K-pop and kimchi: Tokyo's 'Little Seoul' shrugs off Japan-South Korea spat

The Shin-Okubo district in Tokyo, known as "Little Seoul", lined with small shops selling Korean food and pop-culture items.
The Shin-Okubo district in Tokyo, known as "Little Seoul", lined with small shops selling Korean food and pop-culture items. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - In the "Little Seoul" area of Tokyo, Japanese shoppers flock to get their fix of K-pop and Korean face cream, seemingly shrugging off a deep freeze in Japan-South Korean ties.

Visitors to Shin-Okubo could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a district in Seoul, with rows of restaurants serving kimchi and music shops selling the latest K-pop hits from BTS and Wanna One.

And in contrast to South Korea where anger over a deterioration in bilateral ties has sparked consumer boycotts of Japanese goods, it seems it takes more than a political spat to put off avid fans of Korean products.

"I love everything, K-pop, the food, the clothes. I would also like the two countries to make up," said Ms Anna Kaneko, a 19-year-old student making one of her regular trips to Shin-Okubo with a friend.

The latest row is deeply rooted in the bloody history between the two countries, particularly Tokyo's occupation of the Korean peninsula as a colonial ruler, during which hundreds of thousands were forced to go to Japan as labour and women were forced into brothels as wartime sex slaves.

Koreans remaining in Japan after Tokyo's defeat in World War II suffered discrimination and hardship, and several exist to this day in a grey zone in terms of citizenship.

The diplomatic friction has culminated in tit-for-tat trade restrictions and the scrapping of a military information-sharing pact between the two - alarming the United States which has security treaties with both.

Mr Bae Cheo-leun, who runs an organisation bringing together South Koreans in Japan, admitted that a few years ago, "hate speech" against Koreans could be heard in the streets around Shin-Okubo, but this has not been the case during the most recent row.

 
 
 
 

"There was a law brought in to prevent it, which has proved effective, even though there is no real punishment," Mr Bae told AFP.

"The young Japanese K-pop fans who come to this district have a deep love for South Korean culture," added Mr Bae, who accuses politicians on both sides of whipping up "nationalist sentiment".

Ms Kim Heun-hee, a Korean teacher who also runs a cultural cafe in Shin-Okubo, pointed to a difference in attitude between South Koreans living in Japan and those based in their homeland.

"The feeling in South Korea is very severe against Japan now, so some people think it must be dangerous for South Koreans to be in Japan," said Ms Kim.

"On the other hand, Japanese people in Shin-Okubo don't want to talk about South Korea so much. Japanese people don't have much interest in politics but many people also seem to be reluctant to respond heatedly to the political difficulties."

Many South Koreans have taken up a "No Japan" campaign to boycott Japanese products, ranging from beer, clothes and cosmetics to cigarettes, but there has been little apparent retaliation from consumers in the other direction.

South Korean culture has spread globally in recent years, led by the huge success of K-pop stars such as Psy - whose 2012 hit Gangnam Style became the first video to top one billion views on YouTube - and BTS, which finally topped charts in the US and Britain earlier this year.

A particular craze among young Japanese women is for Korean cosmetics such as exfoliating creams, anti-acne masks or stick-on false nails.

But while there seems to be little public anger in Japan at South Korea, there is also scant expectation that the situation will improve any time soon.

South Korean journalist Park Jin-hwan said: "Tensions including historical issues and economic issues between the two countries will remain for a long time. I think Japan and South Korea are now entering a period like the Cold War."

So long as both sides have contrasting interpretations of the 1965 peace treaty that normalised diplomatic relations between the pair, political tensions will endure, added Mr Park.

 
 

Mr Bae said ties between Seoul and Tokyo were "the worst since World War II" but sees hope for the future on the streets of Shin-Okubo.

"Today, I got off at Shin-Okubo station and I saw the town so busy with young people enjoying South Korean food and culture. These young people accept good as well as bad things about South Korea," he said.

"I have high hopes that people like them will respect culture no matter how sour the political situation gets."