Japanese Culture, Not Hollywood, May Swamp Korean Society

To improve relations, S. Korea ends its ban on Japan's cultural exports on Oct. 20.

Ask Koreans about Japan and you could get an earful about evil colonial rule. You might also hear about Japan's great comic books.

Hatred for Japan's domination of Korea during most of the first half of the 20th century runs deep - but so does an appetite for Japanese culture. From translations of comics to Korean remakes of love stories, it's ubiquitous.

To help bring together these "close yet distant" neighbors, President Kim Dae Jung is lifting a 53-year ban on Japanese culture.

Although the two countries are each other's second largest trading partners after the US, lifting the ban is no simple matter. During colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, Koreans were forced to give up Korean names and learn Japanese. Many of that generation would prefer to keep the culture ban. The entertainment industry is wary of the competition - Japan's products are already imitated by South Korea. Parents complain that Japan's pop music, full of sex and violence, will corrupt the young.

So far, only award-winning movies and some comics have been allowed since President Kim's Oct. 20 announcement. The government will gradually allow the rest - live performances, music, animation, video games, and TV - by 2002, when South Korea and Japan co-host soccer's World Cup.

Japan could eventually claim 7 to 35 percent of various entertainment markets, sapping up to $20 million from the domestic industry, according to the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI).

But lifting the ban might also stimulate Japanese interest in Korean culture, although it is not banned there. As Japan's potential market is 10 times Korea's, "most Korean companies think it's a kind of opportunity," says Kim Hyu Jong at SERI. The government is standing by with an extra $154 million for the arts and culture promotion fund. Lee Kwang Mo, a movie director, doesn't expect too big an impact.

"Many people think [Japanese and Korean] films have a similar emotional taste ... but I think Japanese films are stylish and artificial [in a way] Koreans can't enjoy," says Mr. Lee.

For many countries, American entertainment threatens to dominate.

But for Koreans, the cultural hegemony threat is Japanese. Its unresolved relationship to its imperial past makes all intentions suspect. For the first time since World War II, Japan issued in writing its apology for colonialism when President Kim visited Tokyo last month.

Sharing Confucian and Buddhist traditions, and Chinese language roots, Korea and Japan have much in common.

But this similarity may be a key problem because Koreans will "unconsciously accept" the Japanese "spirit," notes Chang Sae Hoon, a graduate student in communications at Seoul National University.

Korean comics are "very childish" and the stories lame, says Shin Ji Hye, another SNU student. But the appeal of Japanese products is often its sensationalism.

"Korean youths can easily get addicted to the bad side of Japanese pop culture like violence, sex, and drugs. They allow almost everything," says a government official.

SOME suggest filtering what comes in. But "it's very dangerous to draw a line between high and low culture," says Takeshi Hikihara of the Japanese Embassy. Cultural exchange is "the basis for mutual understanding," he adds.

The lifting of the ban is a "good first step."

The irony is that so much is already here.

According to SERI, 50 to 60 percent of Korean comics are illegally translated copies of Japanese comics. Video games are available by Internet. Want Sumo wrestling? Check satellite TV.

Lifting the ban is just an "official recognition of reality," says Hwang Hyun Dak at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

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