middle-aged women fans of the Korean Wave) can convey a sense of contempt in that it is assumed that such women are uninformed about the entertainment business world; that they have no interest in social concerns; that they are only killing time with their fandom activities; and that they seek to participate in the trends of the young generation. The term ‘middle’, then, seems to highlight the relationship between consumerism and the cultural industries in Japan: cultural industries conveniently categorize the majority of women into a group of ‘middle age’, and standardize their cultural tastes through mass production and consumption. In this sense, consumerism in Japan is a national standardization process of cultural tastes controlled by the industries regardless of age, locality and class. The term, ‘middle’ can imply that the majority of women viewers are socially isolated and culturally indistinct but their daily consumption is indispensible for the market.


A distinctive feature of hallyu fandom is everyday socializing. Most fans have their own nakama group with which they share recent news and other fan activities. They have regular off-line meetings. Some of them organize special gatherings, such as parties celebrating Bae Yong Jun’s birthday, chorus groups and photo exhibitions, or even create their own fan-spaces: hallyu cafés or photo and soft toy exhibition rooms. Over 50% of my survey sample attend local Korean language classes and take Korean language proficiency exams. They also participate in concerts, exhibitions and other official events organized by management companies.

Hallyu fandom can be seen as a collective activity for women who enjoy new trends in Asian popular culture. Respondents often pointed out that if they were acting on their own, they would not show their feelings so openly or go beyond watching hallyu dramas at home. Their behaviour has changed because they found like-minded peers. In this sense, hallyu fandom provides a social outlet for potentially rather quiet, reserved Japanese housewives. Tomoko, a Tokyo housewife in her fifties, used to live in America with her husband, an executive with a large company, and her family. She feels very proud of her son, who attended Tokyo University. Not wanting to disturb his study, she rarely watched TV in the living room, but bought a set for her bedroom so she could watch Winter Sonata. The first time she went to see Bae at the airport, she felt nervous that her family might find out or that people would laugh at her standing in public waiting to see a celebrity. But she felt relief upon arrival at the airport when she saw the crowd of fans and mixed with them. Now she openly enjoys her time with hallyu nakama and her family encourage her to take time for herself and continue her new social life.

Most respondents said that they feel young and alive when they spend time with their nakama. A trip to Korea with fellow fans, or chatting with them to exchange recent news about Bae offers an escape from a mundane life full of family commitments. The trendiness and urbanity of the drama locations make them feel younger and happier. Many fans spend much of their trips to Korea in trendy, expensive shopping streets full of young people in the centre of Seoul.

Although many studies have emphasized nostalgia and the cultural traditions of Korea as significant elements of the hallyu boom (Ogura 2006; Iwabuchi 2004), my survey and interview sample suggests that hallyu fans in fact rarely venture out to rural areas. Instead, they often purchase Western designer goods at airport duty-free shops and expensive department stores. They also frequently visit traditional markets, cheap restaurants, and street stalls in Seoul in order to buy cosmetics, bags or accessories, but not the stereotypical tourist-oriented folk art. In other words, their collective consumption style seems either to be classless or to blur class barriers with the indiscriminate consumption of Western designer goods and dinners at hotels, and the more frugal behaviour of street shopping and self-organised trips.

Hallyu fans appear to engage in conspicuous consumption of luxury-brand goods. Such consumption is not so widespread in the West as in Japan where it is considered the norm, and can be considered a marker of middle-class status. To wear designer goods is normal dress code for ordinary citizens in Japan as such goods indicate social conformity and sophistication. Eighty eight per cent of Louis Vuitton’s global sales are accounted for by the Japanese, and although the widely cited statistic that 94% of Japanese women in their twenties own Louis Vuitton products (Chadha and Husband 2006: 7–8) is in fact not true, Japanese ownership of such products is nevertheless high.9

Hallyu fandom can, therefore, be seen as an archetypal phenomenon of mass consumption promoting ‘foreignness’ as a middle-class commodity through which participants can display knowledge and awareness of the outside world regardless of their social class. This observation was confirmed consistently throughout my research. When I interviewed a number of Bae fans from remote or rural areas for a post-hallyu study, residents of a village in Nagano prefecture told me stories of watching dramas daily and visiting Korea. Although their purchase of hallyu merchandise and participation in events has become less frequent owing to a cooling of hallyu promotion by the industry, they continue to visit Korea regularly and keep in touch with fellow hallyu fans elsewhere by mobile phone and email.

Shared tastes between fans regardless of differences in income and monthly leisure expenditure highlight a distinctive consumption culture in Japan: namely, the cultural politics of homogeneous identity. Individuals want to be identified as part of mainstream society through joining in the consumption of trendy, popular cultural items. In this sense, hallyu fandom cannot be regarded as an indicator of class distinction. On the contrary, it is more a blurring of such distinctions for those who do not want to be at the margins of a society that often identifies social status with consuming style and cultural tastes.

I met a group of Bae fans from remote rural areas on their first trip to Tokyo. Ms Okazawa, an office worker in her mid-forties, and her friends dined at Koshire, an expensive Korean restaurant opened by Bae, and enjoyed sightseeing in Tokyo’s new Korea-town Shin-Okubo, which delighted them because it reminded them of streets in Seoul, or Chuncheon and Gangneung, the locations of Winter Sonata. They had in fact travelled to Korea before ever visiting Tokyo. Because the shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed train, can transport them to event venues within a few hours, geographical distance does not seem to affect fan activities as much as it would have in the past (Yano 2002). Neither did economic or family background significantly influence their participation in fan activities. This first trip to the capital city of their own country can in fact be paradoxically considered part of their transnational cultural experiences.

Fans are ‘image tracers’, blurring the national boundaries of popular culture and everyday life. They have led a massive tourist boom to Korea, and created their own gathering spaces. Meeting other fans is a significant part of their Korean trips. The streets of Shin-Okubo, cinemas, concert halls and other places related to hallyu stars in Japan also became new socializing spaces for fans.

For hallyu fans, the transnational imagination of an ideal man blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy. The ‘ideal masculinities’ that have attracted these women viewers, and their collective image fetishism, in particular, lead them to use their consuming power to make what they desire available in reality. A newly achieved cultural mobility thus has rendered these previously ignored citizens more visible, as they have rejected their previous invisibility in popular culture and socialized in public spaces to demonstrate a group identity. Their visibility is derived from their collective consumption and interactive movement between two cultures. Their collective visibility distinguishes them from isolated, lonely ‘otaku’ (see Barral 1999).

Hallyu fans should not be considered passive TV viewers. Rather, they have become significant agents in a mass consumer society, and acted as pioneers, leading the way to a new form of imagined cross-cultural citizenship.


Hallyu fans have engendered a new sub-genre in Japanese popular culture, which is known for its division into a variety of discrete and specific demographics (Ritchie and Garner 2004). From manga, anime and computer games to fashion magazines, AV (adult video) and yakuza movies, each genre is distinctively crafted for the sex and age of its potential audience. The cultural industry promptly reads the psychology of young customers who desire change and novelty. On the other hand, cultural content producers have largely regarded older generations as indifferent to trends and faithful to tradition. Hallyu fans, however, have contradicted these assumptions, particularly regarding TV viewing. They clearly desired something new, and their eager consumption of hallyu products has demonstrated their power as consumers of culture and media, not merely in terms of TV ratings and sales figures, but also in the expenditure they lavish on fan activities, and the purchasing of electronic goods, and merchandise such as photos, magazines and books, key holders or soft toys. They have become daily users of the Internet to exchange news and images, download material, and watch dramas in real time as they are aired in Korea. Many have purchased or upgraded mobile phones in order to receive Internet services directly from telephone companies, and own printers to make name cards and stickers using stars’ images. Stars’ images have come to be exchanged between fans in much the same way as children collect character stickers from their favourite games and animations and allow a similar formation of close bonds. The exchange of images connects fans as friends: representation can change real life.

The collectivity of hallyu fandom is what gives it genuine power. Hallyu fandom is thus not self-indulgent behaviour on the part of isolated individuals, but a social practice that has led to strong quasi-familial bonds. Fans meet as a new tribe in the cyber-world and also remain strongly connected to each other offline to share the desires of their ‘cyber-nomadic’ lives.


Hallyu fandom attests to changing or even reversed power politics between industry and consumers. Cultural identification tends, to a great extent, to be led by providers, who read the tastes and needs of consumers. The producers and distributors of Korean TV dramas certainly did not predict the huge success of Winter Sonata, the resulting huge popularity of Yong merchandise amongst female viewers, or the ensuing pressure to transmit follow-up Korean dramas.

On the other hand, the success of TV melodrama and its portrayal of masculinity has led to confusion in the film industry in the long term. Japan–Korea film co-productions have become a more profitable business. Korean filmmakers and Japanese producers have focused on melodramas using popular hallyu stars, and Japanese distributors have bought films or invested capital even before film projects were fully developed. Korean cinema has thus lost its reputation as a new, alternative world cinema distinguishing itself from Hollywood and characterized by strong social commitment and political criticism.

In various audience surveys for the 2005 best ten films in Japan, three Korean films appeared. According to Kinema JunpJunpo, April Snow (Hur Jin-ho 2005) came first, Eraser in My Head (Yi Jae-han 2004), second; and A Bittersweet Life (Kim Ji-woon 2005) fourth. Numerous Korean films were shown in Japan in 2005, most categorized as ‘foreign’ films, destined to run at small theatres for only a short period and fail at the box office. In contrast, these three successful films featured a narrow set of ingredients: in each case the narrative centres on a lonely, handsome, self-sacrificing and strong young man. Without the desired characterization and storyline, a male star is unlikely to do well in Japan, as proven in previous years with the success of Shiri (Kang Je Gyu 1999) and Windstruck (Kwak Jae-yong 2004). Research informed by post-colonial theories might identify the images of Jang Dong-gun in Taegukgi (Kang Je Gyu 2004) or Sul Kyung-koo in Silmido (Kang Woo Suk 2004) as filmic embodiments of Korean masculinity; however, female Japanese audiences have not been particularly interested in such representations of historical trauma. Bae Yong Jun’s fans had already engaged with their romantic hero in Legend, the tale of a king in ancient Korea.

Hur Jin-ho’s April Snow was a failure in Korea. Even loyal fans and film critics who had waited several years for the director’s new film did not hold back from expressing disappointment. Many who used to regard Hur as one of the most promising new auteurs in Korea felt the film had neither the distinctive style nor the consistent theme of his previous films, Christmas in August (1998) and A Fine Spring Day (2001), in which he developed a unique brand of romantic realism. However, in April Snow artistic experimentation appeared to struggle with commercialism. Hur’s casting of Bae Yong Jun, after a relatively long hiatus in his acting career, as the protagonist of the film intensified media interest in the production. When the film was released, however, excitement suddenly turned to harsh criticism. Bae’s performance was also criticized.

The disappointing performance of April Snow in its own country contrasts starkly with its success in Japan. It was the ninth best selling foreign film in 2005, and chosen as the best film of the year by local audiences in a Kinema JunpJunpo survey. Japanese hallyu fans saved their Prince Charming from total disaster. After the news that Bae had been cast in the lead role, Japanese media eagerly had reported on his every movement on set and at post-screening event venues. Bae’s fans appeared at each step, demonstrating their full support.


My first set of questionnaire surveys was distributed in 2005 when Bae’s film April Snow was released in Japan. The main concerns of the research included a number of elements: masculinities expressed by Bae; attitudes towards characters he played in April Snow and Winter Sonata; fan activities; viewing styles and motivations for viewing; cultural awareness of the Korean context of the stories; and interest and knowledge of Korean issues and Japan–Korean relations.

The 260 respondents in my survey without exception commented that Bae Yong Jun in Winter Sonata portrayed an ideal of manhood that they had either always longed for or never imagined before: the protagonist, Junsang/Minhyeong, is the personification of platonic love. He is warm-hearted, lonely, self-sacrificing and considerate, and has both a beautiful face and a strong, welltoned physique. The fragility and misfortunes of the handsome young man provoke sympathy and a protective instinct in much of the female audience. He is a victim of familial conflicts and has been injured by successive car accidents. His physical strength and beauty, warm heart and tenderness are the essence of kkonminam and momjjang.

Interestingly, respondents answered that the masculinity portrayed by Bae in April Snow evoked a different image from that in Winter Sonata, but the words they chose to describe it are very similar, such as frank in expressing emotion, ultimately sacrificing for love, lonely, responsible, and having a beautiful face and nice body. They also expressed their belief that the masculinity rendered by Bae is totally different from both the ‘girly’, ‘babyish’ image of contemporary Japanese male idol stars and the strong, reserved images of old-style Japanese manhood. Their responses refuse the traditional dichotomy of masculinity and femininity, and idolize the ‘toy boy’ images of Bae Yong Jun.

The success of Bae’s new film in Japan confirmed that his popularity had not faded since Winter Sonata. On the contrary, April Snow suggests that Bae’s image as an ideal man crosses the border of cinematic fantasy into the real lives of his Japanese female audience: a simulacrum of an ideal man created by their desires.


How can we explain the different audience reactions to April Snow in Japan and Korea? Does the film address the desires of a Japanese audience more fully than those of a Korean audience? The film was criticized in Korea for its ‘absence of reality’. For example, one local film critic pointed out that ‘there is no family’ that needs to deal with the extramarital love affair in the film (Kim 2005). However, the important issue here is that the film communicates the desires of its targeted audience. The absence of a Korean reality might in fact lead audiences to identify with the story more easily in the Japanese context, or to focus on the images of a Prince Charming character. Alternatively, perhaps we might hypothesize that the close familial relations in Korean dramas are natural to Korean audiences but alien to contemporary Japanese family life, even to older viewers who spend considerable time in domestic chores and family. The surveyed Japanese audiences did not consider the film’s ‘absence of reality’ a problem. In this sense, a further study can propose an interesting counterargument to the claims of researchers regarding the significance of family values to Japanese viewers’ appreciation of Korean dramas.

Film has been a transnational phenomenon from its inception, and its transnationality has become increasingly evident with the ever-faster globalization trends of recent years. On the other hand, national cinema still tends to be interpreted as the stories of a given national society. If so, who are the ‘real’ agents in the process of creating a national cinema in the age of globalization?

The textual meaning of a film is generated by its audience. Audiences can interpret a film differently, depending on their social experiences and expectations. Social experiences form beliefs and individual dispositions, their ‘habitus’ in Bourdieu’s terms. These are largely cultural structures. As a social actor, the audience member participates in the process of producing textual meanings and validating their social implications. The balanced relationship between subjectivity and objectivity is decisive for an audience in the reading of the textual meanings of a film. For a researcher, a sound understanding of both an audience’s reception of the meaning of a text and their social experiences is critical to achieving consistency and reliability in interpreting films.

The active monitoring of the filmmaking process by potential audiences, repetitive viewing practices and post-viewing fan activities are not recent phenomena in Japan. However, the keen fandom for Korean TV dramas and films abroad since 2003 clearly reflects the interference of international audiences within a national film industry. April Snow is a good example: from the production process onwards, the film exploited the advertising potential of dynamic communication with its desired audience. Tourist packages were available for fans to participate in the filmmaking process: around 6000 Bae fans were invited to take part in film concert scenes; about 1200–1300 came from Japan for the event.

Through this process, the masculine image expressed by the actor came to mirror the desires of the anticipated audiences more clearly. Indeed, April Snow appears tailor-made for Bae’s fans. Several of my informants visited location sets during and after the production period. Some also took part in the concert scenes, and proudly showed pictures taken on location. They watched the film repeatedly: five times at the cinema on average. One respondent watched the film over one hundred times.

Audience-driven communication highlights the shortcomings of the notion of national cinema in the context of transnational film practices. To a great extent, national cinema is understood to realize and communicate the shared collectivity of a people and the historical experience of their nationhood (Higson 2003), but political interpretations informed by a specific knowledge of national history, cultural tradition and social norms can alienate foreign audiences. The audience can construct textual meaning through a process of cultural communication: trips to foreign film locations, learning another language, eating unfamiliar foods and similar pursuits have become part of the process of creating meaning for transnational film audiences. However, more importantly, through those efforts they have found pleasures and significant meanings in trends in their own society. The respondents invariably commented on changes in their everyday lives since they first came to know Bae. What the Japanese female audience seems to pursue through viewing Korean films and TV dramas is a way to articulate identity and social positioning. The ‘Korean’ masculinities perceived by Japanese female audience reflect what they actually desired.

Masculinities articulated by post-colonial studies of Korean cinema are difficult to reconcile with what Japanese women have desired and found in Bae’s films. The sense of foreignness or uneasiness for Japanese viewers owing to images of once-colonized Korea as a backward place seems to have been forgotten or rendered insignificant. Masculinities informed by post-colonial sensibilities are the hidden images of the protagonist/adored star which the majority of hallyu fans initially find hard to grasp. To understand more about the star and his society, fans learn his language and visit his country. A large majority of respondents answered that they had not visited Korea or any other Asian country before they saw Winter Sonata. However, after watching it, many travelled to Korea. Indeed, some of them now regularly visit Korea. Despite a previous lack of knowledge of and interest in Korea, they now watch Korea-related news or TV programs as much as they can.

Indeed, although their knowledge of and interest in Korean and Korean–Japanese issues may be limited, it is certainly no lower than that of most Japanese. For example, when asked to identify issues associated with Korea, many respondents chose Dokdo-Takeshima disputes or the Kim Dae Jung kidnapping incidents, which have been more frequently discussed by Japan’s national media. On the other hand, history textbook disputes or issues related to Yasukuni Shrine were rarely selected. Items most frequently associated with Korea were food, cosmetic trips and shopping expeditions. Moreover, the Korea they came into contact with and experienced was largely limited to location sets and shopping streets in Seoul, Chuncheon and Gangneung. In short, apolitical, trendy urban images of Korean life guided these cinematic nomads.

In a sense, Japanese viewers have been able to use their collective consumer power to influence the representation of masculinity in Korean national cinema. Korean film exports and production costs depend heavily on the Japanese market. The biggest overseas market for Korean film, Japan made up 54% of total exports in 2003, 69% in 2004, 74% in 2005, and 80% in 2008. In 2005, 12.9% of total revenue for Korean films came from overseas markets. Japanese viewers sympathize with story lines in which notions of masculinity have been used as a national allegory to express the pathos of exploited people. However, the masculinity they have sought is not the suffering male body portraying a national history, such as the protagonists of Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 2000), Chihwason/Painted Fire (Im Kwon Taek, 2002), Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001).

To a certain extent, the materialistic desires of hallyu fans led to a further appreciation of a foreign culture and instilled greater intercultural awareness within them. Interviewees often mentioned that their interest 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. Some interviewees were not regular TV viewers and had not been especially interested in dramas before Winter Sonata but they became better informed about historical issues and felt sympathetic to people who suffered during the war and under Japanese colonial rule. One of my informants learned about Japanese wartime experiments on human bodies from an aunt who worked as a military nurse during the Japanese colonial period. Another informant visited Korea in 2004 and 2005 to raise awareness of the anti-Iraq war campaign in Seoul. In fact, social and political awareness played an important role in making some regular viewers of hallyu dramas and films. They spoke of the radical change they experienced in discussing historical issues and visiting Korea with new friends met through hallyu activities.

Another significant factor in the hallyu boom in Japan is the underlying influence of Western Orientalism in recent years. During the 1980s, many Japanese, members of the so-called ‘mai buumu’ (‘my boom’) generation, pursued their own cultural spaces. They were not interested in mainstream culture, and Korean culture offered an alternative that the mass media tended to ignore. Fans went to small theatres to see Korean films, searched for books on Korea in second-hand shops, learned Korean, and watched midnight programs on Korea. Such individuals were generally university graduates, office workers, or intellectuals in their 20s and 30s, politically and socially well-informed, interested in the outside world, and not swayed by the overwhelming influence of Hollywood. In contrast to these earlier Koreaphiles, current hallyu fans seem to have been affected by Western responses to the advance of trans-Asian cultural flows, and closely linked consumerism. In a sense, hallyu drama fandom is a variation on other Orientalist trends in Japan, such as an explosion of interest in Hong Kong popular culture and Indian-inspired fashions and lifestyles, including colourful clothes, music, dance, food, accessories, yoga and interior décor (Park 2005; Iwabuchi 2004).

In light of this close link with Western commercialism, a post-colonial framework does not explain the masculinities portrayed in those hallyu dramas and films received in Japan. Indeed, the discrepancy might lie in the difference in tastes between audiences of social commentaries and commercial entertainment. The totality of Asian experiences as victim of Western imperialistic expansionism is unintelligible from the perspective of Japanese hallyu audiences and their preferred film texts. Furthermore, the process of generating cinematic cooperation between the two countries calls into question the notion of popular culture as an expression of national identity. The differing Japanese and Korean receptions of April Snow, and the contradicting interpretations of the masculinity portrayed by Bae in April Snow in Korea and Japan provide a cogent example of how transnational film practices can affect the notion of national cinema and negate the use of masculinities as an allegory of national history. In this sense, Japanese transnational female spectatorship has rejected male-centred Korean interpretations of a national history.


It is often argued that Japan tends to undervalue other Asian paradigms. But increasing intra-cinematic/media cooperation in Asia in recent years challenges the long-held notion that Japan is mainly concerned with its status relative to the West. The hallyu boom also challenges the view that Asia is absent from the Japanese world view. In the traditional binary world view dividing Japan from the West, there is no room for Asia. Despite the political intentionality to impose this binary concept uncompromisingly, popular culture can effectively communicate the transnational aspirations of ordinary citizens regarding their collective identity. It might seem at first sight that the hallyu boom in Japan was led by the mainstream media: it would not have been so explosive as to become a social phenomenon without the massive and repetitive coverage by mainstream media industries and the inclusion of hallyu dramas/programs as part of daily programming. However, the changes in the mainstream media industries towards Korean dramas and popular culture were initiated by the unexpected and astonishing response of viewers. At the same time, the growing popularity of Korean TV dramas and films reflects the changing perception of viewers regarding Korea and other neighbouring countries in Asia. Viewers have expressed an emotional identification with the characters and stories of dramas, and actors such that they look for regular contact with a simulacrum-replication of Bae in real life to fulfil their fantasies of an ideal man. Trips to Korea, on-line chatting and off-line meetings with other fans, and other fandom activities realize their desires. In order to fulfil them more fully, they have started to communicate with producer groups and have sought to influence the decision-making processes of production and distribution. This has led them to identify a new cultural space transcending national boundaries. Historical awareness is not a prerequisite for identification processes in cross-cultural citizenship. However, the mobility initiated by these experiences has caused producers as well as researchers to reconsider old binary concepts regarding national popular cultures for a global audience.

Japan has been at the centre of cultural transnationalism in Asia. Until recent years, this leadership was based purely on its exports and the spread of Japanese cultural influences in the region. Since the 1980s Japan has served as a traffic node, re-centering cultural globalization in Asia, and counterbalancing American hegemony in the region (Iwabuchi 2002). On the other hand, the perception of foreignness or transnational cultural practices is well-known for its focus on European products or stereotypical images of travellers in Western society, as seen in Naoko Ogigami’s 2006 film Kamome Diner. In this context, Japanese women travelling to Korea in the hope of meeting a Prince Charming in the home of this cinematic imagery are a new type of cultural nomad or traveller, even from a Japanese point of view.

Their materialistic inclinations and fun-seeking cultural activities as Japanese women, as well as their seemingly uncontrollable consumption of merchandise relating to hallyu stars, have met with criticism. However, their escapist, materialistic desires and fetishization of hallyu masculinities have allowed them to feel that their daily lives have become more meaningful. Ironically, they believe that they can find the most desirable masculinities in a foreign context. Some insist that they seek an image of Japanese men that seems to have vanished within Japan. Others argue that there has never been such an image in Japan. Regardless, fans’ transnational consumption of hallyu has made their desired masculinity available in their own society.

In light of industry and market demands, the increase in international cinematic cooperation indicates the realization of dynamic communication between filmmakers and audiences in traversing national borders. In this sense, masculinities articulated by successful Korean films in the Japanese market also convey the collective desires of the local audience. In other words, a national cinema, as the expression of the collective identity or historical experience of nationhood, can still be a means to enhance communication between different nations. In the media-sphere, people can be emancipated from their duty as loyal citizens in a closed society; in cyberspace, they can be free from the obligations of traditional cultural norms.

Cultural mobility is inherent to globalization, and hallyu fans can be considered at the vanguard of transnational cultural practices. Likewise, these Japanese cultural nomads blur the distinction between two nations with their collective desires, and cultural tastes have realized their consuming power. Nonetheless, a key question remains: how can cultural citizenship be fully freed from the traps of commercialism and consumers empowered in the production of culture?


1   A customer letter from a mobile TV set advertisement by Bic Camera on BS11 television station’s webpage, Accessed 20 February 2009.

2   Sun Jung in this volume offers the literal rendering of kkonmina–m as ‘flower pretty boy’, arguing that ‘the masculinity of kkonminam ... largely originates from bishbishonennen of manga and anime’. The hybridity of kkonminam masculinities is a natural by-product of transnational flows of popular culture over some decades. Kkonminam hallyu stars have a quite different quality of masculinity from the prettiness and boyishness of bishbishonennen (‘pretty boy’): they have sexual maturity and the physical strength of a man. The body politics of kkonminam masculinities needs an in-depth study of its social and historical origins from a Korean perspective, looking at the strong military culture and military service system, the generic evolution of gangster films and melodramas, and media fixation on momjjang: tall, long legs and chokoret bokkeun (‘chocolate abdominal muscles’).

3   The topic has been treated by numerous authors. See e.g. Cho-Han et al. 2003; Lee 2004a; Lee 2004b; Mouri 2004a; Mouri 2004b; Mouri 2005; Hayashi 2005a; Hayashi 2005b; Hirata 2005; Ham and Heo 2005; Paik 2005; Kim et al. 2005; Kim 2005; Hwang 2005; Mizuta et al. 2006; Ogura et al. 2007; Lee 2008).

4   In this context, Sama is the most honorific title for a film star, singer or celebrity of popular culture whom one greatly admires.

5   IMX (Interactive Media Mix) created and maintained Bae’s official homepage ( between June 2004 and March 2008. BOF (Boundaries of Forests) is Bae’s current official homepage (

6   Those in their twenties comprised 12%; thirties 31%, forties 36%, fifties 9%, and respondents in their sixties were 2%. 10% of respondents did not answer.

7   40% and 25% were college (two-year university) and university (four-year) graduates respectively, with 1% having some postgraduate training: 27% were high school graduates.

8   The Shinmeikai Kokugo Jiten Japanese Dictionary (1991) gives the definition of ‘middle age’ as people between their mid-fifties and in their mid-sixties, whereas the definition in the Yonsei Korean Dictionary (1999) defines ‘middle age’ as from about 40 to ‘old age’.

9   See ‘Louis Vuitton’s Mythic 94.3%’, 24 June 2008, at


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Barral, Étienne. 1999. Otaku: Les Enfants Du Virtuel [Otaku: Children of the Virtual World]. Song, Jisoo, trans. 2002. Seoul: Munhak-gwa Jiseongsa.

BOF, Inc. ed. 2005.100 Days of Bae Yong Joon – Fresh Body Diet Diary by JP. Tokyo: Interactive Media Mix.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. New York and London: Routledge.

Chadha, Radha; Husband, Paul. 2006. The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury. Kim, Ji-e, trans. 2007. Reokseupeullojeon (luxplosion): Ajia, myeongpume sarochaphida. Seoul: Kaya Books.

Cho-Han, Hye-jong (Hae Joang); Kim, Hyunmi et al. 2003. Hallyu-wa Asia-ui daejung munhwa [The Korean Wave and Asian Popular Culture]. Seoul: Yonsei University Press.

Collins Dictionary. 2006. Collins Cobuild Advanced Learners’ English Dictionary. Glasgow: HarperCollins.

Ham, In-hui; Heo, In-sun. 2005. Gyeoul yeon-ga-wa nabi hwantaji: Ilbon hallyu-reul mannaboda [Winter Sonata and Butterfly Fantasy: Japan meets the Korean Wave]. Seoul: Sohwa.

Hayashi, Kaori. 2005a. ‘Chchukonenknen josei no nichijnichijo to terebi [Everyday lives of middle-aged women and television]’. Gakushikai kaihkaiho 52 (2005–III): 69–73.

Hayashi, Kaori. 2005b. ‘Fuyusona’ ni hamatta watashitachi: junai, namida, masukomi ... soshite kankoku [Our Winter Sonata Addiction: Pure Love, Tears, Mass Media and South Korea]. Tokyo: Bunshun shinsho.

Higson, Andrew. 2003. English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume Since 1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hirata, Yukie. 2004. ‘Manazasu mono to shite no nihon josei kan(kko)kyaku: Fuyu no sonata rokechi meguri ni miru toransunashonaruna tekusuto dokkai’ [Japanese female viewers/tourists as gazer: transnational textual interpretation spinning around Winter Sonata location sites]’. In Nisshiki hanryhanryu: ‘Fuyu no sonata’ to nikkan taishtaishu bunka no genzai [The Korean Wave, Japanese Style: Winter Sonata and the Currents of Japan–Korea Popular Culture], edited by Mouri, Yoshitaka.Tokyo: Serika shobshobo: 51–82.

Hirata, Yukie. 2005. Han-gug-eul sobihaneun ilbon: hallyu, yeoseong, deurama [Japan Consumes Korea: Hallyu, Women and TV Drama]. Seoul: Chaek Sesang.

Hwang, Seong-bin. 2005. ‘Ilbon-ui hallyu yeolpung [Japan’s Korean Wave Fever]’. Creation and Criticism 127: 369–374.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. 2002. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. 2004 ‘KanryKanryu ga zainichi kankokujin to deatta toki: toransunashonaru media kkotsuts to rrokarukaru tabunka seiji no kkosasa [When the Korean Wave meets Korean residents in Japan: Crossing of transnational traffic and local multicultural politics]’. In Nisshiki hanryhanryu: ‘Fuyu no sonata’ to nikkan taishtaishu bunka no genzai [The Korean Wave, Japanese Style: Winter Sonataand the Currents of Japan–Korea Popular Culture], edited by Mouri, Yoshitaka. Tokyo: Serika shobshobo: 112–153.

JJosaisai International University Research Institute of Gender Studies, ed. 2006. Jendaa de yomu ‘kanryKanryu’ bunka no genzai [Reading the Currents of the Korean Wave Culture through Gender]. Tokyo: Gendai shokan.

Kim, Hyeon-mi (Hyunmi). 2005. Geullobal sidae-ui munhwa beonyeok [Cultural Translation in the Global Era]. Seoul: Ttohana-ui Munhwa.

Kim, Yeong-sun; Park, Ji-seon, et al. 2005. Gyeoul yeon-ga: kontenchu-wa contekseuteu sai [Winter Sonata: Between Contents and Context]. Seoul: Dahul Media.

Kuroda, Katsuhiro. 2005. ‘TaitTaito suru kanrykanryu: shinsayoku shin-Kita muudo ga tsuzuku nara Yonsama buumu mo ffuzenzen no tomoshibi? [The rising Korean Wave: If new left wing’s pro-North Korea mood continues, will even the Yon-sama boom cool down?]’. Voice February: 152–158.

Lee, Dong-Hoo. 2004a. ‘Cultural contact with Japanese dramas: modes of reception and narrative transparency’. In Feeling Asian Modernities: Transnational Consumption of Japanese TV Dramas, edited by Iwabuchi, Koichi. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press: 251–274.

Lee, Dong-hu (Dong-Hoo). 2004b. ‘Rimeiku no bunkateki senryaku: “Yamato nadeshiko” to “YYochoch Shukujo” no hon’an no jirei [Cultural strategy of the remake: A case study on the adaptation of (Japanese TV drama) “Yamato nadeshiko” and (Korean TV drama) “YYochoch shukujo” (Yojo sunnyeo)]’. In Nisshiki hanryhanryu: ‘Fuyu no sonata’ to nikkan taishtaishu bunka no genzai [The Korean Wave, Japanese Style: Winter Sonata and the Currents of Japan–Korea Popular Culture], edited by Mouri, Yoshitaka. Tokyo: Serika shshobobo: 230–263.

Lee, Hyangjin. 2008. Kanrykanryu no shakaigaku: fuandomu, kazoku, ibunka korykoryu [Sociology of Hallyu: Fandom, Family, Intercultural Communication]. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Mizuta, Noriko et al., eds. 2006. Kanrykanryu sabu-karuchua to josei [The Korean Wave Sub-culture and Women]. Tokyo: ShibundShibundo.

Mizuta, Noriko. 2006. ‘Gendai no otogibanashi Fuyu no sonata no monogatari no kkozoz [Narrative structure of a contemporary fairytale, Winter Sonata]’. In KanryKanryu sabu-karuchaa to josei, edited by Mizuta, Noriko et al. Tokyo: ShibundShibundo: 93–110.

Mouri, Yoshitaka, ed. 2004a. Nisshiki hanryhanryu: Fuyu no sonata to nikkan taishtaishu bunka no genzai [Japanese Style of Korean Wave: Winter Sonata and the Currents of Japan–Korea Popular Culture]. Serika shobshobo.

Mouri, Yoshitaka. 2004b. ‘Fuyu no sonata to nnodotekidteki fan no bunka jissen [Winter Sonata and cultural practices of active fans]. In Nisshiki hanryhanryu: ‘Fuyu no sonata’ to nikkan taishtaishu bunka no genzai [The Korean Wave, Japanese Style: Winter Sonata and the Currents of Japan–Korea Popular Culture], edited by Mouri, Yoshitaka. Tokyo: Serika shobshobo: 14–50.

Mouri, Yoshitaka. 2005. ‘EkkyEkkyo suru nikkan no popyuraa bunka [Transnational Japanese and Korean popular culture]’. Gendai ShisShiso 6: 222–227.

Nobuta, Sayoko. 2005, ‘Yonsama wa nihon no kazoku no kykyuseishuseishu da [Yon-sama is the saviour of the Japanese family]’, Ronza 4: 210–217.

O, Seon. 2006. ‘“Fuyusona” ni mune tokimekasu mae ni [Before indulging in Winter Sonata]’. Seiron Extra 2, 19 April: 91–102.

Ogura, KizKizo. 2006. ‘MattMatto na hihan ni taete koso kanrykanryu wa ajiaryajiaryu ni sodatsu: Bae Yong Jun fan e no tegami [Only tolerance of valid criticism will make the Korean Wave grow into the Asian Wave: A letter to Bae Yong Jun fans]’. Ronza 1: 37–50.

Ogura, KizKizo; Kohari, Susumu, eds. 2007. KanryKanryu handobukku [Korean Wave Dictionary]. Tokyo: Shinshokan.

Paik, Won-dam. 2005. Dong Asia-ui munhwa seontaek, hallyu [Korean Wave, the Cultural Choice of East Asia]. Seoul: Pentagram.

Park, Jung-Sun. 2005, ‘The Korean Wave: Transnational Cultural Flows in East Asia’. In Korea at the Center, edited by Armstrong, Charles K; Kim, Samuel S; Rozman, Gilbert; Kotkin, Stephen. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe: 244–256.

Ritchie, Donald; Garner, Roy. 2004. Image Factory: Fads and Fashions in Japan. London: Reaktion Books.

ShinyShinyusha Mukku, ed. 2006. Manga Ken-kanryKen-kanryu kkoshikishiki gaido bukku [Official Guide Book of the anti-Korean Wave]. Tokyo: ShinyShinyusha group.

Takano, Etsuko; Yamato, Yoshiaki, 2004. Fuyu no sonata kara kangaeru watashitachi to kankoku no aida [Thinking About Our Relations with Korea from the Perspective of Winter Sonata]. Tokyo: Iwanami.

Tanaka, Hiroshi; Itagaki, RyRyutata, eds. 2007. Nikkan arata na hajimari no tame no 20 shsho [Twenty Chapters for a New Relationship between Japan and Korea]. Tokyo: Iwanami.

Tokyo Shinbun. 2007. ‘HHosos & GeinGeinokankokukankoku eiga no taytayoseisei ni tsuite [Broadcasting and entertainment: on the diversity of Korean film]’. Tokyo Shinbun. 2 July 2007.

Yamano, Sharin. 2005. Manga Ken-kanryKen-kanryu [Hating the Korean Wave Manga]. Tokyo: ShinyShinyusha.

Yano, Christine R. 2002. Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.

Yi, Dong-yeon. 2006. Ajia munhwa yeon-gu-reul sangsanghagi: Munhwa minjokjuui-wa munhwa jabonjuui-ui nolli-reul neomeoseo [Imagining Asian Cultural Studies: Overcoming Cultural Nationalism and the Logic of Cultural Capital]. Seoul: Grin Bi.


Cite this chapter as: Lee, Hyangjin. 2010. ‘Buying youth: Japanese fandom of the Korean Wave’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 7.1–7.16.


©Copyright 2010 Hyangjin Lee

All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia's Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress:

Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita