(570) Ban on Japanese pop culture
On Jan. 31, 1994, Gong Ro-myung, the then-South Korean ambassador to Japan, made a statement which became a sensation. After a meeting of Korean ambassadors he suggested lifting the decades-old ban on the importation of Japanese popular culture. This was a sign of things to come.
The story goes back to 1945, a time when all things that had any connection with the Japanese were the subject of official censure. To a large extent, this rejection of all things Japanese was genuine. However, this reaction was amplified by the deliberate efforts of politicians who strove to use nationalism as the major ideological foundation of the emerging regime in South Korea.
Syngman Rhee’s government was ready to employ former collaborators, the Korean servants of the Japanese Empire (where else could it find Koreans with sufficient expertise in administration, police or industrial management?) Nonetheless, it still promoted itself as a nationalist force, and the Japanese naturally became the “Evil Other” of Korean nationalism.
From 1945, relations between the two countries were frozen. It took 17 years, a civil war, a revolution and a military coup for the Korean government just to establish normal diplomatic relations with Tokyo.
Japanese mass culture ― pop music, comic books and movies ― remained banned. It is remarkable, however, that this had a highly dubious legal basis. Korea never had a law which explicitly banned the import of the Japanese movies or pop music records. Censorship operated on the basis of laws which banned “unhealthy and immoral” works of art. Officials followed government instructions which defined what exactly was to be seen as “unhealthy and immoral,” and Japanese-style art always was a part of the definition.
In 1962, the military government founded the Broadcast Ethics Committee whose task was to check and censor (when necessary) all texts and music to be broadcast. Instructions prohibited the broadcast of “songs with lyrics which might undermine the national pride and the state’s dignity.” All songs deemed to be too “Japanese” could be banned.
Even Yi Mi-ja, the most popular Korean singer of the 1960s, became a victim of this persecution. Officials decided that one of her songs was too close to the then fashionable Japanese style and should not be performed in public. The list of prohibited “Jap-style songs” (they officially used a derogatory term for the Japanese) was long enough and reached the impressive number of 159 in the 1960s.
At the same time, high-brow cultural production, like intellectual fiction or classical music did not meet much official obstacle. It was only popular culture which was rejected.
Or was it? We are talking about official policy, but for all these decades Korean culture was still subject to profound influences from Japan. The average person was eager to consume Japanese mass culture, not just local derivatives. Nonetheless, when polled the very same person was likely to express their “serious concern” about the introduction of Japanese culture into Korea.
The case of Seoul students of the 1970s was typical. These youngsters were increasingly nationalist, and always ready to join an anti-Japanese rally. They accused the government of being too soft on the Japanese penetration. And one of the most favorite songs of that generations was … “Blue Light Yokohama,” a major East Asian hit song by Ayumi Ishida.
Such seeming contradictions became clear in the early 1970s when the Japanese government announced plans to open a Japanese cultural center in Korea. This project sparked much debate; a number of Korean intellectuals protested such a decision. One of the most common arguments was that Japanese culture was “aggressive” and thus, if allowed inside the country, it would instantly corrupt the Korean national identity.
Another popular theory was that of “cultural imperialism.” Its supporters insisted that cultural imperialism is a form of neo-colonial aggression and should be checked. These ideas were popular among left-wing intellectuals of the 1970s and especially 1980s. But I wonder what the same people now say about the “Korean wave,” the unprecedented spread of Korean culture across Asia and some other parts of the globe (something tells me that for this type of cultural expansion they somehow find much more charitable descriptions).
Thus, it took some courage for Gong to make his statement in 1994. The statement became a bombshell, but it reflected powerful new trends. Nationalism remains powerful, and is still sometimes directed against the Japanese. But younger Koreans had much more belief in their own strength. They were not afraid of Japanese culture, since they did not expect it to swallow the Korean culture in no time.
It also helped that the late President Kim Dae-jung, who served his term from 1998 to 2003, had good personal connections with Japan. Japanese friends saved his life when he was nearly assassinated in 1972. At the same time, he was too young in 1945 to be accused of collaboration, and could do things older politicians with less than spotless anti-Japanese records were afraid of doing.
Thus, in October 1998 it was decided to lift the ban. It did not herald a new era of friendship between the two countries: a lot of issues remain unresolved. However, culture exchange continues, and, contrary to the early fears, nowadays the exchange is largely from Korea to Japan ― something nobody would have expected two or three decades ago.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.