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[Robert J. Fouser] A visit to Osaka’s Koreatown

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 12, 2024 - 05:31

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For the first time in years, I spent the holidays in Japan. One of the highlights of my visit was a long afternoon walk through Osaka’s Koreatown. The area has changed dramatically since my first visit in the mid-1990s. As I walked around, I thought about what the many changes mean and about how the area might change in the future.

Located near Tsuruhashi Station in south-central Osaka, the Koreatown here had historically been the largest in Japan. An influx of people from South Korea in the 1980s turned Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo area into the largest Koreatown, but it is relatively new compared to the one in Osaka.

During Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, Koreans began moving to Japan for educational and work opportunities. Students typically went to Tokyo, while laborers went to booming industrial cities in western Japan. Osaka became the most popular destination after ferries between the city and Jeju Island began operating in the 1920s. Over time, nearly 25 percent of the population of Jeju had moved to Osaka to work in factories, many of which were located in the area where the Koreatown is today.

After the Japanese defeat in World War II, most Koreans in Japan quickly returned to Korea, but the flow slowed as the country moved toward division. In particular, the harsh repression of the Jeju April 3 Incident in 1948 sent shock waves through Koreans in Japan, causing people to reconsider the idea of returning. Over time, those who stayed formed a distinct ethnic Korean community amid discrimination from Japanese society. The community was divided into those loyal to South Korea and those loyal to North Korea, each with its own schools and social networks. Markets serving the community sprang up near Tsuruhashi Station and a short walk away in the Momodani area.

For decades, Koreatown served only the Korean community, but things began to change in the late 1980s and 1990s as interest in Korea grew in mainstream Japanese society. The Korean community itself was changing as third and fourth generations with deeper ties to Japanese society came of age. Restaurants catering to visitors began to appear and, to help brand the area, four “Koreatown” gates in Momodani were put up.

The first wave of major changes began to appear in the mid-2000s as a result of the Hallyu boom that swept across Asia. “Winter Sonata” and Bae Yong-joon took Japan by storm, and shops with posters and other Hallyu paraphernalia began to appear in Koreatown around this time. Older shops selling hanbok and bedding used by the Korean community began to close. For the first time in its history, Koreatown became a destination for Japanese people.

The K-pop boom of the 2010s changed Koreatown forever. Hallyu shops morphed into K-pop shows and stalls selling popular South Korean street food began to attract younger Japanese and international tourists. The shopping arcade connecting Tsuruhashi Station and Momodani Koreatown took on new life as restaurants and K-pop shops filled the many empty spaces.

I visited on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend and all parts of Koreatown were full of young visitors, but the Momodani section was especially crowded. Most of the visitors were Japanese, but I heard a variety of languages being spoken with Asian languages being the most common. Most of the shopkeepers were Korean and some seemed to be from South Korea. Many shops and restaurants in large cities in Japan now employ foreign workers, and I noticed the same trend in kimchi shops in Koreatown.

Korean cultural products, particularly food and popular culture, are now big in Japan. K-pop is something that Japanese youth enjoy, just as previous generations enjoyed jazz or rock. Korean food is now one of the most popular non-Japanese cuisines. In the 2000s, some argued that Hallyu was a flash in the pan, but the opposite has happened.

Where will all this lead? As elsewhere, trends in Japan are fickle. K-pop could fall out of fashion and South Korea could lose its bright, techy image, causing the crowds in Koreatown to thin.

This is unlikely, however, because the Koreatown boom in Osaka suggests that Korean cultural products have staying power in Japan and elsewhere. The current crop of K-pop stars will age, but new ones will emerge in their place. The latest trends from South Korea will continue to offer something new. Most importantly, the diversity and enthusiasm of consumers in Koreatown shows that Korean cultural products have truly broad appeal across many cultures.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com. -- Ed.