|Bae Yong-Joon, Hybrid Masculinity and the Counter-coeval Desire of Japanese Female Fans
This essay examines the transcultural consumption of new Korean masculinity in Japan using the star construction of Bae Yong-Joon (BYJ/aka yon-sama) as its key example. Through sociological research on the middle-aged Japanese female fans (BYJ’s largest fan base), this essay demonstrates how these fans desire BYJ’s hybridized masculinity in consumption practices and how these practices reflect the sentiments of Japan’s nostalgia towards Korea.
This essay engages with John Frow’s argument on desiring the ‘Other’s primitiveness’, which he suggests is derived from a denial of coevalness. Extending this theory, I argue that the Japanese fans’ desire for BYJ’s hybridized masculinity can be conceptualized within the framework of a contradictory combination of ‘counter-coevality’ and ‘cultural proximity’. In this essay, I discuss how BYJ’s hybrid masculinity has been built up through transcultural flows in the region caused by the cultural proximity of geographical/spatial familiarity. Then, I examine how some middle-aged Japanese female fans desire his soft masculinity in terms of a counter-coeval sentiment towards Korea caused by the temporal difference between the two nations, possibly based on their post/colonial experiences.
The counter-coeval desire of the Japanese fans is evident in their pre-modernistic interpretations of BYJ’s post-modern mom-zzang (muscular hard) body. His mom-zzang body is representative of the coeval ideology of post-modern globalized culture. I argue that Japanese fans ultimately still desire BYJ’s post-modern body through a traditional teleological lens – particularly, the framework of Confucian wen masculinity. Finally, I show how the fans consume their commoditized memories and nostalgia through their counter-coeval desire of BYJ’s hybridized masculinity, exemplified by their concept of Otokorashii Otoko (a man like a “real man”). This form of temporal displacement in transcultural Japanese consumption reflects how new Korean masculinity is constructed in Korean popular culture through the commodification of memory.
Key words: Bae Yong-Joon, Hallyu, Japanese fan, new Korean masculinity, wen masculinity, counter-coeval desire
Bae Yong Joon and the Yon-sama Syndrome
On 4 April 2004, an unfamiliar word “Yon-sama” occupied the headlines of most entertainment and sports newspapers in Korea and Japan. “Welcome Yonsama! 5,000 fans at Haneda Airport”, “Yonsama has arrived! Over 5,000 go crazy!”, “Yonsama paralyzes Haneda Airport!”, “Japan’s middle-aged women’s infatuation with Yonsama!” “Yonsama beats Beckham!!” (Herald Kyung-je 2004; Cho 2004; Nikkan Sports 2004; Kookmin-Ilbo 2004; D. Lee 2004; Sankei Sports 2004) Numerous newspapers devoted their front pages to describe the welcome by the 5,000 ‘crazy’ Japanese fans of the Korean actor Bae Yong-Joon (BYJ) at Haneda international airport. The articles emphasised how most of the fans are middle-aged women. Many of these fans came to the airport the night before BYJ’s arrival and stayed up all night to find the best spot to see him. Many of them brought gifts and flowers for him. Thousands of fans took photographs of him with their cameras and phone-cameras. Even the evening television news programs reported the ‘intensity’ of those middle-aged female fans, whose eyes were filled with tears, while holding their welcome placards. Some media wittily compared BYJ with David Beckham by pointing out that it was a much bigger crowd than those who turned up for Beckham – there were only about 1,000 fans gathered at the airport when he visited Japan in June 2002 (Park 2004).
BYJ has gained remarkable recognition in Japan since the Korean drama Winter Sonata was first screened in April 2003 on NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai/Japan Broadcasting Corporation) - the most influential Japanese broadcasting company. For the following two years, the complete series was broadcast four times on NHK due to the overwhelming flood of requests for reruns by viewers – who mostly consisted of middle-aged or older generations (Huh and Ham 2005: 13). During the third run, it was broadcast on NHK’s regular television channel every Saturday at 11:10pm. Even though the drama was scheduled after prime time, its average rating was 14.4%, which was double of the other programs from the same time slot. Its highest rating was 22.2% - the highest of all drama series programs (Chae 2005: 10). In Japan, Winter Sonata has achieved enormous success nationwide and created what is known as ‘the Yon-sama syndrome’. This refers to the popularity of the main actor Bae Yong-Joon. Yon-sama is a coined conjunction of his name Yong and the Japanese word sama. Normally sama refers to the high honour originally reserved for royalty and aristocrats. Yon-sama can be translated as “Prince Yong” or “My Dear Lord Yong”. The honour of Yon-sama indicates the immense respect for BYJ from Japanese fans. Even Japan’s Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi once enviously commented on BYJ’s popularity among voters, saying that “I would like to emulate Yon-sama to become a Jun-sama” (OANA 2004). Francesco Guardini has suggested that a “new form of monarchy has emerged in our time”. He has argued that sports stars, singers, film actors and supermodels are like new kings and queens and that they operate like a new aristocracy (Guardini quoted in Ndalianis 2002: vii). In 2004, Yon-sama became a new king of popular culture in Korea and Japan.
What are the reasons behind this phenomenon? I argue that there is a tendency for Japanese fans to desire BYJ in ways that can be considered ‘retrospective’ and ‘nostalgic’. This can be explained through John Frow’s argument on desiring the ‘Other’s primitiveness’, which he suggests is derived from a denial of coevalness. Extending this theory, I argue that the Japanese fans’ desire for BYJ’s hybridized masculinity can be conceptualized within the framework of a contradictory combination of ‘cultural proximity’ and ‘counter-coevality’. In this essay, I discuss how BYJ’s hybrid masculinity has been built up through transcultural flows in the region caused by the cultural proximity of geographical/spatial familiarity. I argue that middle-aged Japanese female fans desire BYJ’s star persona which is based on his hybridized masculinity as a result of intra-Asian transcultural flows of popular cultural products. I argue that the transcultural flows between two countries foreground the significance of mu-kuk-jok (non-nationalism) in the globalization of Korean popular culture. Mu-kuk-jok, a concept used to describe a cultural practice that has no particular national trait or odour, is an example of cultural proximity. Then, I examine how some middle-aged Japanese female fans desire his hybrid masculinity in terms of a counter-coeval sentiment towards Korea caused by the temporal difference between the two nations, possibly based on their post/colonial experiences. BYJ’s popularity in Japan can be explained as a kind of consumption of the simulacrum of Japan’s past.
This essay examines the transcultural consumption of new Korean masculinity in Japan using the star construction of BYJ as its key example. Through sociological research on the middle-aged Japanese female fans, this essay demonstrates how these fans desire BYJ’s hybridized masculinity in consumption practices and how these practices reflect the sentiments of Japan’s counter-coeval desire towards Korea. This form of temporal displacement in transcultural Japanese consumption reflects how new Korean masculinity is constructed in Korean popular culture through the commodification of memory. Audience reception research was conducted from 28 August to 5 September, 2005; I interviewed four separate focus groups with 18 BYJ fans in Tokyo and Okinawa in Japan. Each group has five, four, seven and two participants. Among them, seven of the participants are in their thirties; three are in their forties; six are in their fifties and two are in their sixties. I also collected 56 questionnaires at the Saitama Super Arena, where BYJ’s film April Snow’s promotion event was held on 31 August 2005. Because of the issue of confidentiality, I use pseudonyms to indicate each participant. Firstly, I will look at BYJ’s three central star personae - in particular, examining the construction of “Kang Joon-Sang”, the character he plays in Winter Sonata – which I believe represents BYJ’s hybrid masculinity. Then, I will examine how the Japanese female fans have received these personae.
Star Persona 1: Hybridized Masculinity
The story of Winter Sonata is about the experience of first love, lost memory and unknown family ties. The drama starts from the innocent, but at the same time humorous encounter of two high school sweethearts, Joon-Sang (BYJ) and Yu-Jin (Choi Ji-Woo), the female lead. Because of a tragic accident Joon-Sang loses his memory and the couple are separated for ten years before they meet again. On the day of Yu-Jin’s engagement ceremony with her old friend/fiancé Sang-Hyuk, she runs into Joon-Sang on the street. However, he cannot remember Yu-Jin because now he lives a new life as Min-Hyung, a Korean-American architect. Even though Yu-Jin knows that he is not her first love – Joon-Sang – she cannot stop her feelings towards Min-Hyung. Joon-Sang and Min–Hyung physically have same body, but are different persons. She is confused between Min-Hyung and Sang-Hyuk. Later, Joon-Sang gets his memory back, however the situation becomes even more complicated as the secret family ties are revealed. In the series, BYJ is Kang Joon-Sang/Lee Min-Hyung, who smiles tenderly and maintains his pure love for Yu-Jin. The drama repeatedly portrays the soft smile and gentle demeanour of BYJ. Some Japanese scholars declare that the key point of his popularity is his ‘soft smile’ (Endo and Matsumoto 2004). At the same time, BYJ portrays a man who willingly sacrifices himself for his lover Yu-Jin. This sweet, touching and devoted characteristic has enthralled Japanese audiences the most. For example, when lovesick Sang-Hyuk is dying in the hospital, Joon-Sang/Min-Hyung takes Yu-Jin to the hospital to let her see Sang-Hyuk:
Min-Hyung: You can go in now.
Yu-Jin: (without looking at his face) You shouldn’t do this.
Min-Hyung: Yes, I should… You are worried about him. Aren’t you?
Yu-Jin: (tears in her eyes) Min-Hyung…
Min-Hyung: I’m fine. You can go…
Yu-Jin: (without looking at him, with trembling voice) What if I can’t come back?
Min-Hyung: (frightened expression) !!!
Yu-Jin: If I see Sang-Hyuk, I might not be able to come back. Then… what should we do?
Min-Hyung: (sorrowfully) That’s… ok. That’s better than watching you suffer in pain.
The above scene describes how Joon-Sang/Min-Hyung puts up with emotional hardship for Yu-Jin’s sake. It seems as if he would bear any pain for Yu-Jin. BYJ portrays a man who cries for his lover while still holding a strong will inside. BYJ’s character is an embodiment of a devoted man’s image which ideally hybridized between feminine and masculine aspects (Yu et al 2005: 81). This screen image is often overlapped with real-life BYJ.
Many of the Japanese fans I have interviewed have often described BYJ as an ideal, perfect man who has ‘manly charisma’ and ‘feminine tenderness’ at the same time. In other words, they consider this hybridized masculinity as a symbolic image of an ideal man. Interviewee Ga explained:
“He is different from any other actor or any other guy. He is tender but not weak. His dialogues are so sweet, poetic and intelligent but at the same time he has such a charismatic manner.”
Na said: “In his photo album, he looks so manly and tough! But he is still my sweet prince. Always! Look at his smile… how beautiful!”
Ga described BYJ as an ideal man who has both ‘tender’ and ‘charismatic’ manner. Na also mentioned BYJ’s “toughness” and “sweetness” which desirably co-exist in one body. Kuroiwa, a producer at NHK, also points out BYJ’s hybridized masculinity which is constructed by his neutralized images.
Bae Yong Joon is very neutral. Not very sexual[ly appealing], not very manly but not too feminine either. When the woman wants to be led by somebody, he does that. He is gentle, charming, and polite but at the same time, when he has to say something he says something. He is the man when the woman wants him to be a man. He fulfils all the needs of the middle-aged Japanese women.
Kuroiwa’s point highlights that BYJ’s hybridized masculinity might be one of the most significant star personae to bring about the Yon-sama syndrome in Japan. In his image, masculinity and femininity are hybridized and unified, or in the words of one of my interviewees (Sa), he is “gentle and feminine, yet sometimes very manly”. BYJ’s hybridized masculinity stays in the third space; though it contains a feminine aspect it is “not feminized”. According to the Japanese fans’ responses, even though BYJ’s hybrid masculinity implies femininity, they still consider him as an ideal “manly” man. For example, Ban described BYJ as “tender and strong, a typical man”. Based on the binary of the words “tender (femininity)” and “strong (masculinity)”, Ban’s expression of “typical man” has to be understood differently from the general concept of “being a man” or “manly”. Jan’s description, for instance, supports the concept of ideal manliness which these Japanese female fans desire. Jan said:
“he has masculine attraction. … [such as] sensitiveness, softness, nobility and dignity”
Jan explained how BYJ’s feminine traits, such as softness and sensitiveness, complete his masculine attraction. In the later section of this essay, I will examine how and why the Japanese fans perceive BYJ’s hybridized masculinity as an ideal concept of a ‘manly’ man and how this is related to their sense of nostalgia.
Star Persona 2: purity
The drama’s ‘purity’ was also praised by the older Japanese viewers, who said it reminded them of simpler times from their younger days (Onishi 2004). Since Winter Sonata was broadcasted, NHK has received countless phone calls and e-mails and more than 20,000 letters from viewers, many of whom write about their own experiences of love and loss (Tabata 2003; Wiseman 2004). Comparing Winter Sonata to the recent Japanese television dramas, some interviewees point out the innocence of main characters. Ga stated:
“Today’s Japanese dramas contain too much representation of sex. But in Winter Sonata we don’t see those embarrassing sex scenes. They [the characters] love purely.”
Those viewers, who do not like the blunt representation of sex in Japanese dramas, fall for the idealistic depiction of ‘pure’ love in Winter Sonata. Some viewers describe that BYJ is an “old-fashioned gentle man who reminds me of my first love” and some say “the high school setting takes us [Japanese women] back to the days before marriage”. Watching the innocence of BYJ and CJW allows them to remember their younger selves (Wiseman 2004). Baik Seung-Kuk, a professor of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, claims that the major attraction of Winter Sonata is its storytelling which stimulates nostalgic memory of Japanese viewers’ first love (2005: 174). Baik states that “the sender of Winter Sonata encodes “pure love” in the message [drama contents] and the Japanese viewers decode them” (2005: 175). According to him, the drama employs ‘pure love’ as a cultural code and it uses various audiovisual methods to deliver this coded message to the receivers (2005: 175-78). In other words, there are dramatic signifiers which imply first love. For example, Joon-Sang plays the piano for Yu-Jin and the title of the piece is “The First Time”. This piano music is an example of a signifier of first love (Y.-S. Kim 2005). As the seasonal background is winter, there are many scenes of white snow which also implies a sense of purity. In episode two, Joon-Sang steals a first kiss from Yu-Jin while they are playing with snowmen. The impact of the coded message of first love is enhanced through the bicycle riding scene in the first episode. In the scene, Joon-Sang rides a bicycle along a riverside bicycle-path and Yu-Jin holds his waist, sitting on the back seat. Romantic background music is played as they ride along the path, and there are scenes of an orange coloured sunset, sparkling water and golden-brown shrubs. This happy and smiling couple looks pure and innocent in their high-school uniforms. To explain the representation of first love in this scene, professor Kim Ki-Kook, of Kyung-Hee University, uses Jean Baudrillard’s concept of “simulacre and simulation” (2005: 95). According to Kim, this bicycle scene is a perfect model of first love for many Japanese fans. He argues that the above listed “romantic images are Baudrillard’s simulacra” and the viewers indulge in this imaginary reality which was actually never existed. One of my interviewees, Na, said that “I watched Winter Sonata more than 20 times (…) especially I watched the bicycle scene again and again. It reminds me of my first love from high-school.”
Cinema studies scholar Angela Ndalianis claims that stars are “very personal things”, who are, she states, “producing meaning that is personal to him or her” (2002: xii). She argues that stars “interact and merge with an individual’s subjectivity” (2002: xii). Na’s memory of her first love merges with the image of a uniformed bicycle riding BYJ. In the context of Winter Sonata, BYJ interacts with Japanese fans’ individual memories. One of the interviewees, Ba also stated:
“I think it’s because of those comics… when we were girls we read lots of girl’s comics. The drama’s story and characters are very similar to those comics. Innocent girls and boys… first love… Winter Sonata really reminds me of those days.”
Many scholars see stars as variously conceptualized inner wants of the masses (Dyer 1998: 18). BYJ is a reflection of the inner wants of the middle-aged Japanese female audiences: in the case of Na and Ba, it is a desire for their purity of their “past”. Dyer articulates that “every society (and each class/group at each period of that society) foregrounds certain needs, by virtue of both what it promises and what it fails to deliver. Likewise, agencies in those societies (e.g. the cinema) provide and/or define answers to those needs” (Dyer 1998). In view of the Yon-sama syndrome, BYJ fulfils the desires of Japanese fans: those desires are their memories and nostalgia.
Star Persona 3: politeness
In Winter Sonata, BYJ is portrayed as a well-mannered and intelligent young man. He speaks to CJW very softly in a very respectful manner and always carefully considers her needs – just like a well-mannered aristocrat. Ba said:
“I was so surprised [when I saw his polite image from the drama] because I thought Korean men were very rude and authoritative”
In the drama, his politeness is often exemplified through the portrayal of caring for Yu-Jin. For example, when Joon-Sang finds out that he and Yu-Jin are half-brother and half-sister, he decides to keep this painful news a secret. His only concern is Yu-Jin’s happiness and he tries to protect her from any traumatic experience. In episode 18, they travel to a small beachside town. Yu- Jin is excited because it is their first trip together, while Joon-Sang is in a deep sorrow because it is a farewell trip for him.
Yu-Jin: Let’s make lots of memories. I want to remember every single thing!
Joon-Sang: (voice only) I don’t want to leave anything behind, Yu-Jin… anything that would remind you of me.
From the above scene, it is clear how much Joon-Sang considers Yu-Jin and tries to protect her from being hurt. Even after he finds out that they are not blood relations he leaves Yu-Jin as he believes that Yu-Jin would be happier with Sang-Hyuk. Because of such polite and considerate manners, the Japanese fans gave him a noble title “sama”. Beyond his polite image from the drama character Joon-Sang, the real life BYJ is also praised as a polite young man. Most of the interviewees/questionnaire participants I met in Japan mentioned his politeness. Na said:
“He is so polite and considerate. [Look at] how he treats his fans. So considerate!… We love his politeness and modesty.
Chan said: “he is humble and polite… I like the way of he greets others.”
According to the fans’ quotes from the above, BYJ’s politeness is singled out as the most significant factor in desiring BYJ. In particular, these fans make an emotional connection with the way he treats fans as a family. BYJ calls his fans “my family” and always shows his respect and consideration to them. For example, on his second visit to Japan in 2004, over 1,000 fans gathered outside his hotel. When BYJ left the hotel, all of a sudden hundreds of fans converged on his car. In the chaotic situation, about ten fans were wounded and hospitalized. The Japanese media started criticizing BYJ for his changing of his schedule which led to the tragic accident. However, before negative public opinion spread too far, BYJ held a press conference and politely apologized for what had happened. He said, “I was too naïve. I believed that such an accident would never happen. I’m so sorry what has happened to my valued family” (Choi 2004). The deep regret for his action was enhanced by his tears. The Japanese media soon turned their focus from the tragic accident to his polite apologies, accompanied by his crying. Later, in the name of a family, each one of the wounded fans received an autograph letter from BYJ. They consider his politeness to be one of the most significant differences of BYJ from other stars or other men. Some fans emphasised his polite attitudes by comparison with the rudeness of young men in Japan today. Ma said:
“Today’s Japanese male actors? Oh no! They are rude, too shallow and vulgar. We can’t even compare with him [BYJ].”
Ra also said: “Of course he has the prettiest face and sweetest smile and that is why I love him. But I love him also because of his polite and considerate attitudes (…) he bows to his fans with his two hands together. We don’t see that [polite manner] any more here.”
According to them, politeness is a value which they hardly find in today’s Japan. These fans see the virtues of the past from BYJ’s polite gestures. Ga said:
“Even the way he waves his hands is so noble.”
Pan said: “[I like his] gentleness and courtesy. He has something we Japanese have already lost”
His polite image represents something Japan has lost, such as old virtues. For the Japanese fans, his polite (body) gestures are a symbol of old virtues and memories. In this sense, his body is a retrospective site. Likewise, BYJ’s polite body became an object of Japanese female fans’ retrospective desire. This is also evident from the Japanese fans’ appreciation of the fake yon-sama. At the Saitama Super Arena, where BYJ’s film April Snow’s promotion event was held, over 30,000 enthusiastic Japanese (mostly female) fans were gathered to see BYJ. Among them, some were busy taking photos of a Japanese man dressed up as BYJ. Even though this man does not look like BYJ, he can become BYJ by merely showing his teeth (for a smile) and by politely putting his hands on the chest. Because of this polite gesture, the Japanese fans identify this anonymous Japanese man with yon-sama. Again, as Kim Young-Soon and others observed in their semiological analysis, this fake Yon-sama’s gesture is a signifier to encode the BYJ-like characteristic – i.e. politeness. Because this coded message is familiar to the receivers, they could immediately decode it as BYJ’s polite body. The Japanese fans recognize BYJ by identifying his politeness.
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As observed from the three star personae, BYJ can be characterized as embodying a hybrid masculinity, as well as a combination of the attributes of purity and politeness. This is counter to the previous representations of dominant and hard masculinity of Korean men. In the next section, I will discuss how this hybrid masculinity differs from pre-existing ideas circulating about Korean masculinity in Japan.