Korean entertainment makes deeper inroads in Japan

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TOKYO -- The first wave came out of the blue, but the South Korean entertainment industry may reap even bigger rewards with its follow-up foray into the Japanese market. Which is why actors, singers and musicians are investing so many hours in keeping their fans here happy.

About 42,000 swooning fans were at the Tokyo Dome this past summer to see acting heartthrobs Lee Byung Hun and Choi Ji Woo promote upcoming projects, including "Natsu Monogatari" (Summer Story).

Serenaded by Zero, who sang the theme song from Lee's popular drama "Utsukushiki Hibi" (Beautiful Days) an emotional Lee told his fans, "Something is filling my heart, although I don't know why."

Korean-produced "Innocent Steps" showed recently at the Cinemart Roppongi movie complex, a new multiplex in the center of Tokyo's entertainment district that specializes in imported movies from Asia. And "April Snow," starring Bae Yong-joon, the man who arguably started Japan's love affair with Korean television programs thanks to 2002's "Winter Sonata," set boxoffice records on its release here last fall, to the delight of Universal Pictures Japan.

One regular of the chat-show and light entertainment television scene here has even felt sufficiently proud of her heritage to reveal that instead of being Japanese, as most people assumed, she is Korean. Akiko Wada, born to Korean parents in Osaka, started a singing career at the age of 13. She told the Shukan Bunshun magazine that she never concealed her nationality but just never felt she wanted to tell people in the show business world because "Japan wasn't always the tolerant place it is today."

"We are clearly seeing a second cycle of television dramas and movies from Korea after a brief lull," says Kaori Shoji, film critic for the Japan Times. The interlude was occupied with reruns of the surprisingly popular "first wave," she says, until Japanese broadcasters were able to swing into action.

"There was a dip, but Japanese distributors are the most hard-working in the world, and since the Korean wave first broke, they have unearthed all these stars over there," she says. "Now they are working closely with Korean filmmakers and have the machinery in place to keep producing pop idols who keep coming to Japan."

In the vanguard of this second coming is "Dae Jang-geum" (A Jewel in the Palace), a historical drama set in the Korean royal family of the 16th century and starring Lee Young-ae and Ji Jin-hee.

"When you look at the most popular TV programs on at the moment, the top 10 slots are dominated by Korean imports, and 'Dae Jang- geum' is right up there," says Tom Umeda of ratings agency Video Research Inc.

National broadcaster NHK first put the show out on its satellite channel in October 2005, but has since switched it to a terrestrial channel from shortly after 11 p.m. on a Saturday evening. According to Video Research, the last five editions all attracted more than a 10% share of viewers in greater Tokyo alone, some 1.7 million households, which Umeda describes as "relatively good for the time that it is broadcast."

"NHK also started a cartoon version of the series in April, with the 25-minute program attracting about 5.3% of households," Umeda says. "That's not as good, but considering that it goes out earlier on the same day as the drama, we think it's quite a good figure."

Diversifying the delivery is a clever tactic, believes Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer in media and communications at Hokkaido University. "By using animated shows, they are trying to appeal to a younger audience and introduce this subordinate culture into mainstream programming," he says.

"By introducing more Korean culture to the generations of tomorrow, they are aiming to keep this phenomenon going," he adds.

Yet Watanabe does not believe Korean filmmakers are providing anything new.

"The first peek was 'Winter Sonata,' which was basically popular with housewives in their 50s and 60s because it was a tale of melancholy," he says. "It's simply a copy of the Japanese dramas that were made in the 1960s, and that's why it appeals to those people."

Film critic Shoji has an alternative theory as to why fresh foreign faces are so popular here. "Women do form the core of the fans of Korean media, and the reason for that is the women of this country are completely disillusioned by their own menfolk and are having to turn to their neighbors for romantic inspiration," she says.

But can the Korean film industry keep up with demand from Japan?

"I think that for the moment, yes, they probably can keep up," she says.

But some in the movie business are expecting the charm to begin to fade around 2010.

"Tastes and fashion will then move on to something else, possibly Chinese programs, or those from Taiwan," she says. "But I think Thailand will be the next big thing in the domestic market here."
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