How Korea became cool

Observations on eastern fashions

An unlikely romance is in the air. For decades, little love has been lost between Japan and South Korea. Japan once occupied its close neighbour and, to this day, zainichi kankokujin - those born in Japan of Korean ethnicity - are denied Japanese nationality, even several generations along. Koreans, who allege forced labour and sex slavery as "comfort women" to the Japanese military during the Second World War, regularly issue reparation demands that are just as regularly thrown out of the Japanese courts. But now Japan just can't get enough of its closest neighbour. This has officially been declared "Korea-Japan Friendship Year". To young Japanese, Korea has never been so cool.

The thaw began in 2000 with the partial lifting of a 50-year ban on the exchange of popular culture between the two countries - restrictions affecting everything from films and music to "manga" graphic novels and animation. Shiri, a 1999 South Korean action thriller about the reunification of north and south, soon topped the Tokyo box office.

The handsome face of hanryu or the "Korean wave" is Bae Yong-jun, the romantic lead in a South Korean mini-series, Winter Sonata. Riot police were needed to contain 3,500 fans, mostly middle-aged women, who mobbed the airport when the 32-year-old flew in to Tokyo a few weeks before Christmas. Bae is known in Japan as Yon-sama - sama being an honorific usually reserved for royalty. His appeal has been credited for a growth in dating agencies that hook up Japanese women with Korean men.

When Winter Sonata first aired, in April 2004, it took the national broadcaster NHK's top night-time slot, usually filled by US shows such as The West Wing. Now Japanese fans take package tours to shooting locations across Korea. The two countries exchange 10,000 visitors daily, against 10,000 annually 40 years ago.

On the big screen, Korean hits just keep on coming. The most recent Tokyo release was Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, whose creator, Kim Ki-duk, won the best director award at the Venice Film Festival for 3-Iron. Duk's movies are violent, edgy and multifaceted, and he seems to be taking that spot in the limelight of Asian cinema that was once occupied by a Japanese, Takeshi Kitano. Spring, Summer . . . was one of more than 30 films from Korea that opened in Japan last year.

The romance continues off-screen. Japan's cabinet office reports that 57 per cent of Japanese express an "affinity" for South Korea; as recently as 1999, 60 per cent expressed no enthusiasm at all. But a similar survey, by South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper, found that only 27 per cent of South Koreans reported favour-able feelings towards Japan.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The Bling Bling List