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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Comical Situation


KOREA'S TRADITIONAL ANIMOSITY TOWARD its neighbor across the Sea of Japan (or East Sea, as Koreans call it) is deep rooted. South Korea prohibits the import of Japanese films, videos, pop music and cartoons, unless they are deemed to have educational merit. Ordinary Koreans seem to back their government's position; recent polls have indicated that over 80% oppose opening up the country to Japanese culture.

"There are still many problems between the two countries that must be solved before we can accept Japanese culture," says Jun Young Tae, director of the cultural exchange division at the Ministry of Culture and Sports. "Just look outside." He points to the scaffolding that surrounds the dome of the National Museum, which was the seat of the colonial government during Japan's occupation of Korea (1910-1945). The Japanese built it between the imperial palace and the palace gates -- an overt challenge to Korean sovereignty.

But if Koreans abhor anything with even a whiff of Japan, they do have a peculiar way of expressing it. Japanese pop music and fashion magazines have long been standard fare among the young. Japanese TV dramas are popular too, especially in this age of the satellite dish, while locally produced kitschy stationery items are remarkably similar to their Japanese counterparts.

But nowhere is the Korean fascination with Japanese pop culture more evident than in the comic book industry. A glance inside any manhwa kagye (comics store) is enough to show that Japanese manga are big business. Kwon Young Sup, president of the Korea Cartoonist Association, says: "Pirated versions of Japanese comic books are thriving in Korea, and there isn't even a law to prevent it." Kwon thinks the appeal of manga lies in their depiction of sex and violence, which are banned in local comics, as well as the fact that Japanese cartoon-drawing is much better.

Publishers dealing in illicit comic books face a fine of less than $3,000 -- which is no penalty at all when production overheads are low (a translator, some white-out liquid and a photocopier) and the market so lucrative.

The Japanese themselves are not particularly keen on cracking down on pirates either. "Why would they stop the pirated versions?" says Kwon. "When the market opens up, they will already have an established following here."

The streets in bustling Myong-dong district in downtown Seoul are lined with small shops offering comics and dated fashion periodicals from Japan. As he flips through an issue of the popular Men's Non-no, 18-year-old high-school student Cho Hyun Ku says he likes Japanese magazines because they offer more variety. But he adds: "It's still too early for Japanese culture to enter Korea." Especially since Koreans have yet to sort out their feelings in this curious love-hate relationship.

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