By Hyonhee Shin, Minwoo Park and Heekyong Yang
SEOUL (Reuters) – Jeong Se-ah is happy to see Tanaka, an early 2000s Japanese bar host character created by a South Korean comedian, as he rekindles his teenage memories by watching entertainment from the country neighbor.
The 24-year-old office worker is among a growing number of young South Koreans drawn to Japan’s products and culture, coming to see it more as a friend than a foe who colonized the country a few years ago. is 70 years old, unlike previous generations. .
Dressed in a retro Japanese-inspired costume and manga props among a crowd waiting for Tanaka to start a concert near the capital, Seoul, Jeong sang a ditty by a Japanese rock band the artist idolizes, XJapan.
“I love Tanaka more than himself,” Jeong said. “There’s something really charming and touching about him, and I’ve never seen an artist who tries so hard to make eye contact and connect with every fan.”
The character’s easy talk about Japan and its culture builds on that allure, she added. “There was a social environment that kind of encourages the boycott of Japanese culture, but people seem to naturally accept it,” Jeong said.
For his part, Kim Kyung-wook, a once-forgotten comedian who turned the character into one of South Korea’s hottest YouTube stars and artists, said his appeal to young people matters more than his sanity.
“I think for young people, it’s not why, but just the fact that they like something,” said Kim, who became fascinated with Japanese culture as a teenager, which led him to give the character a style and background not present in the Korean scene. .
And her character’s catchy way of speaking, her wolf-cut hairstyle, her retro outfits and her mastery of old Japanese and K-pop songs contributed to this success.
Today, Kim exemplifies the changing attitude of young Koreans as ties with Japan loosen. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose May visit to Seoul was the first by a Japanese leader in 12 years, offered unprecedented personal condolences to war victims.
Today’s fervor for Tanaka, with nearly 800,000 Youtube subscribers, after concerts with famous K-pop stars, such as Bigbang’s Taeyang, and a nationwide tour that saw concerts sell out in a few minutes, is very different from the response when it debuted in 2018.
Then, with bickering over their shared war history between Seoul and Tokyo, Tanaka was hardly popular.
Relations had plunged to their lowest level in decades after disputes over neighbors’ history turned into trade disputes in 2019, casting a cloud over US-led efforts to counter the growing military threat from North Korea.
REBOUND IN DEMAND
The quarrels are over as the enthusiasm of young Koreans fuels a sharp rebound in demand for Japanese consumer products.
Last month’s launch of a canned beer by beverage giant Asahi Group Holdings Ltd, which is supposed to better replicate the experience of drinking the strain on tap, has many enthusiasts camping outside Costco stores in Seoul. , ready to rush to the doors as soon as they open.
“I’m not a big fan of Japanese beer, but I’ve seen it on social media, and it’s true that the perception of Japan has improved a lot,” said Son In-seok, 39. , who waited days to get his hands on it. on new beer at a convenience store.
South Korean imports of beer and Japanese whiskey jumped nearly 250% and 300% respectively in the first quarter compared to 2020 figures, while inbound apparel shipments jumped nearly 47%.
That compares to a 90% drop in Japanese beer imports in 2019, when escalating feuds made it an early target of a widespread boycott.
Some Korean victims of Japanese military brothels and forced labor during its colonial rule from 1910 to 1945 are demanding an apology and compensation from Tokyo.
But officials say the shift in attitude encouraged President Yoon Suk Yeol to risk a political backlash with an offer in March to compensate those victims with funds from Korean companies, rather than Japanese companies, like the Seoul courts had ordered it.
A January poll by Hankook Research showed Japan’s sympathy score among Koreans was the highest since 2018, with people aged 29 or younger being the most supportive.
China, which scored nearly twice Japan’s levels in 2019, ranked among the lowest, alongside Russia and North Korea.
A March survey by the same pollster showed that 40% of Koreans supported Yoon’s compensation plan, and 53% opposed it. But more than 51% of respondents aged 29 or younger supported it, while 36% viewed it negatively.
The political dynamic is pushing young people to take a less adversarial view of Japan, said James Kim, regional specialist at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“China is clearly less preferred than countries like the United States and Japan,” Kim said, citing Beijing’s restrictions on freedom in Hong Kong and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even if young people are not entirely satisfied with South Korea’s efforts to resolve thorny historical issues, Kim added, “they see a more immediate threat and recognize the benefit of aligning themselves with other democracies sharing the same ideas in the region”.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Minwoo Park; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang, Jimin Jung and Daewoung Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)