Japanese Women Catch the 'Korean Wave'

Like other Korean male stars, Ryu has a lucrative
Like other Korean male stars, Ryu has a lucrative "official store" in Tokyo. (Katsumi Kasahara - AP)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 31, 2006

TOKYO -- Thin and gorgeous in a slinky black dress, Mikimoto pearls and a low-slung diamond Tiffany pendant, 26-year-old Kazumi Yoshimura already has looks, cash and accessories. There's only one more thing this single Japanese woman says she needs to find eternal bliss -- a Korean man.

She may just have to take a number and get in line. In recent years, the wild success of male celebrities from South Korea -- sensitive men but totally ripped -- has redefined what Asian women want, from Bangkok to Beijing, from Taipei to Tokyo. Gone are the martial arts movie heroes and the stereotypical macho men of mainstream Asian television. Today, South Korea's trend-setting screen stars and singers dictate everything from what hair gels people use in Vietnam to what jeans are bought in China.

Yet for thousands of smitten Japanese women like Yoshimura, collecting the odd poster or DVD is no longer enough. They've set their sights far higher -- settling for nothing less than a real Seoulmate.

The lovelorn Yoshimura signed up last year with Rakuen Korea, a Japanese-Korean matchmaking service, to find her own Korean bachelor. And she is hardly alone. More than 6,400 female clients have signed up with the company, which says its popularity has skyrocketed since 2004, when "Winter Sonata" became the first of many hot Korean television dramas to hit Japan. Even in Shinjuku ni-chome, Tokyo's biggest gay district, niche bars with names such as Seoul Man have sprouted like sprigs of ginseng in a Pusan autumn.

"South Koreans are so sweet and romantic -- not at all like Japanese guys, who never say 'I love you,' " Yoshimura said as she waited for her blind date, a single Korean man, in the 50th-floor bar of a chic Tokyo skyscraper. A telephone operator who lives with her parents in Hiroshima, she has spent thousands of dollars on her quest for a Korean husband, flying to Seoul 10 times in the past two years and bullet-training to Tokyo for seven blind dates with Korean men.

So far, though, she hasn't found the one she's looking for.

"Maybe I'm living in a fantasy world," she said, pouting her blood-red lips. "Maybe I'm looking for the TV stars I can't really have. But we are all allowed a dream, aren't we?"

In part, the new allure of Korean men can be traced to a larger phenomenon known as the "Korean Wave," a term coined a few years ago by Beijing journalists startled by the growing popularity of South Koreans and South Korean goods in China. Now, the craze for all things Korean has spread across Asia, driving regional sales of everything from cars to kimchi.

Meanwhile, the number of foreign tourists traveling to South Korea leapt from 2.8 million in 2003 to 3.7 million in 2004. The bulk of the growth, South Korean tourism officials say, stemmed from Korean Wave-loving Asian women. Partial statistics for 2005 indicate the feminine tide has not yet let up.

For the South Koreans -- who have long suffered discrimination in Japan and who have hardly been known as sex symbols -- it all comes as something of a shock.

Korean male celebrities are now among the highest-paid actors outside Hollywood. According to the South Korean media, "Winter Sonata" star Bae Yong Jun -- whose character stood by his first love through 10 years of car accidents and amnesia -- is now charging $5 million a film, the steepest price anywhere in Asia. In a few short years, Bae is said to have accumulated a merchandising and acting-fee empire worth an estimated $100 million. At least nine other Korean male stars earn more than $10 million a year, according to a list published in June by the Seoul-based Sports Hankook newspaper.

In Seoul, the neon-lit streets are mobbed these days by visiting Asian women, many sporting rhinestone-studded T-shirts emblazoned with images of their favorite Korean stars. Some fans have been known to stake out famous eateries for hours in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their celluloid beaus.

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