Tensions between Japan and South Korea have reached an uncomfortably low point. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak tore up the diplomatic rulebook with his recent visit to the rocky islets of Dokdo, known as Takeshima to the Japanese, which are claimed by both countries. He then followed it up with an unusually sharp speech, invoking “comfort women” and demanding more sincere apologies for the past from Japan. How quickly the mask of unity once imposed by the shared World Cup in 2002 has slipped.
The Dokdo/Takeshima issue is a volatile one, as the recent story of Song Il-gook illustrates. Immediately after the TV actor finished a relay swim to Dokdo to mark the 67th anniversary of South Korean independence from Japanese rule, he discovered that his latest drama, A Man Called God, had been dropped from Japanese TV. Plus, no less a figure than Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, the Japanese vice foreign minister, said it would be “difficult” for the actor to come to Japan due to public feeling.
Japanese TV is filled with romantic South Korean dramas and inoffensive South Korean popstars whose managers have the good sense to encourage their hardworking starlets to learn Japanese. The rewards for success in Japan are immense. It’s not just the TV and record sales – it’s the lucrative ad contracts, the stadium concerts, the merchandise and the loyal, adoring fans. South Korean paper Chosun Ilbo said this week that although its country’s stars had made some inroads into other markets, 70 per cent of their overseas earnings come from Japan. It also pointed out that since the Japanese record industry is worth 15 times as much as the South Korean equivalent, it’s difficult for South Korean talent agencies to ignore such a lucrative market.
Song Il-gook is not the first actor to find his career threatened by his political views. Popular actress Kim Tae-hee spoke out on the Dokdo issue some years ago, little knowing the impact it would later have on her career in Japan. When it was announced last year that she had been cast in her first Japanese series, 99 Days With a Star, right-wing activists went crazy, picketing the TV studio and handing out flyers demanding to know why the lead role in a Japanese drama had gone to an anti-Japanese actress. Japanese company Rohto, which had hired her as the face of one of their skincare brands, had to cancel all promotional events earlier this year for fear of inflaming the situation.
South Korean stars are in a bind. If they speak out on the territorial dispute, they threaten their Japanese careers. If they don’t, they can expect to be criticised for being unpatriotic by their South Korean fans – as girl ban Kara discovered last week. At a press conference in Seoul to promote their new album, all five members of the band – which has been very successful in Japan – stayed silent when asked about the Dokdo issue. Internet uproar quickly followed back home.
The reality is that most Japanese fans don’t care about politics –the millions of records sold in Japan by K-pop acts such as 2pm and Girls’ Generation prove that point – but the vocal minority of Japanese who do are making themselves heard.