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Seoul Warms to Another Old Enemy

By Kathryn Tolbert, Washington Post, Tuesday 25 July 2000 ; A16

SEOUL—South Korea is gradually lifting its bans on Japanese popular culture, breaking a long taboo inherited from a history of colonization.

First, it allowed Japanese films that had won international awards, followed by pop concerts in halls that seated no more than 2,000. Last month, the government ended the limit on audience size and also allowed Japanese family movies. Japanese-language CDs remain illegal, however, along with Japanese television dramas.

Japanese culture has long been a sensitive topic among Koreans because from 1910 to 1945, when the peninsula was a Japanese colony, Japanese authorities forced Koreans to speak Japanese and tried to eliminate Korean identity.

But now, in steps that President Kim Dae Jung carefully set in motion two years ago, the government is allowing the once-despised language to be offered as part of popular culture, accepting the huge popularity of Japanese music, animation and fashion among young Koreans and acknowledging that memories of Japan's pre-World War II occupation are fading.

We have an awkward relationship with Japan, said Oh Yeong Woo, a cultural policy official in the South Korean government. The Japanese tried very hard to exterminate Korean culture during the colonial years. Not only culture, but the Korean language as well. It was a harsh oppression.

South Korean officials say all the bans on Japanese products will eventually be lifted while acknowledging that one reason for continuing them – especially restrictions on Japanese video game machines – is to help South Korean industry.

Some Korean cultural products lag behind, so yes, we wanted to buy time so they can catch up in economic power, said Oh.

Japan and South Korea, their capitals only a two-hour flight apart, normalized relations in 1965. But popular culture was banned here because of the anti-Japanese social mood, Oh said. These days, however, young South Koreans admire modern Japan and take a practical view of the economic benefits of learning to speak Japanese.

For instance, Sohn Hyong Woo, 20, was in the audience at a concert by the Japanese rock group Penicillin, which had booked the 2,000-seat ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in Seoul before the seating-limitation rules changed.

It's just like listening to American music, Sohn said. I don't care about the nationality. I like Japanese animation, and I major in Japanese at university.

His reason is practical: I thought it would be good for a career.

Ahn Miro, 20, another Penicillin fan, said, I like the melody. It's visual and it's fun. My parents think there's not much difference in my liking American culture and Japanese culture. They're very liberal.

The attraction is partly admiration for Japan's sophisticated marketing. The Japanese cultural products are designed well, packaged well, said Kim Jeong Hun, who teaches Japanese at a private language school. Japanese are good at commercializing anything that you could think of as a human being.

But he said that despite the boom in popularity of Japanese stars, South Koreans still have some anti-Japanese feelings. Anyone with Korean blood in their veins has at least a small bit of anti-Japanese sentiment, said Kim. We call Japan a close but far-away country.

He said the number of language schools offering Japanese has increased five-fold over the last 10 years.

In one classroom at the Global Education and Culture Center, where Kim works, a class was watching a videotape of a Japanese TV drama, following the dialogue with a text that he had written. He said the students were studying to be translators, interpreters or to prepare for college. Most were interested in Japanese animation and computer games, widely available on the black market.

What concerns South Koreans now about Japanese culture is not so much that it is the culture of their former occupiers, but that it has too much sex and violence. The No. 2 objection, according to a government survey, is that there are too many imports from Japan. At the bottom of the list is opposition to Japanese culture in general and fear that Korean culture would be lost.

Koreans have stronger feelings about Japan than vice versa, according to opinion polls.

Yoko Okoshi, a Japanese high school teacher who is spending her sabbatical year learning Korean, said she thinks this is because Koreans teach the history of Japanese colonization and the role of the Japanese before and during World War II.

But for Japanese, Korea is close and inexpensive, she said. They aren't thinking beyond that.

Nearly half of South Korea's 4.7 million foreign visitors last year were Japanese, many of them on shopping sprees. Okoshi comes once a week to a cafe where Koreans gather to speak Japanese to each other and the few Japanese who stop by. She meets with three young Korean women every week to chat in Japanese.

Although there are many differences, we feel there are similarities, in our reactions and in our cultures, said Kim Yeon Ha, 24. But even though we are close, we don't want to forget history because we want to protect our identity.

A poll by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun showed that more Koreans view Japan as an economic rival than vice versa and more Koreans think historical issues have not been settled. In surveys over the past 15 years, about two-thirds of Japanese have said they have no particular feelings of like or dislike about South Korea, according to Asahi. The number disliking Korea ranged from 12 to 23 percent.

Until the 1996 poll roughly two-thirds of Koreans said they disliked Japan; last year nearly half of South Koreans said they were indifferent.