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South Korea Lifts Ban on Japanese Culture

December 7, 1998

Tomoe Sawa performs during her historic Kwangju concert. (Kyodo)

On October 24, 1998, for the first time in 53 years, Japanese songs were legally performed in public in the Republic of Korea (South Korea). As part of Japan Week, where a series of events sponsored by the Japanese embassy were held in Kwangju, Japanese popular singer Tomoe Sawa held a concert in which she sang two songs in Japanese that had been approved by the South Korean government. The concert was widely broadcast on South Korean television and radio. A month after President Kim Dae-jung's announcement of his intention to phase out South Korea's long-standing ban on Japanese culture, Sawa's concert marked the beginning of a new relationship for Japan and its nearest neighbor.

Taking the First Step
Born in Japan to a Japanese father and Korean mother, Tomoe Sawa spent her childhood in South Korea, the United States, and Japan. She made her debut as a professional singer in 1991 while still enrolled at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. At the concert in Kwangju, along with numerous Korean and English songs, Sawa sang "Furusato" (Hometown), a children's song written in the 1910s, and "Kokoro" (Heart), in which she put to her own melody a famous Korean poem that her grandfather--a renowned Korean poet himself--had translated into Japanese.

Japan's popular culture, including Japanese-language theater performances, television and radio broadcasts, publications, and pop music, had been prohibited since 1945. This ban was no doubt triggered by the Korean people's strong feelings about the Japanese-language education that was forced on them in the years of Japanese colonial rule over their country. But in recent decades Japanese culture has seeped in to the general public through such media as satellite broadcasting and the Internet. Though not officially approved, large amounts of Japan's cultural products have already entered South Korea and have become a familiar part of many people's lives. This--along with the prospect of co-hosting the 2002 football World Cup finals with Japan--added impetus to the move toward lifting the ban.

In early October 1998 President Kim, during a state visit to Japan, said that his administration would gradually open South Korea to Japanese pop culture. Culture and Tourism Minister Shin Na-kyun followed this up on October 20 by announcing the first categories of products that would see restrictions lifted. With regard to movies, works jointly produced by South Korea and Japan, Japanese films that have won an award at an international film festival or at the Academy Awards, and those that have been shown in Korean movie festivals or screenings are to be allowed; the top batter is expected to be Ai no Mokushiroku (Apocalypse of Love), a joint Japanese-Korean production recounting the life of a Japanese woman who raised 3,000 orphans in South Korea. Videos of movies in the above-mentioned categories will also be released. Japanese comic books, which have already been widely published in Korean translation, can now be sold in their original versions. Popular music and theater performances were not included in the first announcement, but it is hoped that they will also be accepted soon.

South Korea Cautious about Completely Lifting Ban
Although South Korea has taken its first step toward lifting the ban, it is still strongly determined not to let in the more vulgar aspects of Japanese culture. Some South Koreans admonish the entertainment industry for becoming over-zealous in its import plans. In line with this sentiment, Culture and Tourism Minister Shin commented three days after her first announcement: "The precise dates for removing the restrictions have not yet been decided. We will study the effects of Japanese cultural imports and move forward carefully."

The October concert came in the midst of these ambivalent circumstances. Although Sawa did perform two songs in Japanese, there still seems to be a long way to go before Japanese hits can be sung openly in South Korea. Among the songs Sawa had planned to include in her program was the English version of the 1960s hit "Ue wo Muite Aruko" (known in the United States as "Sukiyaki"), but this was called off after the South Korean government expressed its displeasure. But hopes remain high in both countries that a brighter era of cultural relations lies ahead.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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