The Korea Herald


[Reading Korea Through Books] K-dramas and movies through Japanese eyes

Aya Narikawa's 'Why Korean Dramas and Films?' provides cultural, societal and historical context for her fellow countrymen.

By Park Ga-young

Published : Aug. 22, 2023 - 16:19

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This year is known as the 20th anniversary of the start of the Korean Wave in Japan, which many consider to be when “Winter Sonata” first aired in Japan on NHK in April 2003. Since then, the popularity of Korean dramas and films hasn't been continuous, however. For younger generations in Japan, the Korean Wave, and in particular the ways Korean TV dramas and films are portrayed, have long been presumed something for older generations.

After former President Lee Myung-bak visited the Dokdo islets on Aug 10, 2012, which Japan claims as its territory, TV dramas and shows suddenly disappeared from Japanese television.

Following the visit, there was no new “wave” in Japan until “Crash Landing on You” was introduced there in the first half of 2020.

“(Before 2020, when any Korean cultural product was introduced to Japanese viewers), it was done in a way that was even more old-fashioned and countrified than the real product. It was oriented toward the boom in older Japanese female viewers. For instance, the color of the poster would be changed to a tacky pink, and the title would be rephrased in a strange way, with the subject matter confined to rom-coms only; it made you feel embarrassed,” Aya Narikawa, the author of “Why Korean Dramas and Films? (direct translation),” told The Korea Herald in fluent Korean during an interview. “What drove me was that I wanted to introduce Korean culture as it is, not as something cheap or out of style,” she said.

The author, a former reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's largest newspapers, wrote the book based on many actual requests and questions that were raised in the past three years, making her feel that Korean culture has since become mainstream.

What are the reasons for the recent resurgence of interest in Korean cultural products?

Before the pandemic broke out, Narikawa explained that there weren't many options for watching Korean dramas other than renting DVDs or watching them on paid cable TV, she said.

But Netflix, which boomed during the early pandemic, acquiring 2 million subscribers in Japan in 2021 alone, presented a variety of new options.

Before then, for movies, “A Moment to Remember,” a 2004 romance melodrama film based on the 2001 Japanese television drama, "Pure Soul," had remained the most-watched Korean movie in Japan for 15 years.

But when Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award-winning “Parasite” was released in 2020, it took that title from “A Moment to Remember."

Author Aya Narikawa holds her book, Author Aya Narikawa holds her book, "Why Korean Dramas and Films? (direct translation).” (Mio Matsuzawa)

In her book, the author, who has been living in South Korea since 2017, explains various aspects of Korean society portrayed in more than 100 dramas and movies that are novel to Japanese viewers and in return, also surprises Korean viewers as they become aware of the differences in cultural practices.

The book was published in May in Japan with five chapters: “The greeting is ‘Have you eaten?,” “Family presence,” “Through the #MeToo movement,” “A society of disparity and struggling youth,” and “Turbulent Korean modern history.”

For Japanese viewers, the casual Korean greeting, “Have you eaten?” seems quite strange. Though the question stems from times in which food was less plentiful, nowadays it is used as a simple greeting. The author herself was previously confused and would answer explaining what she ate, when in reality the greeting is answered with a simple yes or no.

She answers the viewer question, "Why there are so many fried chicken places in South Korea and what those restaurants mean for retirees?" by referring to “Crash Landing on You,” “Reply 1997” and “Extreme Job,” for instance.

According to Narikawa, questions about one’s family, like “What does your father do?” surprise most Japanese people, along with the obsession to have a son, and the dedication and sacrifice portrayed by characters in “Sky Castle,” “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” and “Crash Course in Romance.”

“The connections between family members portrayed in dramas and films are so much more close-knit than in Japan,” she noted.

Narikawa, who has watched more than 1,000 Korean films so far -- 1,056 to be exact as of Monday -- chose as her favorite ”Peppermint Candy,” a 1999 movie by Lee Chang-dong. The movie intertwines historical events and social issues with personal stories.

This is not an isolated case, she explained, contrasting it with many Japanese cultural products that delve into personal stories.

“Crash Landing on You” (tvN) “Crash Landing on You” (tvN)

How women are portrayed and the growing number of female directors are also interests frequently expressed by Japanese viewers, she said.

“Even before the #MeToo movement, there were many female writers and dramas featuring female leads. How they are portrayed has changed. For instance, how 'Crash Landing on You' portrays an independent woman was seen as appealing in Japan even though the same assessment of the character was almost nonexistent in Korea, because it was not seen as such an unusual thing,” she said.

In the movie industry, she also discerned differences -- from the domination of male directors to accepting the stories of women and female directors. She compared the top 10 movies with the largest number of viewers in 2017 and 2019 -- before and after the #MeToo movement swept the country's film industry. In 2017, all 10 were directed by men, but in 2019, three movies by female directors -- “Kim Ji-young: Born 1982,” “Crazy Romance” and “Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” -- were included on the list.

South Korea’s military service and the country's lumpsum rent payment system, “jeonse,” often portrayed in films and dramas, are something Japanese viewers find to be refreshing and novel. Narikawa explains these phenomena in the book by discussing "D.P.," "Military Prosecutor Doberman" and "The Unforgiven" for the former and "Hospital Playlist" for the latter.

In the last chapter, the author provides historical context by introducing the Korean War, Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship, the Gwangju Democratic Uprising, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the Sewol Ferry sinking and the candlelight vigils that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye.

“The purpose of this book is to learn about Korea’s society, culture and history so that people can enjoy dramas and films more, but South Korea is also Japan's neighboring country so I’d be more than happy if I can help enhance mutual understanding,” she wrote in the epilogue.