May 30, 2010

Tokyo's Okubo a mecca for fans of Korean pop culture

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The crowds at Hanryu hyakkaten
(Korean Department Store). (Mainichi)

Once viewed as the somewhat dull neighbor of major shopping and entertainment district Shinjuku and college town Takadanobaba, Tokyo's Okubo district is quickly becoming a kind of go-to district for Korean pop culture. I get off the train at JR Shin-Okubo Station and walk east on Okubo-dori Avenue. Signs are written in Hangul and there's a faint whiff of spices in the air.

Immediately up ahead is Hanryu Hyakkaten, or "Korean Department Store." It's crowded with shoppers, as if a big sale is taking place. The 400 square meter floor space is filled with Korean pop-star paraphernalia, Korean CDs and DVDs, Korean cosmetics and food. Women crowd around a cart filled with goods related to boy band TVXQ, which is no longer active but is still popular, and throw wall hangings and photo collections of Korean stars into their shopping baskets.
The most popular goods are for the pop groups Big Bang and SS501, and the actor Lee Byung-hun. The dates of performances by Korean stars are recorded on a big calendar on the wall.

"There have been 20 percent more customers here than last year," says store manager Lee Kun-haeng. "We get over 2,000 people on weekends and holidays." Last year, the store made 600 million yen in sales. The goal this year is a billion.

With half of the store's customers now young women, the earlier image of middle-aged women as the main fan demographic of things Korean no longer holds, according to Lee. Okubo is filled with teenagers and twenty-somethings looking for K-Pop paraphernalia. I run into three junior high school girls from Tokyo's Higashi-Yamato. Fans of Big Bang, it's their first visit to the district, and they've spent over 5,000 yen on Big Bang stickers and other goods.

Miyuki Mitsunaga, a 45-year-old part-time worker and TVXQ fan, tells me she's come to Shin-Okubo at the urging of her 14-year-old daughter, who influenced her into becoming a fan, too. "They have such great voices," she says. "They're cute, and they move me with their performances. I want to support them."

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A bustling Okubo street. (Mainichi)

Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine middle-schoolers travelling long distances just to go to Shin-Okubo. The alleys of this area used to be filled with what looked like foreign prostitutes, although that's said to have changed as a result of police crackdowns. "There used to be an Imperial Army facility nearby before World War II, and military men would rent homes around here," says a man in his 70s who's lived in a house here for a long time.

Although the area previously had a run-down image and was nicknamed "Shokuan-dori" (Unemployment Center Boulevard), since the '90s, Korean restaurants began popping up, and with the 2002 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea and the popularity of the Korean television drama "Fuyu no sonata" (Winter Sonata) among Japanese audiences, restaurants rapidly spread out onto Okubo-dori Avenue and smaller alleyways in the area.

What many fans of Korean dramas and other things Korean come to these restaurants for is not as much the food as the seats themselves. A woman from Tokyo's Kita Ward who brought a friend to dine at the eatery Omuni Shokudo (Mom's Eatery) sat where Korean actor Hyun Bin once sat during a visit. "Even if we're not here at the same time, I'm happy to be in the same place he once was," she says.

Actor Jo In-sung, pop group SS501, and other Korean stars are said to have visited the restaurant Daehan Minguk (Republic of Korea), where the walls are filled with posters and photos on which fans have written messages. Fans flock to the restaurant to sit where their favorite stars did, reserving seats ahead of time.

It is a Sunday afternoon, and woman in her late 40s from Hiroshima is eating a menu item named after her favorite band, FT Island. She was unable to grab a seat that one of the group's members had sat on, but she's happy enough looking at the posters on the walls: "They're all so good looking, it makes me giddy." Having travelled to Tokyo on an overnight bus with her 16-year-old daughter, she'll get on the overnight bus home after going to an event held by her daughter's favorite pop group.

A 49-year-old part-time worker from Yamanashi Prefecture is waiting to be seated where the trio SG Wannabe once sat. "Once I get to the seat, I touch the wall around it, wondering whether they touched it, too." Her husband suffered a brain hemorrhage eight years ago and uses a wheelchair. She says she first heard SG Wannabe's songs when she was "just being a good homemaker," and was hooked. For the first time in her life, she became a groupie. "I like them because they tell us they love us from the stage," she says. According to her, her husband waits for her at home, taking care of their dogs, and is happy to see her get so excited. "It makes him happy when I come back from a concert and tell him with a smile on my face that my eyes met so-and-so's. It's not like I'm actually going out with someone else," she adds. "Korean pop culture is something I live for now."

What feeds this Japanese fever for things Korean is the abundance of Korean television shows. This year, major Japanese broadcasting network Fuji Television began regular broadcasting of Korean dramas on a timeslot they named Hanryu (alpha). The series "Karei Naru Isan" (Brilliant Legacy), which aired in March, recorded a viewer rating of 9.7 percent. Meanwhile,
TBS, another major broadcaster, has been showing "IRIS" starring Lee Byung-hun since April, marking the first time that TBS has shown a Korean drama series during prime time.

The Internet, too, has helped foster this craze. A 28-year-old TVXQ fan from Chiba Prefecture says that she and three people she met on the Japanese social networking service Mixi have met up in person through their shared interest in the pop band. I see preparations for the June opening of a Korean food stall market progressing in an alley north of Shokuan-dori. Okubo is becoming increasingly loud and dazzling. A difference between Okubo and Tokyo Disneyland, however, is the fact that real people have long lived in Okubo and continue to do so.

Friendships have been forged between Japanese and Korean children living in the area, but there is also some clashing of cultures, including such lifestyle differences as the way trash is set out by residents for pick-up. Thirty-seven percent, or 8,424 (as of Jan. 1, 2010), of Okubo district residents are foreign nationals. Many of the Korean population in the area are relative newcomers who arrived in Japan in the '80s or later. A local branch of a committee comprised of such newcomer Koreans meets once a month to clean up the area. "The rule is: when in Rome, do as the Romans do," says leader of the organization Pak Chae-se.

A Japanese man in his 70s says, "There are a growing number of elderly people here, and if a massive earthquake were to hit, it may be a young Korean who comes to rescue you." Back in front of Shin-Okubo Station, around lunch time and in the afternoon, 38-year-old Kim Chong-son distributes copies of a self-made map of Korean eateries in the area to passersby. In April, Kim distributed his first issue -- 12,000 free maps supported by ad revenue -- with the expectation of an Okubo boom. He made 20,000 copies of the second issue in May, which featured a total of some 150 establishments, including restaurants and gift shops.

I see women walking the streets here as they snack on hotteok, a pancake-like snack sold by street vendors. It is a sight reminiscent of girls eating crepes on the streets of Tokyo's Harajuku district. Later in the afternoon, 13 people are in line in front of a Korean barbecue restaurant. Pork belly barbecue is very popular here right now. However, I run into a Korean man in his 50s who is not satisfied with the recent trend. "(Getting to know a culture) through photos of Korean stars and eating Korean food is superficial," he says. "Okubo should become a place where people can appreciate traditional Korean culture, too."

Challenges still lie ahead, but it will continue to grow, and people will continue to gather here, hoping to touch another culture.

By Tetsu Miyata, Evening Edition Staff Writer


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