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Complicated Currents



Daniel Black

Stephen Epstein

Alison Tokita

‘Korean Wave crashes on Asian shores’.1

‘The ‘Korean wave’ – an incoming tide of Korean drama, Korean pop and Korean culture that has swept into the region’.2

‘The so-called Korean Wave was breaking on the shores of Latin America’.3

The Korean Wave is only one recent high-profile example of the diversity and power of transnational media flows. With its oceanographic imagery, however, it recalls a far longer history of global cultural exchange, appropriation, and resistance, in which the waters surrounding the Asian continent have often played a central role. Zheng He, one of the world’s great mariners, embarked on epic voyages in the early fifteenth century that extended Chinese influence abroad and involved the dispensation and reception of goods. Traditionally, the Korean Peninsula itself and its ports have served as a staging post for cultural movement, most famously from China onward to Japan, although that bald account elides the complexity of local adaptations and counterinfluences in areas from religion to art to ideology. No less has water played a critical role in the history of Taiwan, acting both as facilitator of and barrier to interaction with external powers. The largely seaborne peregrinations of Chinese and other diasporas have fostered further networks of exchange and distributed proximity.

In the nineteenth century, the ships of Western powers facilitated the appropriation and reworking of East Asian styles through chinoiserie and japonisme as a byproduct of more hardnosed imperialist projects. Japan’s long and complicated history of interactions with the West entered its modern phase with the arrival of Matthew Perry and the ‘black ships’ of the US navy in Uraga Bay in 1853, a gesture designed to bring home to the Shogunate government the reality that the seas surrounding Japan were as much a conduit for foreign influences as they were a barrier to them. That the black ships were the first steam ships to enter Japanese waters illustrates that the movement of cultural influences should not be seen as simply accident or inevitability: new technologies sometimes allow influences to move against prevailing currents.

In the twenty-first century, however, cultural products are just as likely to wash up overseas in a spray of radio waves or satellite signals, or in torrents of digital information running through pipes lying on the ocean floor, as arrive in the cargo hold of a ship, adding further scale, intricacy and dynamism to transnational media flows. But the dematerialization of these flows has not made them uniformly benign: they can still present dilemmas that arise from longstanding political tensions. National boundaries and cultural affiliations have hardly been rendered inconsequential by these new tides of transmission; the flow of media between countries remains a concern for governments, which attempt to exert control over such flows even in a globalized environment. The very ease with which foreign media products cross borders can prompt expressions of triumphant nationalism in exporters and anxieties concerning the erosion of local culture or the decline of local media industries in importers.

At the same time, however, media production is more internationalized than ever: ownership has become concentrated in a few key multinational conglomerates; film and television productions are often financed from sources in a variety of countries; television channels have proliferated, requiring material to be sought out from across the globe and allowing the targeting of specialized demographics. Media consumption is also more cosmopolitan, with an unprecedented multiplicity of fan communities around the world conversant in the stylistic language of Bollywood musicals, costumed kung fu epics, and anime science fiction. Advances in communication technology have allowed audiences to consume, research and discuss all manner of cultural and media products as never before.

Where the global movement of media texts and other cultural productions was once understood as a monodirectional imperialistic flow (almost exclusively originating in the United States), it is now clear that the dynamics underpinning it are far more variegated.4 Waves of influence can swamp a country and then recede, popular culture currents eddy and swirl. They can move into, and then out of, a particular territory in a tidal action, carrying away new influences as they do so. One nation might fear a tsunami of foreign cultural products in one year, then flood neighbouring countries with its own the next. Different styles swirl together in unceasing motion, blending material from different points of origin into new forms, which sometimes make landfall in unexpected locations. In attempting to read the flows of popular media in East Asia, the observer is faced with rip tides, submerged obstacles, and even the occasional tidal wave. Complicated currents indeed.

Our volume, Complicated Currents: Media Flows and Soft Power in East Asia, is a collection of essays that seek to analyze the interrelationship of new (and sometimes not-so-new) movements of media from one national context to another in the East Asian region, and their potential to serve as an expression of soft power. The essays grew out of a workshop held at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia in August 2006, and reflect not only a variety of disciplinary approaches, but also a wide variety of opinions and attitudes to the question of soft power and cross-cultural media reception. From cautious optimism to sceptical disdain, and from close readings of primary resources and personal practices to broad theses concerning historical and thematic developments, this volume offers a multiplicity of perspectives, even if no treatment of such a rich and sometimes paradoxical area can ever claim to be exhaustive.


In recent years, as scholars and media commentators alike have challenged the putative West–East directionality of cultural movement, they have drawn attention to the rise of popular cultural flows at the regional level in multiple contexts. Most notable among these, perhaps, has been East Asia, where a vast amount of cultural traffic occurs internally.The reasons for this traffic are manifold.

Although East Asia’s general upward economic trajectory has been neither uninterrupted nor uniform, the region has without doubt been a powerhouse of development for several decades. Japan’s well-documented rise after World War II to become the world’s second-largest economy by the 1980s, followed by the so-called Asian ‘tigers’ or NIEs (newly industrializing economies) – South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and now China – need not delay us here. Consider merely that Japan’s dynamic economy issued a challenge even to the United States (see e.g. Vogel 1979) until it experienced a slowdown in the early 1990s with the bursting of its asset price bubble. South Korea’s economic transformation, given the aftermath of the devastating Korean War and a per capita income that was among the world’s lowest in 1960, has frequently, and with considerable justification, been termed a ‘miracle’. And the seemingly inexorable rise of China is perhaps the great global narrative of the early twenty-first century.

Most important for the purposes of this volume is that with this often stunning growth has come the rise of vibrant consumer and popular cultures as the middle classes in East Asia have acquired greater purchasing power. This consumer culture, especially among youth, has both fed and been fed by increased transnational media penetration, which has created a regional ‘mediascape’ (Appadurai 1996) characterized by shared patterns of media consumption. A vigorous regional trade in such cultural commodities as comics, cinema and TV dramas is creating a shared popular culture, distinctive from Western counterparts, and a desire for the regional Other, simultaneously familiar and exotic. Flows of people within East Asia have burgeoned, driven by business, tourism, study and so on. Such flows in turn have been fuelled by progressive regional integration since the end of the Cold War and a significant geopolitical shift from bilateral to multilateral groupings, no longer under an American or Japanese model, but rather a vision drawing on multiple influences (Katzenstein et al. 2006) and reflected in the formation of regional institutions (e.g. ASEAN Plus Three, the East Asia Summit).

Nonetheless, security concerns in the region are manifold. In addition to ongoing problems stemming from the division of the Korean Peninsula and cross-Strait issues, broader tensions and rivalries in East Asia remain, owing, not least, to a fraught historical legacy. Tumarkin (2005) has extended Appadurai’s framework of discursive ‘scapes’ of the social imaginary to include ‘traumascape’, capturing the East Asian politics of war and colonial memory. Tensions between the nations of East Asia frequently percolate to the surface, provoked by disputes over interpretations of the past (the Nanjing Massacre, Comfort Women, the Goguryeo kingdom, history textbooks), understandings of the present (Yasukuni Shrine visits, territorial disputes) and fears for the future (Japan’s remilitarization, China’s rise).

And yet the transnational consumption of popular culture in the region has been accompanied by the emergence of ‘transnational memories’ in place of ‘single national narratives’ of war and memory (Jager and Mitter 2007; Gluck 2007). Although those who seek expressions of nationalism and even bigoted jingoism in the popular culture of East Asian nations will not have to search long to find them, this history is more often blithely ignored. This volume thus considers the relationship between the increasing spread of media within the region and beyond, national desires for the propagation of ‘soft power’, and more utopian hopes that a shared popular culture can play a role in overcoming longstanding antagonisms in East Asia. All authors here address this interaction self-consciously, albeit in very different ways, often with the goal of problematizing a relationship that has been taken for granted.


Over the course of the twentieth century, Japan developed a new, homegrown, locally consumed culture. It was a hybrid form, built on the intensive absorption of US popular culture since the Occupation (1945–1952), and an earlier enthusiasm for Western popular culture in the 1920s, but entirely ‘re-made in Japan’ (Tobin 1992), as it generated domestic industries in such areas as comics and animation, cinema and television, popular song and fashion. Although Japan’s imperialist history engendered suspicion, the nation could not be ignored, even after its defeat in 1945. As Japan’s neighbours have looked to reproduce its economic success in a ‘flying goose’ arrangement, so too have they seen it as a model for their popular cultural industries. Japan’s consumer culture has often been viewed with a mixture of admiration and envy, and its products have been in demand amongst youth with spending power in South Korea, China, Taiwan, and beyond. Japanese anime has been exported since the 1960s (for more detail, see Jung Sun Park in this volume), and Japanese music, fashion and TV have been influential in most parts of East Asia since the 1980s; but it was from the early 1990s, just as multiple holes were pricked in Japan’s bubble economy, that its culture industries really began to take off.

These popular cultural flows emanating from Japan have been extensively documented (e.g. Leheny 2006; Otmazgin 2008b). Most notably, in his pioneering study Iwabuchi (2002) has analyzed Japan’s ‘return to Asia’ (Ajia kaiki) and theorized a transnational Japan, which, in challenging US influence, has spawned a new version of global culture produced in East Asia. The spread of influences from Japanese popular culture has been, of course, gradual and subject to processes of negotiation with specific local contexts, and an understanding of the history of such negotiations is of great importance. Indeed, a strength of this volume is the extent to which its chapters read the situation in the new millennium, often regarded as something strikingly novel, within a broader historical context. Several contributors trace the flow of media into, out of and within East Asia to a period that predates what is conventionally regarded as the era of globalization: Choo, for example, provides an archaeology of the influence of Japanese manga in Korea, while Maliangkay does much the same for anime; Yecies not only makes apparent the longstanding influence of American popular culture in the region, but, more significantly, shows that even early on it was not unidirectional.

Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye (1990; Nye 2004) famously defined soft power as a nation’s ability to pursue its goals by attracting others to adopt them. It differs from hard economic and military power, which coerce others to comply with a given nation’s will, and derives from not only economic prosperity and technological leadership but a culture, lifestyle and values that others admire. Recent nationalist discourses throughout East Asia have emphasized popular culture and media industries and encouraged a new approach to pursuing diplomatic objectives (cf. Berry et al. 2009). These cultural flows, therefore, are not neutral, but highly politicized. Emerging in government and business publications and in the popular fora of the mass media, they become a key component of attempts to unify or mobilize national publics.

In the May–June 2002 issue of Foreign Policy, American journalist Douglas McGray published an influential article in which, drawing on Nye, he proclaimed that Japan’s combination of culture and technology allowed it to exhibit soft power in the form of ‘Gross National Cool’. He noted the development of popular culture alongside more traditionally privileged forms (haute couture, architecture and so on) and their consumption outside Japan. Japanese media and officialdom, grateful for McGray’s outsider perspective, avidly took up this label of ‘GNC’: since a foreigner had argued for Japan’s status as a kingpin of National Cool, it could not be dismissed as wishful thinking.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other official agencies did not tarry in applying the designation in their diplomatic initiatives. Not only was popular culture a profitable export item, it was regarded as a means to boost Japan’s image internationally (Otmazgin 2008a: 80). The Japan Foundation began applying the term ‘Cool Japan’ in advertising exchange program grants and cultural centres, and in many fora its director Kazuo Ogoura also drew upon the label in speaking about ‘Japan’s new cultural diplomacy’. A special issue of GaikGaiko Forum (June 2004), the magazine of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was devoted to the topic kuuru Japan with lead articles by Nye himself, as well as cultural anthropologist Aoki Tamotsu, advisor to the prime minister.5

‘Cool Japan’, however, not only conveys a perhaps smug sense of cultural leadership, but also affects policy: for example, in recent years Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) to a variety of African and South American countries has included funding the purchase of broadcast rights to Japanese animated films, to both enhance Japan’s image and foster interest in Japan and the Japanese language. In a similar mode, NHK has for some years run a program called Cool Japan, in which young foreign residents each week discuss topics that, even if not ‘cool’ per se, typify life in contemporary Japan (manga, love hotels, street fashion, anime, mobile phones, convenience stores).

Cool Japan merges almost seamlessly with the notion of soft power in this discourse, but Joseph Nye’s analysis is more stringent: soft power requires the ability to engender trust and provide values that others wish to emulate. Despite the attraction of Japan’s urban youth lifestyles, pop music and techno-cute culture for many, it is doubtful whether Japan’s popular culture as a whole inspires a larger vision of trust. Democratic principles, a vibrant civil society and commitment to peace, while part of the fabric of contemporary Japanese society, are not necessarily the stuff of popular cultural texts. Japanese discussions themselves betray an unease about the value of popular culture, but this anxiety is suppressed in the face of its popularity and economic benefits. Ambivalence concerning the commodification of culture for diplomatic or commercial gain is counterbalanced by belief in the project’s strategic value.


The success of Japanese cultural exports has undeniably facilitated ongoing processes of exchange in the region. Chua Beng Huat (2004), writing from a Singaporean perspective, argues that an East Asian popular culture, linked to the production, distribution and consumption of products such as music, film and television dramas, has been emerging from as long ago as the 1980s, when Hong Kong made noteworthy contributions to this sphere, and other members of the Sinosphere offered glimmers of more dynamic futures to come. However, it is perhaps South Korea that has done most to encourage the notion that East Asia is developing a shared popular culture that can take a prominent place on the global stage.

Beginning in the late 1980s, South Korea’s progressive democratization, combined with rising incomes, a new confidence on the international stage (as evinced most notably by the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and a general cultural liberalization, allowed consumer capitalism to begin to flourish in earnest (see e.g. Nelson 2000; Hart 2001). During the 1990s, Korean government and business circles became increasingly conscious of the economic possibilities inherent in the Korean cultural contents industries and made them a strategic priority,6 and, although the rise of South Korean cultural contents industries was hardly inevitable, or even predictable, the nation has not looked back since.

As Brian Yecies discusses in this volume, Korea’s domestic film industry has a lengthy and, at times, illustrious history, but until recently it had not concerned itself with exports. Since the success of Shiri (1999), however, it has carved out a significant following within the region. Korea’s pop music has won fans throughout East and Southeast Asia (see Jung and Pease in this volume for an account of factors involved). Perhaps most strikingly, Korean television dramas have made a genuine, lasting impact on the regional zeitgeist. Daejanggeum (Jewel in the Palace), for example, has seen massive success in Chinese-speaking nations: its final episode was the most watched show in Hong Kong television history and it can count among its fans such luminaries as Hu Jintao and Chow Yun-fat. But it is the virtual frenzy spawned in Japan by Winter Sonata and its star Bae Yong Joon, idolized as Yon-sama (see Tokita, Yamanaka, and Lee), that has been the single most notable example of Korean drama popularity. Once the Korean Wave (hallyu) broke in Japan,7 its fascination reached extraordinary heights, and some have even argued that Japan has been placed in the position of playing catch-up.

Our volume includes papers that deal with the reception of Korean products in Japan and mainland China (see e.g. Lee, Yamanaka, Pease, Rhee and Lee), its two primary soft power rivals in East Asia; this reception is no less intriguing in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and many other Southeast Asian nations. But rather than tarry elsewhere in Asia, our consideration of soft power leads us to look at the relationship between the Korean Wave and the nation that has come to define soft power, the United States (see Jung Sun Park and Jane Park). As we go to press, Korean pop stars BoA and the Wonder Girls are attempting to break into the world’s largest popular culture market; if East Asia is to engage in new expressions of soft power, its relationships with the hegemonic land across the Pacific will be of crucial concern.

While the Korean Wave has drawn global media and academic attention, arguably the most striking transformation it has engendered has been in Korean self-perception. Popular discourse, as propagated by the media and encouraged by government and business interests, has frequently come to portray the country as a cultural dynamo whose products have enough attractive power to conquer larger neighbours. Not for nothing did the nation brand itself for several years as ‘Dynamic Korea’, cherishing a vision of itself as an underdog nation with a can-do spirit that is able to tackle giants. In a widely cited overview of discourses on the Korean Wave, Cho Hae-Joang (2005) outlines the variety of responses that the phenomenon has generated locally, ranging from expressions of cultural nationalism to an industrial neoliberal position and intellectual postcolonial critique. Like Cho, Lee Kee-hyeung (2008) discusses hallyu discourse as consisting of mainstream and critical strands, and despite acknowledging the commercial and economic gains that the Korean Wave has brought to South Korea, Lee remains sceptical, seeing its products as a hybrid of Western and Japanese genres and formats that reflect cosmopolitan lifestyles, rather than embodying a uniquely Korean creativity (Lee Kee-hyeung 2008: 184).

Certainly, in Korea the use of popular culture as a diplomatic tool engages with a broader objective of positioning South Korea as the economic, political and cultural hub of Asia. Official discourse has at times displayed a sense of urgency, arguing that the Korean Wave must be capitalized upon quickly given not only the ephemeral nature of fads and fashions, but destabilizing factors such as the North Korean security threat.8 Indeed, in the latter part of this decade, the Korean Wave’s power has ebbed significantly.

What, then, of the Korean Wave’s ability to nurture relations between neighbours within East Asia? Lee Wook-yon (2005), in considering a potential ‘new sense of affinity’, recognizes in hallyu a market-oriented, nationalistic perspective, and yet more idealistically hopes for a shared ‘cultural community’ that, in washing away ‘the unfortunate experiences of the past and foster[ing] new relations in East Asia’, can promote supranational cultural networks. Although conventional cultural exchanges between South Korea and China in recent years have often emphasized more traditional cultural affinities (and thus fed China’s nationalistic sentiment), the promotion of hallyu, on the other hand, is premised on Korean cultural superiority over China as a result of its more rapid economic development. A new form of cultural community based on hallyu, therefore, in no way escapes ethnocentrism. Drawing on the concept of a ‘communal house’ in East Asia mooted by Wada Haruki, Lee advocates removal of emphasis on the Korean Wave, recognition of diversity, and a ‘critical regionalism’ which resists US hegemony. (For an exposition of Wada’s concept in English see Wada 2008.)

Although Lee’s vision of a shared culture tries, constructively, to transcend the nationalist discourse surrounding hallyu and Japan’s GNC, the attempts of governments in the region to capitalize on the economic and diplomatic potential of such phenomena bring a new element to interstate relations and indicate a ‘soft power battle’ (Leheny 2006) that is only likely to become fiercer in the years to come, especially as China too starts to exert soft power influence in the form of cultural industries, foreign aid and FDI (foreign direct investment), and Confucius Institutes.9 Indeed, one might regard the entire 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and Shanghai’s International Exposition in 2010, as an expression of this soft power (see Hsiao and Yang 2009). This struggle for leadership in the East Asian region thus provides fertile ground for the study of soft market power versus hard national power, and the papers in this volume investigate in particular the limits of cultural industries’ power to produce any lasting change (most notably in the iconoclastic reading of Peter Murphy, who will have none of it).


Even as the media landscape has been drastically altered from the top down by new attitudes towards the value of its dissemination, remarkable changes have occurred from the bottom up, crucially those stemming from the advent of new information and communication technologies. Since the important studies of scholars such as Henry Jenkins (1992), the ability of audiences to form ‘participatory cultures’ has been widely acknowledged. From the 1990s, the rise of the World Wide Web has provided an unprecedented capacity for media consumers to produce, circulate, rework, discuss and otherwise actively engage with texts of all kinds. Although one should not ignore continuities with earlier practices, recent years have seen striking developments in the relationship between audiences and the texts they consume. The ever more widespread diffusion of the Internet and the enthusiastic adoption of blogging, online social networking and user-generated content is creating new communities among consumers of cultural commodities. East Asian popular cultural forms such as manga and anime are well-established objects of interest in participatory fan cultures across the world, and both the seeming indifference with which Japanese producers initially responded to the unauthorized circulation of their products and the later realization that such fan networks could serve as a powerful tool for testing and opening new international markets, have allowed consumers a substantial degree of control over the dissemination and modification of popular texts.

Early in the history of such texts’ circulation, an absence of association between them and their national provenance enhanced transferability. In Western countries, Japanese animation became appealing as the costs of local animation production increased, and the use of drawn characters rather than live actors allowed their origins in Japan – associated in the 1960s with cheap, shoddy manufacturing and still tarnished by the Pacific War – to be swept under the carpet. As Kukhee Choo notes in this volume, in South Korea erasure of Japanese associations was made all the more necessary by government restrictions on the importation of Japanese cultural goods, which led to the development of an industry devoted to the reworking of manga, as well as the pirating of anime.

By the last decade of the twentieth century, however, as discussed in detail by Jung Sun Park, audiences around the world had grown not merely aware but appreciative of a product’s Japanese origin. Japanese anime producers were seeking to leverage a burgeoning fan following in order to establish a more formal relationship with Western audiences, and films such as Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), both planned from conception to be marketed in Anglophone countries, clearly sought to play on international associations between Japan and high-tech already popularized by films such as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and books such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). As Japan’s economic influence waned at the beginning of the 1990s, its prestige as producer of popular culture waxed. Increasingly, a Japanese style was recognized – and widely admired – around the world.

Furthermore, by this time, the Internet was transforming the practices of well-established international fandoms for such East Asian genres as Japanese animation and Hong Kong action cinema in important ways (Jenkins 2002: 283ff.). New communications networks allowed these forms to be circulated globally outside traditional channels of distribution, which remained constrained by the interests of the companies that controlled them. While such companies had little financial incentive to bring media texts to small international fan or diasporic communities, informal networks of distribution are driven largely by unpaid labour and the contravention of intellectual property laws, allowing the subjugation of economics to audience desire. Fansubbing communities devote substantial amounts of unremunerated effort to overcoming language barriers (see Jung in this volume), and peer-to-peer file sharing networks and user-generated content sites allow rapid international dissemination of media texts using distributed communications infrastructure, obviating the need for further industry involvement in the transmission of material across national borders.

However, the international circulation of Japanese cultural products has also problematized the specificity of a national Japanese style. In many Asian countries, the earlier dissemination of Japanese media texts without a strong sense of their Japaneseness had allowed them to be naturalized and domesticated, and this in turn led to local appropriations of, and identification with, such styles, and their production in multiple locales. Similarly, the success of media forms like television dramas throughout the region spawned productions that combined nationally specific styles and sensibilities with regionally shared formal attributes. Furthermore, and particularly in the case of popular music, industry players consciously sought to play the national off against the international by, for instance, translating the lyrics to hit Japanese songs into Mandarin and putting together Chinese singing groups that could deliver them to new national audiences in the same style as the original performers. Moreover, with audiences actively engaging with media texts around the world, styles come to be appropriated and reworked in ways that can no longer be said to be the province of any one national or cultural context. The global popularity of books on how to draw manga indicates the degree to which particular media forms are increasingly seen as based on aesthetic styles that can be claimed by anyone, anywhere.

The power of audiences to shape the global media landscape should not be overstated: traditional, centralized models still dominate media production in recorded music, television and film. Furthermore, the fact that interventions by audiences in the global circulation of media texts take place almost entirely outside established economic – and even legal – structures means that their visibility beyond specialized communities is low. Phenomena such as the Korean Wave are recognized as significant when they generate impressive amounts of export revenue, and when imported popular cultural products announce their importance in more traditional contexts of consumption – through television airtime, on cinema marquees, and in music store shelf space, for example. Nonetheless, adventurous fans can pave the way for cultural imports, allowing producers to test the waters before a foray into a new market and providing early enthusiasm for the latest products. Even entrenched media producers such as the US film, television and recorded music industries are increasingly aware of the power of a core of online fans to generate a buzz for products that can filter out to a general audience.


By interacting with media texts, audiences engage with the discourses of gender that inform them, whether through acceptance, resistance, transformation, or various combinations thereof. As this volume coalesced, it became apparent that issues of media flows and soft power intersect inevitably with understandings of gender and the body, and that our chapters opened up a window on the discursive practices of gender in East Asia.

A key resource in media texts generally, and perhaps even more so in those that cross national boundaries, is the representation of bodies, making the formulation of bodily styles, and particularly the expression of aesthetics and ideals of masculinity and femininity, crucial. The importance and complexity of gendered representation is highlighted repeatedly in the following chapters: the cultural and historical specificity of gender conventions have been cross-pollinated through the circulation of media texts, producing regional understandings of beauty and deportment which are nevertheless given distinctive localized characteristics, and which then become integral to the identifiable style of a particular country’s cultural production.

In key regional media forms – most obviously television dramas and pop music – the production of a ‘soft’ style of masculinity (see Jung, this volume) is central to their appeal and appreciation. The highly constructed nature of this style of masculinity is made even more striking by the fact that it originated in the artificial bodies of Japanese and Korean ‘girls comics’ (shShojojo manga and sunjeong manhwa, respectively). Physical ideals have emerged from a style of artistic expression within popular culture, and have then been appropriated by living bodies seeking to approximate these exemplars as part of their own roles in media culture. Cross-cultural flows then hybridize these attributes, creating regionally privileged visions of masculinity which nevertheless retain a sense of nationally specific style, and which can be circulated and appreciated globally via communications technologies.

Similar themes are explored in Gloria Davies, M.E. Davies and Young-A Cho’s chapter on the Korean media star Harisu. More than simply repeating claims about transgenderism as an illustration of the constructed nature of gender identities, Davies, Davies and Cho consider in detail how Korean celebrity Harisu’s ‘feminine’ beauty converges with global, regional and national understandings of female identity, conforming to and even reinforcing such understandings while simultaneously problematizing and threatening them. Case studies such as these draw attention to the production of gendered bodily styles in media texts; even when a media star has not changed from one gender attribution to another (as in the case of Harisu), his or her gendered style is still highly planned and produced. The masculinity of the stars of Boys over Flowers (see Jung, this volume) is no more a direct product of their chromosomes than the femininity of Harisu. The production and manipulation of gender in the mass media is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by the Adam’s apple that Harisu displays in a Dodo cosmetics advertisement discussed by the chapter’s authors: while Harisu’s body has been surgically modified in order to match an ideal of feminine appearance, the advertisement uses digital technologies to imbue that body with a masculine marker.

More subtly, entire schemas of national difference can be built on a foundation of ideas about gender. In this volume, Stephen Epstein’s consideration of the complexities and paradoxes of Korea’s and Japan’s representations of each other demonstrates that gender remains a key locus of anxieties and moral judgments relating to national character and cross-cultural interactions. Korean moral judgments concerning the Japanese have often pointed to Japanese women’s supposed promiscuity and sexual thraldom to men, and particularly foreign men. Such discourse repeats a long history of gendering international interactions across the world, not infrequently in relation to Japan. While Asian nations have long been feminized in relation to a masculine West, recent Korean depictions of highly sexualized Japanese women take their inspiration from titillating tabloid stories and moral panics initiated by the mobility of financially independent single Japanese women. More significantly for the themes under discussion, ongoing rumours about the sexual magnetism of black men for Japanese women tie a set of hoary racial stereotypes to a sense of threat from the appeal of an internationalized African-American popular culture for many young Japanese. In other words, Japanese women come to serve as embodiments of national culture, too eager to accept undesirable foreign influences.10 The appearance of these themes in the Korean context once again illustrates the endless circulation of ideas across cultural boundaries, as they are reworked to perform different functions in different settings.


The complexity of popular cultural flows cuts across all chapters in this volume. Case studies include flows from Japan to Korea, China to Korea, Korea to Japan and China, Korea to the United States, and Japan to the United States. Our contributors investigate and analyze the effects of transnational flows of information and mediated cultural texts over the last several years with a particular focus on the Korean Wave. They consider aspects of Korean media production (animation, cinema and marketing), the international reception of Korean television dramas and cinema, and the consequent construction of national and transnational identifications by various audiences. They also discuss the role of the audiences and fans of this shared popular culture as they influence the development of new media configurations. In addition, various contributors raise themes relating to the destablization of identities, and the changing images of the foreign that can result.

We have divided the volume into four sections.

In the first, entitled Soft Power, Media Texts and Imagining the Other, two essays, on a Korea–Japan axis, address the changes in mutual images between Korea and Japan over recent decades, reflecting the increase in contact and exchange of popular culture texts between the two countries. Stephen Epstein discusses the volatility and reactivity of popular attitudes in Korea, and considers specifically a warming towards Japan in 2004 that suddenly froze in 2005 as a result of the Dokdo disputed territory issue. He traces recent popular writings in Korean about Japan, considering Korean resistance to, as well as desire for, Japanese culture and asking whether transformative agency can be attributed to cultural products.

From the other side of the body of water that separates Korea and Japan, whose disputed name (The East Sea? The Sea of Japan?) itself points up frequently mismatched Korean and Japanese perceptions, Chie Yamanaka discusses representations of Korea in popular Japanese writings from the 1980s to 2005, showing that, while there have been earlier ‘Korea booms’, each one has tended to start from a discursive position of zero-awareness of Korea, with the latest Korean Wave boom in the year of Winter Sonata (2004) generating an intriguingly paradoxical discourse of complete prior ignorance about Korea. Tokita offers a content analysis of the drama itself within a framework of the politics of memory, arguing that its appeal in Japan can be attributed in part to a subliminal response to the underlying themes of remembering and forgetting. The other two chapters in this section consider relations between South Korea and China, looking at media and popular music flows, and changes in audience perceptions and expectations. Rowan Pease contextualizes her case study of Korean popular music reception in China with an analysis of hallyu discourses in Korea and China, and the uneasy relation between the state and popular culture in China. Although employing a very different methodology, June W. Rhee and Chul-joo Lee engage in a dialogue with Pease, as they report on a survey of Beijing residents in which they investigate the effect of Chinese consumption of Korean media products on attitudes towards South Korea, and conclude that watching Korean dramas indeed has produced a measurable impact on knowledge and feelings in their Chinese audience.

Our second section, entitled Embodying the Korean Wave, focuses on the transnational reception of popular culture, particularly the depiction and construction of bodily beauty, both physical and imagined. Kukhee Choo writes on the influence of girls’ manga from Japan in South Korea and the emergence of Korean girls’ manwha as an empowering form of expression for women artists and consumers. Hyangjin Lee’s research on the consumption of Winter Sonata in Japan argues that fans’ social activity empowers them to express their desires for travel, Korean study, and more. She disputes the common tendency to invoke nostalgia as an explanation for Korean dramas’ appeal, and she argues for hallyu consumption as a marker of homogeneity, not cultural or class distinction. Sun Jung analyzes the circulation of ‘pan-East Asian soft masculinity’, noting a lineage from shShojojo manga and anime, and outlining the ability of this ideal of masculinity to cross national borders, particularly in the East Asian region and in East Asian diasporic communities. She links the Korean TV series Boys over Flowers with Korean actors and singers who embody the quality of soft masculinity and argues that this is the source of their popularity. Davies, Davies and Cho’s study explores gender variance in South Korea through the figure of transsexual star Harisu and her reception in East Asia, emphasizing the importance of marketing strategies in her appeal.

The third group of essays, Wave Mechanics: Media Production and Soft Power, takes a broader view of the East Asian cultural industries and their relationship to global forces, with attention to case studies of reverse flows from East Asia to the United States. Brian Yecies shows the influence of Hollywood in South Korea, and the ways in which it provided stimulus for the development of the local film industry. Maliangkay traces the development of South Korean animation and its recent efforts to ‘catch the Korean Wave’ to export success. Jung Sun Park discusses the marketing of Japanese comics and animation in America and their increasingly successful reception, and the Korean desire to make a similar impact. Jane Park uses the Hollywood remake of the South Korean romantic comedy film My Sassy Girl to show that, while Hollywood has an endless appetite for remakes and appropriations, its cannibalization of popular Asian films can be problematic and unsuccessful.

The foregoing contributions explore a new field of competition in media production, within complex but cohesive and dynamic multidirectional flows of media and popular cultural contents via satellite and Internet, sales of printed comics and magazines, and consumption of CDs and DVDs. The contributors in our final section, Undertow: the Significance of Media Flows and Soft Power, return to broader issues of national branding and the jockeying for soft power in East Asia. They address directly nationalistic discourses that attempt to harness the potential of soft power in popular cultural industries and explore the relation between the transnational consumption of popular culture, and official discourses of soft power and competition through appropriation of popular culture for cultural diplomacy. Keane foreshadows the emergence of China as a strong contender in the soft power stakes, as it moves to position itself as an economic, political and cultural superpower. He discusses China’s current cultural export deficit vis-à-vis Japan and Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and sees the recent surge in interest in soft power as directed primarily at a domestic consumer market. In Keane’s reading, Chinese concern for soft power reflects a desire to propagate awareness of both China’s past cultural glory and its contemporary creativity. Murphy is highly sceptical about the generative power of popular entertainment industries and argues that only very specific forms of intellectually rigorous and aesthetically underpinned high culture are likely to have the transformative power to help resolve historical grievances between countries. Black rounds off the volume with a discussion of debates about claims for national character in popular cultural products and argues that, while popular texts have circulated easily because of their lack of national character in the past, globalization increasingly necessitates a distinctive national style for a successful cultural production export industry. Black here draws together the strands of the preceding chapters in his synthesis of the significance of individual reception and engagement with media texts and the creation of national level discourses about soft power.

A different sort of limit on the transformative power of the popular culture industries lies in the volatility of trends. When this volume was first conceived, academic excitement over the Korean Wave led to much transnational research on the phenomenon, which might even be called a scholarly form of hallyu. Yet even from early on, there were concerns in Korea that the wave had crested, and could be further diminished by a resurgent Japanese wave. However, even if we have now entered a post-hallyu era, the crucial point remains that, as a result of the Korean Wave’s having swept through the region, the landscape, and the regional shoreline – the point of interaction between the flows and peoples – will never return to precisely the same configuration it held beforehand. Although it is of course impossible to predict what will happen in the future, on the basis of what has occurred with Korea one may reasonably expect that the impact of China, by virtue of its very size, will be great, and that its economic and political clout will likely be matched by a cultural impact.


As Korean Studies specialists will be well aware, the controversial issue of Romanization can incite otherwise mild-mannered scholars to emotional outbursts. In this volume we use the Korean government’s 2000 Revised Romanization system in lieu of the McCune-Reischauer system, despite grumbling from some of our own contributors for whom the newer system is not a first choice. Our decision and the debate surrounding Romanization more generally calls forth comment within the context of our volume, as it intersects in intriguing ways with the themes of soft power, media flows and new information and communication technologies. Not a few academics have expressed resentment that a scholarly standard has been undermined by the South Korean government’s attempt to wield influence beyond its national boundaries through its decision on how the Korean language should be Romanized. What is at stake here is in part the differing needs of different communities of users of a Romanization system. (Is its primary purpose to indicate to foreigners how Korean should be pronounced? Is it to allow Koreans to interact with the outside world in the Roman alphabet?) As the Korean language must interact more frequently at a global level in a variety of situations, issues of control achieve greater resonance: how does language use foster the propagation of soft power?

Furthermore, despite the indispensability of computers, the decision to use an electronic press for the dissemination of our research in fact brings us up against limitations of information technologies: the incompatibility of multiple platforms and the issues of representing McCune-Reischauer’s diacritics remain real problems. In fact, solving the technical issues involved is not necessarily difficult, but technical cultures can develop much as other forms of culture and can insist on their own primacy. While the diacritics required for McCune-Reischauer may be freely available in any word processor program, their transferability from one platform to another is by no means guaranteed. In fact, the press’s software could not, at the time of manuscript preparation, handle breves.

As a corollary issue, we have experienced more than the usual difficulties of attempting to harmonize Korean names in this volume. The use of the new system and its flexibility on surnames, the preferences of multiple authors in light of this flexibility, and the question of how much right individuals have to determine the orthography for their own names in an international context – in the face of larger forces that desire standardization – all presented conundra. It has often been the practice to impose Romanization according to a particular system except where a name is deemed sufficiently well-known, such as, e.g. Park Chung Hee. But what constitutes ‘well-known’ in a world of increasing subcultures? Some manhwa artists, for example, have already developed global reputations, albeit within a small niche community. Should they be allowed to use the spelling by which they have come to be known in this community or should they too be standardized? Similarly some scholars here have become known in an English context with their surname presented in the Western order; others retain the Korean pattern. Occasionally the two bump directly against one another. We hope that any issues raised by the renderings of Korean names and apparent inconsistencies will provide, rather than an impediment to the reader’s enjoyment of the volume, food for thought.


The editors would like to acknowledge the generous financial support of the Korea Foundation towards the conference from which this volume had its initial impetus. Further support was received from The ARC Asia Pacific Futures Research Network’s Japan-Korea Node. We also gratefully acknowledge encouragement and support from Professor Kang Myung-koo at Seoul National University, from Ms Joanne Mullins and her colleagues at the Monash University ePress, from Teresa Anile, and from the Japanese Studies Centre, the School of Political and Social Inquiry and the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University.


1   Cited from in Yin and Liew (2005: 207).

2   Cited from the Straits Times at


4   Cf. Contributor Michael Keane’s co-edited volume (Keane et al. 2007: 3), in which it is argued that such flows ‘further challenge the West–East imperialism model that is framed on culturally destabilising effects imposed on recipient nation value systems’.

5   The issue was followed shortly thereafter by a selective English version (Summer 2004). Likewise, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) crows about the economic benefits flowing from ‘Gross National Cool’ in its online newsletter, JETRO Focus, ‘Japan regains its position as a global cultural trend leader’. JETRO 2004 [Internet]. Accessed 18 April 2004.

6   Famously, a Presidential Advisory Board on Science and Technology noted to then president Kim Young Sam, the leader who made ‘globalization’ (segyehwa) a buzzword in Korea, that the revenue generated by the film Jurassic Park was equivalent to that of 1.5 million Hyundai automobiles (Shim 2008).

7   Hallyu is popularly identified with television dramas more than any other media form. The precise origin of the term hallyu as well as the key milestones in its arrival have been subject to dispute, although there is general consensus that the success of the South Korean television drama What Is Love? (Sarangi Mwogille 1991), which became a hit on CCTV in 1997, was the first significant text in the rise of Korean culture elsewhere in Asia. The term first began to be used in Chinese-speaking countries such as Taiwan, China and Hong Kong from the late 1990s. According to Lee Ji-Gun, the CEO of Insrea Production in Taiwan, it originated with the use of the Chinese phrase, (xiaji hanliu: a strong cold flow in a summer day) in marketing Korean popular music and TV dramas. Later, as Korean popular culture gained regional popularity, the media came to associate the term, rendered in Korean as hallyu, with (Korea) instead of (cold) (Kim Hyeon-Mi 2005).

8   According to a researcher at the Samsung Economic Research Institute, which has issued a report entitled ‘How to commercialize the Korean Wave’ (The Korea Herald 2005).

9   See Keane in this volume; Kurlantzick 2007; and Hsiao and Yang 2009, who suggest a similar soft power battle between Japan and China in the context of aid to Southeast Asia. Kurlantzick (2007) writes of China’s ‘charm offensive’, the effort to generate influence through cultural diplomacy and foreign aid. The Confucius Institutes seek to diffuse Chinese language and culture in dozens of countries in a manner similar to the Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institute, the Japan Foundation, and so on.

10  For a discussion of popular responses to Japanese women and interracial relationships, see Ma 1996.


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Cite this chapter as: Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. 2010. ‘Introduction’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. v–xx.


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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita