Hallyu, the Korean Wave Dividing Japan

Article  by  Arnaud MIQUEL  •  Published 03.11.2011  •  Updated 04.11.2011
Siège de Fuji TV
In Japan, a demonstration against the private channel Fuji TV, accused of broadcasting too many South Korean programmes to the detriment of national programming, has revealed just how concerned some Japanese are about the growing Korean cultural wave sweeping over the country.
On 21st August 2011, the normally quiet streets of the artificial island Odaiba rang out with protests and Japanese national hymns. The event was aired live on Ustream, showing a long procession of 6,000 people headed in orderly manner towards the prestigious headquarters of Fuji TV, the country’s leading private television channel.   On that Sunday afternoon, the company’s programming policy was under attack, accused of focusing too much on South Korean programmes during prime time. Protest banners were mixed in among the Japanese flags, and the event clearly took the form of a demonstration: “Fuji TV shouldn’t force Hallyu on us, we don’t want to watch Korean dramas”.
This Hallyu (韓流), or “Korean wave”, refers to the  massive export and consumption of South Korean cultural products that has emerged since the late 1990s in Southeast Asia, and around the world since the 2000s. The spread of this influence has not been the same everywhere, and some countries, like Japan, have proved much more receptive than others to this overwhelming wave of sounds and images.

The Japanese demonstrations against Fuji TV / PressTV

The first event to reveal the strength of this Hallyu in Japan goes back to 2003, with the colossal and unexpected success of the Winter Sonata series, broadcast by the Japanese public serice station NHK. Originally programmed to attract Zainichi Koreans[+] NoteKoreans or descendants of Koreans living in Japan.X [1], the series ultimately fascinated the whole country over the course of its 20 episodes, and despite its late time slot, after 11pm.
This is part of an audiovisual genre known as k-dramas by virtue of their origin, and a large number of new Korean fiction series have since taken advantage of the emerging wave to become firmly established in the Japanese audiovisual landscape. While Fuji TV now devotes some three hours of airtime per day to this type of programme and remains one of the major broadcasters of this type of material on the archipelago, many other channels have also adopted this format. Whether shown by private groups – TBS and TV Tokyo particularly – or public service station NHK, which is testing the coproduction of series with South Korea, k-drama programming in Japan often appears almost as a necessity, both from an economic and quality-driven point of view.

Japanese broadcasters are subject to increasingly tighter budget constraints due to a steady downturn in advertising revenue, and find in these South Korean dramas a competitive alternative to the lack of high-quality national audiovisual productions. This comparative advantage would not be possible without a well-established competitive production setup across the Korean Straits. Within the peninsula, three national broadcasters are at the heart of the k-drama creation system, producing a great deal of programming every year: the national television company KBS (Korean Broadcasting System), MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation), and SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System). Each one of these players controls a prime-time slot devoted solely to local fiction serials, resulting in full-frontal competition between the country’s three most significant channels on a full-time basis in developing audacious programmes that meet audience expectations. On this tripartite rivalry, some specialists like to point out that Internet uses on the peninsula are turning into a direct challenge to audiovisual programme broadcasters: South Korea is regularly at the top of the world’s fastest broadband connection ratings, and downloading and streaming practices are rapidly developing.

“From the beginning until now”, credits for Winter Sonata / Youtube.
Alongside this first wave of Korean television series, Hallyu has found new strength in the spreading of a super-modern music industry throughout the continent. Meeting the same competitive criteria as those dictating the success of the previous wave, this fresh offensive continues to enjoy a warm welcome, more particularly through the artistic reconversion of a number of k-drama actors whose popularity is well-established. However, behind these economic and marketing arguments, the aid and on-going support of the South Korean government is vital, intervening actively for the dissemination of these artists’ work abroad. Since 1997, president Kim Dae-jung has taken part in the establishment of record companies in the country or financed the translation and performance of well-known Korean works into other Asian languages so as to facilitate regional dissemination. Ten years later, the strategy seems to have proved its worth, as by 2005, the Korean peninsula was outstripping the Japanese archipelago in terms of exporting cultural and entertainment products. Even today, the impetus is still there and South Korea is keen to carve out a piece ofthe European market, largely due to 310 billion wons in aid (204 million euros) made available by the government over the course of three years.
Well-positioned on both the audiovisual and music markets, this wave of Korean culture sweeping across the Japanese archipelago has not failed to awaken Japanese nationalist and protectionist criticisms. Nonetheless, the trigger factor behind all the agitation on 21st August 2011 on the island of Obaiba may have been a banal critical tweet about Fuji TV’s broadcasting policy from actor Sousuke Takaoka, considered prior to this as a personality symbolising the difficulties of Koreans living in Japan, ever since his highly-regarded performance in a role in the film Pacchigi!. Shortly thereafter, the actor was dismissed by his artistic agency, subsequently apologizing for his remarks. Nevertheless, these few additional words were not sufficient to subdue the reflections from the country’s extreme right, which took advantage of this unexpected media event to question the nationality of the channel and its interests.

In this controversy, the Fuji TV group also has a share of the responsibility, particularly because of suspicionsof non-compliance with Japanese law that have been hanging over it for several years. It was accused of possessing 28% of foreign funds within its corporate structure, Fuji Media Holdings, which would mean that the TV channel was in breach of Japanese legislation limiting  Japanese broadcasters from opening up more than 20% of their capital holdings to foreign investors.

An earlier unplanned march had already taken place on 7th August 2011, calling for the broadcasting licence to be suspended. The demonstration went almost unnoticed and had no ripple effect, gathering just a small group of people. Similarly, despite a great deal more publicity, the demonstrations on 21st August 2011, one month later, seem to have had no impact.

Translated from the French by Christopher Edwards.
Photo Credit:
- HQ of Fuji TV, by joevare / Flickr.
Video Credits:
- Report on the Japanese demonstrations against Fuji TV by PressTV.
- “From the beginning until now, credits from Winter Sonata / Youtube.
  • 1. Koreans or descendants of Koreans living in Japan.
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