Given South Korea’s notoriously rocky relationship with Japan, cultural exchange may seem a promising bridge to reconciliation. It’s certainly possible. In past centuries, Korean craftwork and artistry sometimes have represented for Japan the apogee of aesthetic sensibilities. And as is true in much of the world, South Korean popular culture is again in vogue in Japan. Like in so many endeavors between the two countries, however, cultural exchange must reckon with historical baggage and a fierce, ongoing competition.
How South Korean Pop Culture Fares in Japan
If there is a bright spot in Japan–South Korea ties, it has to be cultural products. In a 2019 survey by the Japanese think tank known as The Genron NPO, 49.5 percent of Japanese respondents credited South Korean “dramas, music or culture” for any positive impressions they had of the country. That figure is eclipsed only by South Korean food and shopping (52.5 percent); no other factor (even shared democratic values) came within twenty percentage points.
In modern times, Japan’s vogue for South Korean popular culture (like in the rest of Asia) goes back to the debut of the 2002 television drama Winter Sonata. The show tugged at the heartstrings of Japanese viewers especially tightly. After it debuted, a flood of Japanese tourists made pilgrimages to South Korean sites made famous by the show: Japanese visitors to the city of Chuncheon, where the drama was set, leaped from 40,000 to 140,000 per year.
In Seoul, those tourists collected souvenirs from the show at Namdaemun Market; the scarf that star Bae Yong-joon wore was everywhere. During Bae’s first visit to Tokyo, a stampede of unruly fans trampled each other to get close; ten of them ended up in the hospital. The Japanese prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, went as far as to say, “Bae Yong-joon is more popular than I am in Japan.”
Other South Korean cultural sensations have followed Winter Sonata in the past few years. The boy band BTS has become a globally recognized sensation. Four of the group’s albums have reached the top of the Billboard charts, and in 2019, BTS reportedly accounted for nearly $4.7 billion of South Korea’s GDP ($1.6 trillion). Parasite, a highly vaunted dark comedy, won four Academy Awards in 2020, including Best Picture—becoming the first non-English language movie to claim that honor. Television shows like Crash Landing on You and Itaewon Class are “reigniting the Japanese people’s interest in South Korean pop culture.”
South Korea’s success with cultural exports is no fluke. Since the Asian financial crisis, when then president Kim Dae-jung championed a 1999 law to promote the country’s cultural wares, successive South Korean governments have pushed the cultural and entertainment industries to diversify the nation’s economy and strengthen its international reach. In doing so, the government has explicitly focused on developing Seoul’s soft power. Yet cultural popularity alone does not guarantee soft power.
Where South Korean Pop Culture Falls Short in Japan
As Harvard professor Joseph Nye observed, when possible, countries seek to lead by the power of their ideals rather than by coercion. This approach is logical and attractive, especially to countries that lack the resources or size to wield sufficient hard power. Unfortunately, soft power has also devolved into a conceptual grab bag that mistakes appeal for power and popularity for influence. While there is no contesting the popularity of South Korea’s cultural products, it is another thing to call them a source of soft power.
The gap between the high regard Japanese people have for South Korean culture and the dismal state of the bilateral relationship is quite large. In the same 2019 survey by The Genron NPO, Japanese views of South Korea as a whole were grim: only 8 percent viewed South Korea as a “friendly nation,” while a combined 43.9 percent felt it no longer was or never had been. Sadly, those findings align with the 2019 results of the annual Cabinet Office survey of Japanese diplomacy: a whopping 87.9 percent viewed the relationship as “bad” or “very bad.”
That diplomatic chasm shows how difficult it can be for a country to translate a general appreciation of its culture into actual power (see video). Lots of people listen to BTS, get a laugh out of Psy’s antics in “Gangnam Style,” and watch Parasite, but they couldn’t care less about the South Korean government’s policy preferences. Even a growing flood of tourism revenue doesn’t mean that other countries—either their citizens or their governments—would back South Korea on vital diplomatic issues.
The survey by The Genron NPO drives that point home. When asked how to improve the bilateral relationship, Japanese respondents almost invariably pointed to deep-rooted problems that cultural goodwill alone is unlikely to solve. More than 53 percent called for resolving historical issues (like the dispute over the treatment of comfort women or wartime laborers during World War II), 41.3 percent called for solving the country’s territorial dispute, and nearly 40 percent endorsed “fixing historical perception and education issues.” By contrast, just 22.4 percent said the answer lies in building trust through private dialogue and exchanges, and a mere 13.2 percent thought tourism is the fix.
In addition, there is an ironic twist to South Korea’s cultural success that could undermine its soft power. The musical juggernaut of K-pop and acclaimed but incisive films like Parasite at times invite scrutiny of the country’s dark side. The headline the Japanese newspaper the Nikkei ran after the film’s Oscar win made the point excruciatingly clear: “South Korea’s ‘Parasite’ Celebrations Tiptoe Around Brutal Message.” That article applauds director Bong Joon-ho for taking a hard look at the disparities and “frustration” that mark life for the working class in South Korea and elsewhere in the world.
The same article credits the members of BTS for “their frank discussion of depression and other issues plaguing young people in South Korea and abroad.” Among those problems are the suicides of K-pop stars. Consider the headline of another Nikkei article—“K-pop Deaths Highlight South Korea’s Desperation for Soft Power.” It reveals both the pressures that those stars live with and the intensely competitive prism through which Japan views South Korea’s cultural success. With unmistakable schadenfreude, Nikkei concludes, “South Korea differs starkly from the postcard vision the nation likes to project abroad.”
As in other dimensions of the Japan–South Korea relationship, the delights of cultural exchange have been diluted by the weight of history. While South Korea’s culture deserves a wider audience and its soft power is growing in tandem with this broader popularity, it is always important to recognize the limits of those endeavors and to remember the value of traditional diplomacy. Fixing the very real problems that plague relations between South Korea and Japan will require work in both countries by politicians and thought leaders who are committed to reconciliation and a forward-looking agenda. The process will be slow, frustrating, and even sometimes painful, but it is well worth those difficulties.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019), which was recently translated into Korean.