Korean popular culture has become one of the most beloved pop cultures among Asian fans over the last 10 years. Asia is no longer dominated by American popular culture, and fans now are choosing what they consider to be more “Asian.” Many have recently come to prefer Korean popular culture, which they perceive to be fresh and trendy, as well as something that contains Asian values and sentiments.
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More and more people throughout Asia are choosing to watch Korean movies, listen to Korean popular music, follow Korean soap operas, and even travel to Korea to visit sites they have seen in their favorite Korean dramas. The sudden rise in popularity and the dissemination of Korean popular culture throughout Asia is new, unprecedented, and fascinating. This cultural flow in contemporary Asia is called the “Korean Wave.”
Starting point of the Korean Wave in China
The term Korean Wave refers to the phenomenon of Korean popular culture, disseminated primarily through the mass media and enjoying a broad popularity outside of Korea. It includes Korean-identified television dramas, movies, internet games, fashions, and popular music. It is unclear exactly when the term Korean Wave started to become popular among Asians, but public media began recognizing Korean popular culture in mainland China in 1997, when the Korean television drama “Star Is in My Heart” was broadcast in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries. The Chinese broadcasting company Phoenix TV, which broadcasts throughout Asia, showed this drama under its Chinese name, and the broadcast met with broad popular appeal, especially in mainland China. The drama caught people’s attention in part because its main actor, Ahn Jae-Wook, was particularly attractive to Chinese and Taiwanese women. Ahn Jae-Wook, therefore, became a symbol of the Korean wave in China. Following to “Star Is in My Heart”, “Autumn Story”, “Winter Sonata”, “What Is the Love” and many other drama fascinated people in China.
Korea pop music has also taken a huge role of the Korean Wave from the beginning. Young dance music groups, “H.O.T” and “Clone” ignited the Korean Wave in China in 1999. Various radio stations in China began to create programs specializing K-pop. Moreover, it is known that the number of fans of “H.O.T.” was eight million only in China in 2002. Afterwards, at least 50 different Korean pop albums were produced in China, and more than three million albums in total were sold by 2002.
Beyond simply consuming the media contents, Chinese teenagers repeated Korean pop songs and imitated Korean actors’ and singers’ fashion and hairstyle. In addition, Korean restaurants in China became popular among people who were enjoying Korean pop culture. Through the indirect experience of Korean food in television drama, people became familiar to it and such familiarity made people walk to Korean restaurants.
As the effect of the Korean Wave, the national image of Korea was recognized as positive. As a result, Korean products raised their own value as well. Samsung mobile phones and LG air conditioners and microwaves took bigger portions at Chinese market as people demanded more of such products.
Started with the drama, “Star Is in My Heart”, and Korean pop music sung by “H.O.T” and “Clone” in China, the Korean Wave outstretched to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, and other Asian counties.
The Second Round of Korean Wave in Japan
Even though people in most Asian countries showed deep interests in Korea pop culture, Japan, which is geographically the nearest neighbor, was not affected by the Korean Wave until “Winter Sonata” hit Japan. In 2003, the Korean drama, “Winter Sonata”, was first shown on Japanese television in twenty episodes. It captured 22% of the prime time viewing audience. In 2004 “Winter Sonata” had its second showing. This time it captured 24% of viewing audience.
The key feature of the Japanese response to the Korean drama was that it was not just passively accepted. A demographic of Japanese viewers positively embraced the Korean drama, especially the television drama “Winter Sonata” and its Korean associations. There are the indicators that with some of the Japanese audience, “Winter Sonata” was elevated to cult status. For example, in 2003, the DVD of the series sold out within four hours of its release. Lead Korean actors from the series become celebrities in Japan. Indeed, in some newspapers the male leading actor, the Korean Bae Yong Joon, was addressed as “Yon Sama”, an honorific usually assigned only to royalty in Japan. At last count, Bae Yong Joon has some 50 websites devoted to him. During visits to Japan cast members were mobbed by their fans. Demand by fans for “Winter Sonata” merchandise has created an industry with an annual turnover in Japan and Korea worth 2.3 billion US dollars. The industry produces memorabilia such as clothing, accessories, jewelers, stationery, magazines, books, DVDs and supports fan clubs.
Significantly this interest extended beyond the characters of “Winter Sonata” toward a more general interest in Korea. The tourist industry in Korea was affected by the Korean Wave. In 2004 Japan was the source of nearly half of Korea’s 5.6 million overseas visitors, and was its major source of tourists though it is difficult to identify who of these came because of “Winter Sonata”. In 2006 Korean Air announced special film flights from Japan so that they could visit the Winter Sonata location sites. In 2006 NHK television media and publishers announced an increase of its annual sales of its Korean language textbook to 20,000 copies.
Reasons why the Korean Wave became popular in Asia
The good quality of cultural media comes to the foremost reason. According to the Chinese local analysis, Korean dramas have outstanding storylines, well designed characters, and sophisticated directing system. Plus, original background music (OST) are excellent as well. Whether Chinese or Taiwanese dramas repeat the obvious storylines making people already bored by watching only the first episode, Korean dramas own various styles and types of story raging widely. Their creativities in developing stories fuel people’s curiosities to see the next episode.
Korea actors’ handsome appearance, stylish fashions and hairstyles, and outstanding acting abilities are said to the best among Asian actors. Improved technology in film producing helps background settings and music to be wonderfully assimilated to each other. Camera walking and well designed composition of pictures improve overall quality of the video.
The second reason is that the economic decline of Asia forced television producers to seek out products cheaper than Japanese and Western products. One of these was soap operas, the starting-point of the Korean Wave in Taiwan. The Korean Wave arose mainly because of the media liberalization that swept across Asia in 1990s, when the economic crisis made Asian buyers prefer the cheaper Korean products compared with Japanese and Hong Kong products. The primary producer of K-Pop Entertainment at Gala-TV in Taiwan told that the main reason that GTV began programming Korean soap operas was because of their cheap prices compared to Japanese products, and Korean soap operas were even cheaper than domestic ones. According to her, Korean soap operas were of much better quality then Taiwanese products, but were much cheaper, so GTV dubbed in Mandarin and aired the programs as if they were locally made soap operas.
In 1999, GTV began buying old dramas from the Korean Broadcasting System under the considerations that it costs less than the domestic dramas and the quality of the Korean dramas could be guaranteed. GTV was informed that KBS had invested a huge amount of money in production. Indeed, Korea has long invested in dramas, and after 1993 it has encouraged the investment of private capital in the media industry. Therefore, to supplement domestic dramas, GTV introduced Korean dramas of low cost and good quality.
Thirdly, Korean movies and TV dramas show virtue and kindness. In Korean movies and TV dramas, people are friendly, and families are harmonious. Juniors respect elders, elders cherish juniors. Lovers love dearly each other, and spouses care for each other. TV dramas of Korea still show the harmonious and pure-hearted feelings. Every one wishes to have a harmonious family and live in a harmonious society.
First of all, such heartwarming stories attract wide age groups. It is appropriate for elementary school kids to elder grandma and grandpa to watch altogether. Most western dramas or movies contain suggestive scenes to express passionate love between lovers which made family members to be apart to watch them. However, all family members gather around and can watch Korean dramas or movies which mostly depict pure-hearted loves between friends, families, and lovers.
Second of all, pure love between lovers especially attracted Japanese women. “Winter Sonata” which delivers the story of pure love between main characters evoked Japanese Women’s memories of their first love. Since purity in love was already old-fashioned culture in Japan, women who watched “Winter Sonata” brought out their nostalgic feelings toward pure love. Husband and wife do not talk a lot because Japanese people do not directly reveal their emotions and feelings to others which were regarded as the most secret part of individuals. The actions, that spouses sincerely care for each other, stirred desires of Japanese women to be loved from their love directly and in a gentle way.
Lastly, the “family value” commonly dealt in Korean drama evoked nostalgic feeling toward family among Chinese people. Through the Cultural Revolution and through the national campaign, “One family, one child”, large families were exterminated in China. Naturally, the older generations miss memories they had in large families. The older generations in China could be vicarious satisfaction as they enjoy Korea drama.
Even though Asian countries are bound with the similar cultures and traditions, purity in love and “family value” were lost in Japanese and Chinese society. Pure-hearted feelings and harmonious aspects of Korean society reflected on drama played the significant role to promote the Korean Wave in two societies.
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First, cultural industry includes movie, broadcast, music, game, book, and concert at which people directly show their enthusiasm. Second, derivative products are products such as cosmetics, tour, accessories, clothes, mobile phone, home appliance, automobile, and food which are indirectly linked with the cultural contents. Automobile that one Korean star drove in drama or the place where the drama was directed are in this category. Third, ripple effect on national economy is that effect on the other economy as cultural industry and derivative products are exported. For example, if the cultural contents were exported and therefore if the mobile phone meets the great demand, the mobile phone company needs to employ more people to produce the phone. As a result, more jobs are created in domestic market. This is a ripple effect on national economy. Fourth, immeasurable effects is, as it says in its word, it is not measurable by numeric values or by statistics. It is invisible effect such as people who are big fan of Korean culture learning Korean language.
Korean exports in cultural industry to overseas amount to eleven million dollars in 2007. It shows 11.3% of annual growth from 2005 to 2007. In the case of movie industry, the movie, in which Bae yong-Jun (Yon-sama) acted in 2005, was exported at a high cost to Japan. The success of this movie resulted out exporting 76 million dollars. However, the following year reported the exports of only 25 million dollars which fells 68%.
The broadcast industry is especially strong in Japan than any other Asian countries. While the broadcast industries in Japan and China show fairly steady outcome, other Asian countries and non-Asian region suddenly consumed the doubled volume of Korean television dramas in 2006 compared to that of 2005. The game industry, which takes the biggest portion in the cultural industry, gradually increased it exports.
Derivative products are not the cultural contents; however, they are closely related to the Korean Wave. The car appeared in drama or the cosmetics which Korea celebrities advertising are included in the realm of derivative products. Therefore, they are second biggest part in calculating the economic effects of the Korean Wave.
Korean cosmetic brands such as “The Face Shop” and “Misha” rapidly grew in size in the international market and exported three hundred million dollars in 2005 and three hundred fifty million dollars in 2007. Cosmetic brands are sensitive to their models; therefore, companies frequently change the models to the most popular one at the time. Interestingly, Korean cosmetic brands use male Korea celebrities who are at the center of the Korean Wave because, in this way, it is easier for companies to appeal to female Korean fans in overseas. This is the strategies Korea cosmetic companies are using to target the international market.
In the case of clothes, clothes industry resulted out the exports of twenty-three million dollars in 2005; however, exporting volume has been gradually decreased to seventeen million dollars in 2007. Decrease in home appliance exports can be explained by the increasing supply of Chinese products with the developing qualities in China mainland. When the exports of clothes, accessories, mobile phone, and home appliances were decreasing, automobile industry stretched its competitiveness in the international market with the grow rate of 12.5%. Korea’s developed technology in automobile production and positive image toward Korean automobile brand established such consequence. Abroad fans’ interest and familiarity to Korean food helped its industry internationally.
The number of tourists is increasing from 2005 to 2007 with the growth rate of 3.5%. However, the number of tourists who visited Korea because of the Korea Wave is decreasing with the rate of -13.2%. “Winter Sonata” sensationally hit Japan in 2003. Thus, the rate of tourists, who came to Korea by the influence of the Korean Wave, in 2005 is comparatively higher than in 2006 and in 2007 as the aftereffect of “Winter Sonata.”
As Japanese tourists who were deeply impressed by “Winter Sonata” increases after 2003, interesting thing happened in the streets in Korea. The shops near the locations appeared in Korean drama have Japanese explanations on each products. Moreover, the shop assistants in Myung-doing streets tout people in Japanese. They speak Japanese more than Korean to tout Japanese tourists.
The decreasing number of tourists due to the Korean Wave does not mean that the Korean Wave has less impact on other cultures. Rather, people, who already visited Korea, would not make a second trip in near future. Therefore, it is quite natural that the number of people visiting Korea due to the Korean Wave gets smaller and smaller, regarding the huge impact of “Winter Sonata” in 2003. Instead, increasing number of tourists shows the general perception on the image of Korea is improving and it is ultimately the result of the Korean Wave. Therefore, I conclude that the Korean Wave yet fosters the tourism industry in Korea.
Riffle Effects on National Economy
Through the Korean Wave, Korean international economy was vitalized. Growing demands of Korean cultural contents from abroad have increased supplies, and therefore, Korean cultural industry has grown in a large scale. Numerous companies which create the cultural contents require more labor force as they extend their business. The Korean Wave not only vitalized the Korean economy but also opened the labor market to support industry. Considering the fact that companies, which directly or indirectly related to the Korean Wave, inevitably employ more labors, unimaginable number of people would come into the economic activities, relieving unemployment and boosting the national economy. The Korea Wave started with few dramas and pop songs now controls the whole national economy.
Korean fans outside of Korea often learn Korean language and eat Korean food. More and more people have interest in Korean culture and favorable impression toward Korea. These sociological phenomena raise the power of Korea very softly everywhere in the world where the Korea cultural syndrome has hit. This is the “Soft Power” that Korean has.
The Korean Wave hit China in 1997 for the fist time and now its influence prevails all over Asia. By watching the same drama, by reading the same comic book, and by listing to the same pop songs, people have a strong sense of solidarity. Reflecting on my own experience, Asian teenagers become intimate to each other easily by sharing their cultural interests. In the fact that cultural contents take the large portion on students’ lives, there is nothing better which connects the students so tightly. They would forget the time flying away when they talk about their own favorite dramas and celebrities.
The Korean Wave was directly connected to the domestic economy. Numerous cultural industries have expanded their influence in Asia and related manufacturing industry also has been thrived. The cultural industry established the average exports of 414,387 million Won from 2005 to 2007 and the derivative industry reached to the average exports of 2,204,567 million Won from 2005 to 2007. The whole economic impacts including the ripple effects during the past few years are tremendous in Korean domestic economy.
There are several shortages of the Korean Wave that the Korean cultural contents overwhelmingly attract female but only mimic influence to male and that the current Korean Wave is not as sensational as the past few years. The Korean dramas and movies mostly deal with romantic love stories which women love and do not take action or thriller genres which men like. To embrace a broader range of people, Korean production companies need to develop creative and interesting scenarios in various genres. Plus, the economic effects are diminishing in many sectors of industry such as clothes, home appliance, and mobile phone. It is because there are recently no big contents such as “Winter Sonata” and “Dae Jang Geum” which rose fanatical boom about Korean media. The more efforts to create the high quality cultural contents enable to continue the glory of Korean Wave in 2004 and 2005.
Asian countries and people have never gathered and shared the same cultural contents before as they do these days. Even though there are worried voices that Asian cultures are losing diversity in arts and culture, I valued more on the Korean Wave’s positive effects that connecting many countries and people in Asia in a close bound. I hope the unified the cultural market in Asia region would be the chance for cultural industries in each Asian countries to cooperative each other to create more developed cultural contents opening up new visas of the future.
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