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(Yonhap Feature) At KCON Japan, decades-old flame for Korean culture rekindled

All News 09:00 April 14, 2016

(Editor's note: This story is the seventh of our feature series on the global boom of Korean pop culture, known as "hallyu" in Korean.)
By Park Sojung

CHIBA, Japan, April 14 (Yonhap) -- For many South Koreans, it's hard to understand why anyone would listen to K-pop so religiously without understanding a single word of its lyrics. Such self-doubt is what inspired many dire predictions about the future of "hallyu," the worldwide popularity of Korean culture dating back to the 1990s, with doomsayers forecasting its end every year, only to be disproved by the trend's unexpected growth time and again.

Pessimists may look no further than KCON Japan to see where things actually stand for this decades-old phenomenon. Hundreds of people formed a snaking queue an hour before the world's largest K-pop festival opened in this city east of Tokyo on Saturday. These are the people hallyu doubters have repeatedly accused of losing interest in BigBang, 2PM and the like. And yet, they have come back for more, a year after the event was first held in Japan.

"We strictly prohibit camping outside Makuhari Messe overnight. Please refrain from such behavior," organizers wrote on the official Twitter account in what has proved to be a prudent warning. More than 33,000 people came to the event, twice the number last year, according to CJ E&M, South Korea's entertainment giant and the event's host.

Once inside the cavernous halls of Makuhari Messe, one enters a totally different universe. Booths beckon people to try all things hallyu, true to the event's slogan. An old woman, who only gave her first name, Yuriko, was among the first to be enticed.

"I've always wanted to try 'chima jeogori' when I visit Shin-Okubo," she said after trying on the traditional Korean attire. Shin-Okubo is a Tokyo neighborhood famous for its Korean restaurants and shops. "It's more comfortable than kimono."

Others waited in line for small servings of "soju," the Korean rice liquor, and Shin Ramyeon, the extremely popular Korean instant noodle. The purpose of their distribution was to give these commodities more exposure, but visitors already seemed to know what they are -- they just wanted them for free.

"Everyone around me knows what 'gimbap' is," said Latesha Lawrence, who works on a U.S. military base in Japan. She was holding a sample of the dish, which is usually comprised of a combination of vegetables, meat and rice wrapped in seaweed. Some have ventured further into the convention halls to get the real deal. At the food court, a stand selling gimbap was the most popular, with patrons bearing a 30-minute wait to purchase a tuna, vegetarian or beef gimbap.

What had seemed alien a decade ago seemed normal now. Without batting an eye, Kana Yonai, 31, bought "tteokbokki,"
traditionally considered too spicy for the Japanese palate, to share with her sister.

"We've eaten kimchi since we were little kids," she said, casually picking up a piece of the rice cake drizzled in red chili pepper sauce.

It took multiple tries to hear what she was saying, however, because over on the stage next to the food court, boy band MONSTA X was making women scream as if they were on one giant roller coaster ride.

"We didn't expect so many people to come. We appreciate your continued support and... hontoni sukidesu," one of the members said. The last part means "I really like you" in Japanese and it triggered another round of shrieks.

The question of what the Japanese find so charming about Korean singers inevitably led to a comparison of the two countries' singers. Yonai's unmarried sister, Mika Kitamura, said there was a difference in their degree of perfectionism.

"Korean artists master their song and dance routines before they debut, but Japanese artists from Johnny's and the like leave much to be desired," the 34-year-old from Tokyo said.

Yonai pointed to the nostalgic feelings Korean singers arouse.

"Korean men have 'jo' that Japanese men no longer seem to have," she said, using the kanji word for "jeong" in Korean. "Jeong" refers to a sense of camaraderie and generosity one feels with strangers that once defined rural life in Korea.

Yonai said her husband knew she was spending her Saturday at KCON but didn't stop her from going.

"He gave up," she said with a giggle when asked whether he resented her obsession with TRITOPS*, a South Korean boy band that is obscure on home turf but popular in Japan.

One of the booths offered fans a chance to write letters to the featured artists. A woman carefully crafted her sentences in Korean, looking up words on her smartphone dictionary. After about 15 minutes, longer than what most fans spent on their letters, she taped a bag of gummies to the letter and squeezed it into a narrow slit of the box labeled "Kim Sung-kyu", a member of the boy band INFINITE.

"I love his voice and spontaneity," Saki Nanno, 36, said. She had come from Kobe, some 460 kilometers west of Chiba, for her first KCON experience.

For the tired and the weary, there was a stage dedicated to cultural activities that required little mental engagement. Twice daily, a Korean language instructor taught simple phrases that learners could incorporate into their interactions with Koreans should they meet one.

"I got into Tokyo University," the instructor said in a role play. "Daebak!" replied his assistant whose comic expression induced laughter. "Daebak means awesome in Korean."

At other times, South Korean beauty YouTuber Calary Girl discussed popular cosmetics in South Korea and Japan with her local counterpart Ami-chan. Heopop, known for his bold if not outrageous experiments involving giant balloons and toy dinosaurs, waged a puzzle competition with the audience.

The convention culminated in a 2.5-hour-long concert in the evening, which featured 2PM, AOA, Block B and TWICE. MONSTA X surprised South Korean spectators on Saturday with its surprisingly large fan base in Japan. 2PM was the undisputed fan favorite on Sunday, whose every little gesture induced an ear-splitting reaction.

Kim Gi-hyun, a public relations specialist at CJ E&M, said compared with last year, this year's visitor demographic was more diverse.

"We are noticing more male and older visitors," she said.

Michiko Sako, a 72-year-old audience member at Saturday's concert, drew connections between KCON's increasing popularity and improving relations between South Korea and Japan. The two countries signed a landmark deal in December to resolve the issue of Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japan's World War II soldiers.

"Unfortunately, K-pop artists have been losing their place in Japan because of animosity between South Korea and Japan," she said. "I hope relations improve soon so these artists are given more chances to perform in Japan."


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