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Murakami Fans in S.Korea

Jeong Won-hyeong

Dec. 10, 2015

South Koreans are among the biggest fans of author Haruki Murakami. This reflects a change in attitudes in a country where Japanese culture used to be viewed negatively. As Nobel laureates gather in Stockholm, many Japanese regret that author Haruki Murakami isn’t among them. And so do his fans in South Korea, who are among Murakami's most fervent admirers.

Such positive sentiment toward Japan is considered to be rare in South Korea, due in part to differences over territorial disputes and views of history.

But Murakami is a notable exception to this.

“Kafka on the Shore" is one of his most popular novels. Last month, a stage adaptation of the novel was performed in Seoul. Previous productions in London, New York and elsewhere were highly acclaimed.

"It was a wonderful show! I could feel the beauty and sadness -- it aroused complex emotions," says one woman who took in the performance.

Almost all of Murakami's books have been translated into Korean -- and he's become hugely popular over the past decade. According to local reports, about 4.5 million of his books have been sold in South Korea.

Murakami tops the sales for literature, even ahead of popular local authors.

"He has a sensitivity that appeals to South Korean readers -- and keen insights. I'm a big fan!" says one shopper at a local bookstore. "Once I start his books, I can't put them down until the end."

Murakami now enjoys a huge, cult-like following online, and they have come to be known as "Harukists".

"I've read all of his books that I can find in the library. I'm writing my graduation thesis on him," says one fan.

Another suggests that Murakami's more cosmopolitan style of writing doesn't stir anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea.

"His books don't have a very strong Japanese sensibility. I think that's the strong point of Haruki Murakami's novels," he says.

One of Murakami’s devotees even quit his company job and traveled to Japan to visit the locations mentioned in the books.

Shin Sung-hyun says he's read every one of Murakami's novels and essays that are available in South Korea.

He posted his travelogue on his blog. This was picked up by a publisher and came out in book form under the title "Journey to Visit Haruki."

Shin says what grabs him about Murakami's books is the way each character's inner self comes alive -- something that is rarely found in South Korean novels.

"Murakami grew up reading American novels, and I think that helped to broaden his way of thinking," Shin says. "If South Korean writers assimilated outside cultural influences like he did, we would have seen writers like Haruki Murakami here in South Korea, as well."

Why is Murakami so popular in South Korea? Veteran translator has this to say on the subject: "So many aspects of South Korean social system are modeled after Japanese society,” Yang says. “That's why people in South Korea feel an affinity with his works. There is a cultural basis for appreciating him."

Yang says another reason why Murakami is so popular in South Korea, is in the way he expresses the innermost emotions of his characters. Compared to South Korean novelists, Murakami's descriptions are much more intimate and detailed.


NHK World's Kim Chan-ju spoke to Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya from Seoul on the impact of Japanese culture in South Korea.

Beppu: Now I understand how popular Murakami is in your country. But how do you explain this?

Kim: That's right, Sho. His novel “Norwegian Wood” was first published in South Korea in 1989. The book's title is different from the original -- in Korean, it reads, "The Age of Loss." At first, it was popular with people who were already very much into Japanese literature. But it quickly caught the attention of others, particularly young people. I remember a cell-phone commercial that aired in the early 2000s. It referred to Murakami's book. The novel was almost considered a must-read for young people around that time. And similarly themed Korean novels came to be known as “Murakami style.” Now, some other Japanese authors, including Keigo Higashino, rank among the best-sellers in South Korea.

Shibuya: So, we've heard all about Japanese authors doing well over there, but what about other aspects of Japanese culture?

Kim: To take one example, the number of Japanese-style restaurants and izakaya has been growing in recent years. You can find a wide range of Japanese eateries here in Hongdae, one of the main youth hangouts. There are more than 100 izakaya in this area alone. It’s December, so it's getting busy around here. I spoke to the owner of one of these businesses. He said since Japan is the closest neighboring country, customers come to the restaurant a lot to learn about Japanese culture.

And it's not just izakaya -- some Japanese television dramas are also popular in South Korea. Production companies often remake Korean-language versions of hit shows from Japan. But their current popularity is a relatively new phenomenon.

In the past, the broadcast or distribution of popular culture from overseas, including music, movies and even games, was restricted by law. Anyone doing so risked being punished for being unpatriotic. The law was mainly aimed at Japanese pop culture and media.

It wasn't until as recently as January 2004 that the restrictions on Japanese media and culture were abolished. Consequently, under government censorship in the 1980s and 90s, Japanese culture was unfamiliar compared to that of China and Hong Kong.

Beppu: Do you think South Korean sentiment toward Japan is improving thanks to the spread of Japanese culture?

Kim: I'd like to think so, but the reality is rather different. A survey conducted by South Korea’s East Asia Institute and Japanese citizen group Genron NPO put the percentage of South Koreans with negative views of their Japanese counterparts at 73%. In Japan, the equivalent view of South Koreans was 52%. Experts say the views held by so many Koreans mostly stem from the fact that they were colonized by Japan for more than 30 years, right up to the end of World War II. That said, it's clear that many people who have actually visited Japan have a far more favorable impression of their neighbors. In fact, I believe that the more cultural exchanges we can foster, the closer together the two nations can become.