Transcending East Asian Politics with Pop Culture

Pop culture is helping to harmonize East Asian relations.

Media can only become regional or global in a broadcasting regime that enables content to move freely beyond national borders. Regional broadcasting, which was restricted in the 1980s in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, now allows for the legitimate transfer of content across national borders.

Within this framework, Japanese interaction with its East Asian neighbours can be viewed from two perspectives: politics and popular culture. The two are not mutually exclusive, but are driven by different forces.

Much has been written about Japanese past military transgressions. These writings fall within the ambit of regional and global politics. While never condoning this history, popular culture is helping to mitigate the regional tensions to which these events have led. The impact of popular culture on human interaction is proving an important stimulus to regional harmony.

In the late 20th century, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung, who rose from political imprisonment to become president of South Korea, began the process of liberalising South Korean media, shifting the relationship between politics and culture.

Between 1998 and 2004, then-president Kim implemented the ‘four steps’ of media liberalisation. These policies opened up flows of regional media in and out of South Korea in four progressive stages. The outcomes contributed to regional harmony, particularly between South Korea and Japan.

The implementation of the four steps unlocked cultural flows in the region, enabling the emergence of the so-called ‘Korean Wave’, which swept over East Asia with global impact. An iconic component of the Korean Wave is the South Korean television drama Winter Sonata, first broadcast in South Korea in 2002.

The drama generated significant fandom in Japan, inspiring Japanese fan visits to South Korea. The fandom surrounding the principle male actor, Bae Yong-joon, has been sustained — a number of Japanese fans travelled to Seoul last July to catch a glimpse of Bae on his wedding day.

Fandom has several manifestations that propagate and consolidate the enjoyment of popular culture products. The adoring audiences create new societies, in both local and regional contexts, as communication and ideas flow back and forth across geographical boundaries. This process creates a hybrid group where a variety of ideas, thoughts and feelings meet in cohesion, highlighting the fundamental human commonalities between members.

In this context, past prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Taro Aso, as well as incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have recognised the importance of Japanese popular culture. They have all made significant contributions to cultural dialogue, bringing popular culture into mainstream political and academic analysis.

Particularly significant is part of a 2007 policy speech by Abe regarding ‘The Japanese Cultural Industry Strategy’. In the speech, Abe proposes enhancing ‘the competitiveness of areas that represent the good traits and uniqueness of Japan, such as animated film, music and Japanese food, and present them to the world’.

The traditional role of media — and its often symbiotic relationship with governments and censorship regimes — has been progressively challenged in Asia from the mid-to-late 20th century. The power of blogging and social networks is dramatically changing perceptions of Japan and stimulating cultural flows. Examples of Japanese manga and anime are now readily accessible online, contributing to a dilution of historical barriers.

Japan conveys cultural messages through various media products — not only through manga, anime and television dramas, but also through the merchandising of media products. Who can deny the warmth and regional and international appeal of Japanese fantasy characters? Examples include the titular spirit in Hayao Miyazaki’s anime My Neighbour Totoro and Hello Kitty, who first appeared in 1974 and is still prominent in the global market.

Manga is a rich source of inspiration for adaptations of texts, moving Japanese stories to regional and global arenas. Hana Yori Dango (Boys over Flowers) by Yoko Kamio is a prime example. The series has been remade into TV dramas, anime, film and theatre productions in many Asian countries, spreading as far as Indonesia and the Philippines.

If it is the young that will create the world of tomorrow, then there are encouraging signs for harmony in East Asia. Surveys of university students from South Korea, Taiwan and Japan studying in Australia at the University of Sydney indicate emerging patterns of reconciliation and mutual respect.

The trend is especially pronounced with women. Similar surveys conducted with university students in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan have consolidated these findings. The appreciation of the value of cultural transfers, beyond the economics, is now acknowledged.

Fandom is an important component of this process. Another aspect contributing to regional harmony is the tourist industry. Popular culture is a stimulus for travel into and outwards from Japan. When compared with France, the major global destination for international tourists, Japan is a smaller player — but unlike France, Japan’s tourism sector is exhibiting exponential growth.

Some 20 million tourists visit Japan annually, with 70 percent from East Asia. Visitors from China, South Korea and Taiwan will make a significant contribution to regional harmony and understanding, as will Japanese tourists in these countries, through the process of cross-cultural engagement.

Popular culture can contribute to healing East Asia and instilling mutual respect and understanding. Though regional political issues remain, popular culture, along with multilateral trade, is creating a new form of citizenship, where the commonality of enjoyment of content transcends politics.

Pop culture boosting harmony in East Asia is republished with permission from East Asia Forum

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