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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)

"It's still a little hard to believe that it's gone this far," said tall, tanned Jang Dong Gun, now one of the highest-paid actors in Asia, during an interview in Seoul.

Jang said he was shocked when, during his first trip to Vietnam in 1998 to promote his new Korean TV drama, thousands of women mobbed his plane at the Hanoi airport and an armada of female fans on motor scooters chased his car all the way to his hotel.

In 2001, the Seoul-based manufacturer Daewoo Electronics hired him as its Vietnam spokesman. Over the past five years, the company said, its refrigerators' market share in Vietnam went from a blip to a robust 34 percent.

"If we can give them a little more joy in their life and show them another side of Korea, than I can only see that as a plus for us and them," he said.

In China, South Korean programs broadcast on government TV networks now account for more than all other foreign programs combined, including those from the United States and Japan, according to South Korean government statistics. Even in Mexico -- land of the telenovela -- a flock of local women stood outside South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's hotel during a recent visit, holding placards with Korean stars' names. In the United States, the Seoul-based singer Rain played two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden in 2005. Also last year, sinewy Daniel Dae Kim, the Korean-born actor from the hit show "Lost," was the only Asian to land a spot in People magazine's "Sexiest Men Alive" edition.

Entertainment industry leaders in Seoul credit the phenomenon to good marketing coupled with an uncanny response throughout Asia to the expressive nature of the South Koreans -- long dubbed the Italians of Asia. A hearty diet and two years of forced military duty, industry leaders and fans insist, have also made young South Korean men among the buffest in Asia. Most important, however, has been the South Korean entertainment industry's perfection of the strong, silent type on screen -- typically rich, kind men with coincidentally striking looks and a tendency to shower women with unconditional love.

"It's a type of character that doesn't exist much in Asian movies and television, and now it's what Asian women think Korean men are like," said Kim Ok Hyun, director of Star M, a major star management company in Seoul.

"But to tell you the truth," she said. "I still haven't met a real one who fits that description."

Though the Korean Wave hit Japan relatively late, washing ashore only within the past 24 to 36 months, the country has quickly become the largest market for Korean stars. Bae remains the biggest, but his supremacy is being challenged. Actor Kwon Sang Woo, for instance, is charging $200 for some seats at an upcoming "fan meeting" in Tokyo. Thousands of Japanese are scrambling for a chance to watch him play games with fans, chat and perform little song-and-dance numbers. Some tickets are going for as much as $500 on online auction sites.

Almost all the major Korean male stars have opened lucrative "official stores" in Tokyo. In the three-story boutique of Ryu Siwon, a baby-faced Korean actor-crooner who sings in phonetic Japanese for the local market, the top floor boasts a recreation of his living room, complete with a life-size, high-tech plastic model of Ryu lounging casually on a white leather sofa. It has become a meeting place of sorts for his Japanese fans, where a gaggle of women ages 17 to 61 sat and stared longingly at his statue on a recent afternoon.

Some call it a fad. But Yoshimura -- whose latest blind date turned out to be a slightly paunchy Korean computer programmer -- says she is nevertheless digging in her extraordinarily high heels for the long run.

"I intend to keep looking until I find the right one," she said.

Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.

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