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Article Released Sun-22nd-April-2007 09:34 GMT
Contact: Center for Research Promotion Institution: Keio University
 Winter Sonata and the Hanryu phenomenon in Japan

Winter Sonata is the highly-popular South Korean television series. The super hit program paved the way for hanryu, the craze for South Korean popular culture. This study analyses how this phenomenon has affected Zainichi Koreans in Japan

Title of paper: Forced Invisibility to Negotiating Visibility: Winter Sonata, the Hanryu Phenomenon and Zainichi Koreans in Japan

Authors: Min Wha HAN, Arvind SINGHAL, Toru HANAKI, Do Kyun KIM, and Ketan CHITNIS

Min Wha HAN is a doctoral student of the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University.
Arvind SINGHAL, Ph.D., is a professor and presidential research scholar in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University.
Toru HANAKI, Ph. D., is a lecturer at Nanzan University, Japan.
Do Kyun KIM is a doctoral student of the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University.
Ketan CHITNIS, Ph.D., was an assistant professor in the School of Mass Communication at


This paper analyzes the impact of Winter Sonata (a South Korean television series) and hanryu phenomenon -- the current fad for pro-South Korean popular culture -- on Korean residents in Japan (referred to as “Zainichi Koreans”). The study reveals that consumption of hanryu and Winter Sonata has resulted in Korean residents in Japan from being invisible minorities to visible ones.

Winter Sonata, the 2002 Korean television series starring Bae, is considered to be a starting point of the hanryu (literally “Korean wave”) phenomenon, referring to the fad for “all things South Korean”. Hanryu has not just taken Japan by storm, but has also engulfed other Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Mongolia, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Winter Sonata’s popularity in Japan and the hanryu phenomenon have increased trade between the two countries and promoted people-exchanges. Winter Sonata fuelled the interest of Japanese citizens to learn more about South Korea. Many Japanese enrolled in Korean language courses, and thousands traveled to South Korea to sites where Winter Sonata was filmed.

Among those audiences of Korean popular culture, rather invisible yet certainly massive consumers are Zainichi Korean residents in Japan, people who share cultural roots with native Koreans yet are physically detached from their native land.

There are approximately 700,000 Korean residents in Japan (referred to as Zainichi Koreans). Most of the Zainichi Koreans are descendents of those who were forcibly moved to Japan from the Korean peninsula as slave labor during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. The position of Zainichi Koreans is not consistent in Japanese political discourses. Sometimes they are identified as “liberated” Korean citizens; other times they are treated as a “cultural minority.”

While the history of Zainichi Koreans has been discussed by scholars in different disciplines, few stories have been told from their point of view. The purpose of the present article is to contribute to the unpacking of cultural identities of Zainichi Korean residents in Japan through their narratives and interpretations of experiencing Winter Sonata and the hanryu phenomenon. Their stories reveal how Zainichi Koreans consume popular culture to recognize their own identity, while problematizing the “hidden” histories they have lived through. The rise of hanryu has led to more opportunities for Zainichi Koreans to recognize their unique positionality in Japan. Their collective memory of the past, including the torturous history of Japanese colonialism in Korea, as also the discrimination they faced in Japan, influences their perspective of hanryu, which, to others, may seem like a harmonizing cultural phenomenon.

The paper gives a background of Winter Sonata, followed by a theoretic framework to understand how audiences’ identity and cultural practices mediates their engagement with television serial drama. Then the historical context of Zainichi Koreans position in Japanese society is elaborated. The study’s research results on how the Zainichi Koreans consume Winter Sonata, and how that shifts their visibility as a cultural minority, are reported and implications discussed.

A Background on Winter Sonata

Winter Sonata, a South Korean television drama series, was produced by the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and broadcast in South Korea in 2002. Directed by Yoon Seok-ho, a respected South Korean television drama producer director, Winter Sonata was first broadcast in Japan in 2003 on the NHK satellite channel (NHK BS2).

Winter Sonata is a love story between a male character Jun-sang and a female character Yu-jin who fall in love (both for the first time) in high school. However, Jun-sang has to leave for the U.S. for higher education, and prior to his departure they arrange to meet on New Year’s Eve. Yu-jin keeps waiting but Jung-sang never appears. The next day, Yu-jin learns that Jun-sang was killed in a road accident on his way to meet her. Yu-jin is devastated for she lost her first love. Fifteen years later, Jun-sang reappears in front of Yu-jin but now his name is Min-hyung. Junsang did not recognize U-jin because he lost his memory in the road accident. Although Yu-jin believes that Jun-sang is dead, Min-hyung’s resemblance to Junsang and Yu-jin’s memory of her first love leads the two to fall in love. After facing many difficulties, in the last episode, Jun-sang and Yu-jin meet at the house that Jun-sang designed as an architect. By this time, Jun-sang is almost blind. He lost his sight in a second road accident, but the trauma somehow restored his lost memory. In a moving scene, Jun-sang and Yu-jin recognize each other. Their first love is realized all over again.

While this love story looks straightforward, the plot of Winter Sonata was quite complicated. Akin to other South Korean dramas, an intricate web of family relationships undergirds the plot, and a sense of mystery sustains the audiences’ attention. For instance, Jun-sang transferred to the high school where he meets Yu-jin with the primary intention to find his real father. At a certain moment, the drama encourages the audience to believe that Jun-sang’s father and Yu-jin’s father might be the same person and, as a consequence, the two lovers might be siblings. As the story unfolds, the webs of family ties are disentangled, resulting in a sense of mystery that dramatizes the primary story of pure love between the two protagonists.

Associated links

Journal information

Keio Communication Review No. 29, 2007

Keywords associated to this article: winter sonata, hanryu, Japan, Korea
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