In Japan, Korean actors set hearts aflutter

Ikuko Kamia can't wait until Saturday comes around. The Japanese housewife, who lives in the western suburbs here, awakens with a light heart. It isn't because it is a holiday. It is a day when she can watch not one but two of her favorite Korean love dramas on television.

"Now I only watch Korean dramas," says Ms. Kamia, who thinks Japanese television dramas are boring. She is one of tens of thousands of mostly middle-aged women in Japan who have been captivated by the televised imports from their Asian neighbor. They've turned several Korean actors into superstars and sparked Japanese interest in all things Korean.

But for women viewers, it's the type of romance in the shows that has inspired such fervent devotion to the soap operas. In the Korean dramas, the leading men are positively old school in their display of gentlemanly qualities. The success of the shows has led some observers to interpret the popularity of the dramas as an expression of cultural yearning on the part of Japanese women.

Fans of the Asian soaps aren't shy when it comes to expressing their ardor for the hunky actors.

When Korean actor Bae Yong Joon visited Japan in November to open an exhibition of his photographs, Japan witnessed airport scenes last seen in the 1960s when young women swooned to the Beatles. Thousands of women turned up at Narita airport to greet their hero. Hundreds more besieged his hotel. "Now I can die happy," said Noriko Fukawa, one of the star's fans.

Bae - universally known here as "Yon-sama," using the honorific suffix for idols - was a relatively obscure Korean actor until the Japanese success of his popular drama "Winter Sonata" catapulted him to international stardom. He has many fans in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, too.

They have been captivated by Yon-sama's soft good looks, killer smile, the sensitivity with which he plays his roles, and his polite demeanor. No other Japanese or Western actor even comes close, admirers say. The Korean stars are also seen as being humble and polite - gentlemanly qualities seemingly lacking in the current crop of Japanese talent.

The Korean stories are popular because they depict "pure love." Pure love, or jun ai in Japanese, has a special meaning in Japan, explains Kaori Shoji, who writes frequently on social issues and trends for the Japan Times. "A jun ai couple would face many obstacles contrived to keep them apart and pining for a romantic reunion."

That, of course, is precisely what Korean love dramas portray. In "Winter Sonata," a young woman played by Choi Ju Woo meets the love of her life in high school only to lose him in a traffic accident. Ten years later, she meets a Korean-American (played by Bae) who looks just like her long-lost love.

The tales are full of obstacles that the protagonists must overcome in the quest for true love. They unfold slowly, dreamily, with lots of long shots of the couple walking hand-in-hand through snowy woods, or Yon-sama giving the heroine long, searching, loving looks.

Many fans say the Korean dramas hark back to an earlier, golden era of Japanese films and television dramas of the 1950s, when the male stars were more stoic, manly, more protective of women. Many had "pure love" plots with lovers separated by war or soldiers returning to find their loved ones married to someone else.

The fabulous success of these TV dramas has created widespread interest in Korea among the Japanese, who in the past tended to look down on their neighbor across the Sea of Japan (or East Sea as Koreans call it). Indeed, Yon-sama may well be the first Korean who the Japanese have unabashedly admired in their nation's long history.

Japanese producers are beginning to get on the "pure love" bandwagon, on the big screen at least. If "Winter Sonata" was the uncontested hit of 2004, then the second biggest phenom of the year was a Japanese tear-jerker with a jawbreaker of a title: "Sekai no Chushin de Ai wo Sakebu (Crying out for love in the center of the world)," or "Sekachu" for short.

One intriguing question is whether Japan's new interest and respect for Korean culture will spill over into better treatment for Japan's own Korean minority, known as Zainichi, who have been the object of many forms of discrimination and disrespect in Japan since the end of World War II.

It may be too early to tell, but one encouraging sign is that Fuji Television's new "pure love" series, titled "Destiny of Love," has cast a Japanese-Korean as the female lead. It's the first time in Japanese television history that a series has been built around a Zainichi.

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