Reliving Winter Sonata: memory, nostalgia, and identity.
Article Type:
Critical essay
Television programs (International marketing)
Television programs (Criticism and interpretation)
Television programs (Market share)
Han, Benjamin Min
Pub Date:
Name: Post Script Publisher: Post Script, Inc. Audience: General; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, international Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Post Script, Inc. ISSN: 0277-9897
Date: Summer, 2008 Source Volume: 27 Source Issue: 3
NamedWork: Winter Sonata (Television program); Winter Sonata (Television program); Winter Sonata (Television program) Event Code: 604 Market share; 240 Marketing procedures Advertising Code: 84 Global Marketing Computer Subject: Company market share
Geographic Scope: South Korea Geographic Code: 9SOUT South Korea

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Recently scholars and critics have begun to focus an ever-increasing amount of attention on the South Korean film industry, as media productions from the country gain popularity in countries throughout Asia and around the world. As films such as Oasis ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Lee Chang-dong, 2001), Old Boy ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Park Chan-wook, 2003), and Samaritan Girl ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Kim Ki-duk, 2004) garner great critical success at international film festivals, the rest of the world's perception of Korea has become that of a major producer of entertainment products. In the midst of this explosion in popularity, the term hanryu (Korean Wave) was coined to describe both the influx of films, music, and television, and its effect on local cultures. Despite the diverse cultural and economic dimensions of this phenomenon, scholars have confined their research on the subject to analyses of film texts, marginalizing and ignoring Korean television dramas as low cultural products for mass audience consumption and affirming the predilection for art over commercial media.

It is at this juncture of cultural and commercial production that I will examine the pan-Asian hit Korean TV miniseries (1) Winter Sonata ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Yoon Seok-ho, South Korea 2002). The paper does not attempt to (re)examine the notion of melodrama within the larger framework of soap opera production and reception, but rather, through both textual and industrial analyses, addresses the notions of memory, nostalgia, and identity at both micro- and macro-levels to connect discursive meanings to the popularity of the drama from economic and cultural standpoints. Moreover, through this critical analysis, I will illustrate that the cultural significance of television dramas dictates that they must not be overlooked in the discussion of the Korean Wave.


Hanryu or the Korean Wave cannot be discussed as a recent phenomenon solely associated with the success and popularity of films. The term first emerged in discussions of Korean pop music. (2) The attendant popularity of the Korean television drama What is Love? ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Park Cheol, South Korea 1992) first broadcast in 1997 by Chinese network CCTV, the term entered the East Asian vernacular. According to research conducted by the Korean Broadcasting Institute, What is Love? accrued the highest rating (4.3 percent) among foreign television programs imported to China (Yoon Jae-shik). As a result, Korean popular culture slowly gained prominence in other Asian nations. A 1997 television miniseries entitled Star in My Heart ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Lee Jin-seok, South Korea 1997) secured this position when Ahn Jaewook, the drama's leading man, arguably became the first hanryu star. The second generation of hanryu stars followed as actors such as Jang Dong-gun gained unprecedented popularity in Vietnam through the television series Models ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Lee Kangboon, South Korea 1997) and The Medical Brothers ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Sin Ho-gyoon, South Korea 1997), both broadcast by the Vietnamese broadcasting station Hochimin TV (HTV7).

This high demand for Korean TV dramas was clearly not solely the effect of star appeal, but also the result of several economic factors. An important issue that encouraged countries such as Taiwan to import Korean television was the rising import costs of Japanese dramas, which were tremendously successful in Taiwanese cable channels. Hence, unable to compete against the ever-rising costs, Taiwan and other East Asian countries shifted their attention to Korea, which produced low-cost dramas of exceptional quality, as an alternative to the more expensive Japanese dramas. At this point, hanryu (both the phenomenon and the term) expanded beyond China and encompassed other East Asian countries, including Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. Korea thus became the primary exporter of television programs throughout East Asia and affirmed its popularity and transnational appeal.


In 1997, Korea exported $8.3 million worth of programs. This number has jumped to triple digits as Korea currently exports about $100 million worth of broadcasting programs (Park, 1). Additionally, television dramas have been the main export of broadcasting, accounting for 76.8 percent in 2002, 85.7 percent in 2003, and 91.8 percent of the country's total media exports (57,714) (3) in 2004, which include documentaries, animation, films, games, music, and other miscellaneous products (1). More noteworthy is that Japan is the primary consumer of Korean media as it accounts 57.4 percent of Korea's media exports (2,662), followed by Taiwan and China. (4)

Yoon Seok-ho's four season-themed miniseries--Autumn in my Heart ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], South Korea 2001); Winter Sonata; Summer Scent ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], South Korea 2003); and Spring Waltz ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], South Korea 2006)--have found great acceptance among younger viewers and as a result, have produced young stars such as Won Bin and Song Hye-kyo. Among these four dramas, Winter Sonata has received the most attention worldwide, especially in Japan. (5)


On the surface, Winter Sonata (Fig. 3.1) resembles a typical television drama replete with melodramatic excesses such as love triangles, mistaken identities, unlikely co-incidences, and tragic accidents. While the miniseries employs these familiar elements, it also transcends the limitations associated with these devices through powerful aesthetics and an inscription of memory and nostalgia. While a plethora of newspaper articles have focused on the hysteria that surrounded the drama in Japan, the meanings of memory, nostalgia, and identity must be examined through a critical discourse to understand the program's unprecedented popularity in that particular national context, taking into account Korea and Japan's traditionally strained relationship since 1910.

Nippon Hoso Kyokai's (NHK) decision to broadcast Winter Sonata was a direct result of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) held in Japan in 2002. Before the assembly convened, a fifteen-hour event was held during which time television programs from Asia were introduced. A fifteen-minute segment of Winter Sonata was included in this special program, and raised interest from the director/producer of NHK's satellite station (Lee). NHK acquired the program and broadcast it in 2003 through its satellite service and later rebroadcast it in weekly episodes from April to August 2004 on the NHK terrestrial station at 11:15 p.m. on Saturdays. (6) Unlike the prime-time hours of U.S. television, the eleven o'clock time slot on Saturdays in NHK was designated for high-profile foreign programs such as The West Wing (Aaron Sorkin, USA 1999-2006), ER (7) (Michael Crichton, USA 1994-present), and Ally McBeal (David E. Kelley, USA 1997-2002) (Wiseman, 1). The average rating of television program at this hour for NHK was about 3 percent. When Winter Sonata was broadcast on Saturdays at an unusual time, the first broadcast managed to attract an audience of 9 percent, eventually drawing a rating of 17.6 percent in Tokyo (8) (Fuyuno, 66).

Even more interesting is the miniseries' singular ability to attract female viewers from the ages of 30 to 40; an unusual age group compared to the teens and 20s audience that had, up to that point, traditionally been the audience for Korean dramas. According to a research conducted by Tokyo University, the average viewer's age for Winter Sonata was 47, and its audience was 93 percent female (Park, 1). In a personal email exchange with Park In-taek, the president of Yoon's Color (the production company responsible for Yoon's season-themed miniseries), the author of the present work was informed that the drama's aim was to present the values of purity and innocence. Innocence and purity evidently did not appeal to a younger generation more attracted to dramas that challenge such traditional values. As a result, the miniseries was not a huge success among young viewers. Instead, the themes of the drama appealed more to older audiences who cherish these values in relation to memory and nostalgia. Anno Setsuko, a 56-year-old aficionado of Winter Sonata, describes her love for the drama thus: "My heart swelled with nostalgia, and I realized Korea is similar to Japan" (Fuyuno, 67).

With Japan's modernization, television dramas became important cultural texts to underline societal changes that the country underwent in the 1990s. In the article "The Representation of Femininity in Japanese Television Dramas," Ito Mamoru explains how Japan's modernization, in terms of its rapid growth in consumer-based capitalist economy during the 1980s and 1990s, subverted the normative values of Japanese people (26). The resulting transformations within Japanese society led to the emergence of genre television dramas known as "trendy dramas," which mainly targeted women in their late 20s. Ota Toru, a drama producer at Fuji TV, defines the trendy drama as a "drama that did not deal with serious themes or social issues: a mere package drama, which weighs setting, cast, and music more heavily than the content of the drama" (Toru, 70). Then in the 1990s, post-trendy dramas enjoyed success. A key example was Tokyo Love Story (Kozo Nagayama, Japan 1991). These dramas, which take place in urban settings, grappled with themes of unrequited love and young men and women in search of love. The success of post-trendy dramas increased programs that targeted young men and women.



Winter Sonata was broadcast at a perfect time, appearing, as it did at a moment when older audiences were looking for programs that appealed to them, and grappling, as it did with the nostalgic theme of first love. Yoon Seok-ho's dramas are unique in the sense that the first episode usually takes the viewers to the past and is set in a rural area, which distances from the metropolitan city of Seoul and the glamorous city life. Further, his dramas do not follow the popular formula of a Cinderella story, where a young underprivileged woman meets a rich and handsome "prince." Yoon emphasizes on sentimentality and emotions as he captures beautiful landscapes and an aura that is remote from the city. But what distinguishes Winter Sonata from other Korean television dramas is that it extensively deals with the unending love between Kang Joon-sang (Bae Yongjoon) and Jung Yu-jin (Choi Ji-woo). (Fig. 3.2 and 3.3)

The series begins with Joonsang's search for his biological father. The organizing significance of memory is underlined as he recollects his past. In the first episode, we see Joon-sang examining an old photograph of his mother with a man that viewers cannot identify. This photograph, fragmented by a tear along one side, plays an important role in resurrecting memory just as Roland Barthes has theorized in Camera Lucida. Barthes writes, "The Photograph does not call up the past. The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed" (82). While Joon-sang does not recall either his father's face or any memories with him, the photograph signifies the existence of a father who is absent from him. Thus, the photograph does not symbolize memories shared with his father, but gives hope to Joon-sang that he can find him. Janet Walker refers to this process, used extensively by Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved, as "re-memory." The process involves the subject creating and sustaining a mnemonic image of something (a person, a thing, an event) that is absent, and that the subject himself/herself may not have experienced, at least as it is depicted in this particular type of recollection (18).

While many television dramas employ flashbacks to reveal characters' secrets that generate curiosity or to progress the plot lines, the meaning of memory in Winter

Sonata works as a means to strengthen the love between Joon-sang and Yu-jin. The drama constructs the memories of the characters as audiences simultaneously construct the memories of Joon-sang and Yu-jin growing closer to each other. Each episode contains a construction of the characters' memories and the characters in the later episodes recollect them. For instance, in a scene Yu-jin asks Joon-sang different questions about his favorite color, food, and season. When Joon-sang asks her why she is asking these questions, Yu-jin responds, "I want to remember them." While these fragments of memories are constructed in the series, the viewers are also engaging in deconstructing their own memories--memories of high school years, dislikeable teachers, trips, and most importantly our first love.


After Joon-sang's death in a tragic car accident, the narrative jumps forward ten years. To Yu-jin, now working for an interior design company, memories are no longer constructed but are recollected, as it is she who now possesses narrative agency. Annette Kuhn, in her book Family Secrets, explains the power of memory. "Memory work makes it possible to explore connections between public historical events, structures of feelings, family dramas, relations of class, national identity and gender, and personal memory," she writes (5, emphasis mine). While Yu-jin's remembrance is her own personal memories, they also become the collective memory of viewers as they share the same act of remembering as Yu-jin. In the fourth episode of the series, the recollection of memory is symbolized through a jigsaw puzzle. In this episode, Yu-jin visits Marcian, an architectural company, and as she enters the new director's room, she discovers a completed jigsaw puzzle missing a single piece. When Mr. Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo), an employee at Marcian and a friend of Lee Min-hyeong (played again by Bae), wonders why Lee would be putting the puzzle pieces together, Yu-jin responds, "Maybe he wants to recollect his memory piece by piece."

Yu-jin's first love with Joon-sang is a memory that can never be erased as she constantly recollects the memory of him by looking at his portrait and listening to the cassette that contains Joon-sang's recital of the song "First Time." In this television drama, memory is not solely relegated to images (photographs); auditory cues (sounds) also play a key role in reviving Yu-jin's personal memory. The cassette that Joon-sang has mailed to her as a Christmas gift contains the song "First Time," played on a piano by Joon-sang. The fact that every time she rides the bus and looks at the back seat underlines the importance of her personal memory when they would always ride the bus and sit on the back seat.

In an episode after Joon-sang's unexpected death, a montage captures intimate spaces--the empty basketball court, classroom, and the isolated piano--that bind Joon-sang and Yu-jin within their collective memories. As Kuhn explains, memory is not only composed of images, but also sounds that help to build relationships with the actual events. She further notes that the act of remembering is not a mimetic process, but a mediated process as "the memory never provides access to or represents the past as it was" (158). The title song, "My Memory," underscores these scenes of intimate moments with Joon-sang. The repetition of the lyrics "my memory" underscores the protagonists' memories, but the pronoun "my" also brings into play the memories of each viewer, as well.

The appearance of Min-hyeong's character not only revives Yu-jin's memories but also underlines the effect and meaning of these memories, which further engenders nostalgia. In Japan, Winter Sonata has been characterized with the word natsukashii, which means nostalgia. Franco Ferrarotti notes that memory is important, not only to individuals, but also meaningful to communities as well (30). Kuhn, too, argues that memory plays a significant role in one's national imaginary or what she characterizes as "formative of communities of nationhood" (168).

The personal memories of the characters evoke the audience's shared memories of their first love, which further transcend into the collective memory of Japan. The immense popularity of Winter Sonata in Japan is quite surprising due to the unfriendly relationship between Korea and Japan. Many have attributed the success of the drama to its sentimentality, plot, and stars. In her essay "Why is Winter Sonata a Big Hit in Asia?," Diane Lee typifies its success to the symbolic representations of love, which she defines as "puppy love, first love, possessive love, lost love, parental love and true love" (1). While one cannot ignore such symbolic content, the fact remains that the popularity of Winter Sonata has a strong correlation with the collective memory of Japan.

Koichi Iwabuchi, a scholar of Japanese popular culture, has examined the relationship between Japan's modernity in relation to the consumption of popular culture. He explains that nostalgia has played a prominent role in the perception of Japan's "cultural authenticity and identity" in the face of globalization (195). Nostalgia is not something new in Japan. In National Culture and the New Global System, Frederick Buell describes the importance of nostalgia in Japan and a way of strengthening its nostalgic nationalism as an effect of its exceptional status as kokutai (9) within its history (49).

Nostalgia and memory are elements that often interrelate, as nostalgia is produced through memories that are our remnants. Winter Sonata is popular because it helps to create a nostalgic longing for past Japan and perceive Korea as a nation that is no longer marginalized, but rather one that shares the same transgressive modernity. Additionally, Winter Sonata embodies the traditional values that have slowly disappeared in Japanese dramas. As noted in the research conducted by Iwabuchi with Taiwanese viewers of Korean dramas, the popularity of Korean dramas is their ability to portray "youth love affairs in connection with family matters," a quality that is lacking in Japanese dramas (33). As Harue Gorai, an 82-year-old woman, once said, "Korea still has a lot of good things that Japan has lost" (Fuyuno, 67). Winter Sonata is a drama that is more about the past than the present. The decision for Yu-jin to get engaged and marry Kim Sang-hyuk (Park Yong-ha) does not underscore her undeniable love for him, but rather stems from the long friendship that they have shared since childhood. As a result, her decision is mostly shaped from their past. Furthermore, after Min-hyeong begins to uncover his hidden past, he is most concerned about discovering his true identity--Joon-sang. In other words, he is more concerned about the past than the present. And throughout the series, the depictions of reunion among high school friends again emphasize the value of the past. Yu-jin is unable to escape from her past memories with Joon-sang, which strains her present relationship with Sang-hyuk.

The influx of Western ideals and fast-paced capitalism that is transforming Japan cannot be perceived from an essentialist view in the context of globalization. As Ichiko Fuyuno said, "Many (Japanese) viewers feel that such values as family unity and sacrifice have faded in Japanese society, which has become too complicated and Westernized" (2). It is hard to make a direct correlation between these two factors, but the notion of nostalgia is a lingering idea that continuously haunts Japanese society as a nation at the forefront of modernization and capitalism in Asia. While one can argue that the consumption of Winter Sonata is a sign towards relaxing of tension between the two countries, the act of nostalgia that viewers are engaging in is what theorist Svetlana Boym describes as a resistance against "the modern idea of time, the time of history, and progress" (xv). Iwabuchi also discusses how modernizing Asian countries embody social vigor and optimism for the future that Japan no longer possesses (159).

Nostalgia is no longer Japanese yearning for the pre-modern past Asia, but through the consumption of television dramas, Japan foresees the possibility to recover the energy and vigor that have been lost (Iwabuchi, 192). Nostalgia is not merely a recollection or reminiscence, but requires an active construction of memories--what and how we desire to remember specific events.

Political scientist Kimberly Smith argues that reviving past memories is a way to foresee our apprehension. "Remembering the past should instead be seen as a way to express valid desires and concerns about the present--in particular, about its relationship (or lack of relationship) to the past," she writes (523). On the one hand, Japanese women recollect their cherished memories, but on the other hand, the meaning of nostalgia in the drama is to express the desires and concerns about the present, thus underlining the idea of what Boym terms as "restorative nostalgia"--evoking national past and future (Boym, 39). Moreover, the personal and collective memories become closely associated with Japan's national identity.

Japan, then, can be seen as attempting to (re)construct its identity through the consumption of a television drama that embodies the importance of familial relationships, love, and the imperative that young couples preserve their normative values. As sociologist Dorothy Holland also writes, "Individuals (and groups) are caught in the tensions between past histories that have settled in them and the present discourses and images that attract them or somehow impinge upon them" (56). The significance of nostalgia is not something produced by the text, but an inherent element that has been an integral part of Japan's history.

Memories are crucial in discovering one's identity as evidenced by Min-hyeong's character. In Episode Eleven (notably the halfway mark of the series), Min-hyeong finally discovers that he is Joon-sang when he visits his high school and old house in Chuncheon and finds a picture of his mother. At the end of the episode, he finally reveals to Yu-jin that he is indeed Joon-sang. While all episodes up to this point focus on Yu-jin's personal memories, the personal memories become the collective memories of both characters in the fourteenth episode. After collapsing and being taken to the hospital, Min-hyeong wakes up and is able to recall the intimate moments he shared with Yu-jin. This recollection is portrayed as a montage accompanied by the title song. Now Yu-jin is able to share these memories with Joon-sang.

Just as he has worked to assemble the jigsaw puzzle, Min-hyeong now slowly begins to recover fragments of his memories, thus activating the search for his identity. The drama is not only about the importance and recollection of personal and collective memories, but through his recovery of memories, he is able to discover his lost identity. As I mentioned earlier in this essay, personal memory is linked to collective memory and forms the basis of a collective nationhood, as personal identity is also closely associated with the collective identity. The self-discovery of Min-hyeong and the collective memories shared by the protagonists and the viewers induce us to think of our own identities in our physical, emotional, and social world. Just as the rediscovery of Joon-sang's identity is crucial, the issue of identity is a primary concern for Japan. Oe Kenzaburo explains, "[I] can think of no people or nation as much in need of a clue for self recovery as the Japanese, neither among first nor third world nations: no other people but Japanese, whose culture evinces a strange blending of first and third world cultures; no other people but the Japanese who live the reality" (Roseberry, 212).


The economic impact of Winter Sonata is resounding as it served as a catalyst to the Korean Wave and the increasing awareness of the Korean popular culture. According to the New York Times, the stimulus behind the drama is estimated at the cost of $2.3 million by the Dai-chi Life Institute (Onishi, A3). The DVD sales in Japan are astounding with 40,000 DVD sets sold as of September 2003 ([yen] 30,000 per 20 episode set) (Lim, 1). NHK's publishing division sold an estimated 860,000 copies of the novel (based on the screenplay) in addition to the 280,000 program guidebooks and 150,000 DVDs and videos (Kang). Moreover, the popularity of Winter Sonata and the frequent appearances of the Ford Expedition in the drama increased sales of the vehicle in Japan from 61 in April, to 71 in May, and eventually to 136 by June 2004. According to Chosun Ilbo, one of the widely read newspapers in Korea, the president of Ford Korea even acknowledged receiving a call from Ford Japan and expressing his gratitude in highlighting the white Ford Expedition in Winter Sonata (Kim, 1).

Similarly, Japanese tourism to South Korea also soared by 40 percent in the first ten months of 2004. Japanese tourists have flocked to Korea to visit locations of Winter Sonata. Some of the tourist attraction sites from the drama include Namiseom, Jungdoseom, Gongjicheon, Oedo, Chuncheon, and Yongpyongcheon. Another research conducted by Japanese economists and NHK reveals that Japanese aficionados of Winter Sonata spent an estimated [yen] 160,000 ($1,500) on a single trip. Economists predict that a revenue of $1.2 billion resulted from the effect of the drama by tourism (Kang).

The rising interest in Korean culture is astounding as well. The urge to learn the language has increased as several Japanese television programs now feature segments of Korean language education. Kim In-shil, a South Korean visiting professor at Ochanomizu University, explains that Korea was perceived by Japan as "dark, noisy, smelly" in the past, but now Japanese women associate Korea with "beautiful things" (Onishi, A3). In 2004, the Korean National Tourism Organization launched an initiative campaign on the Korean Wave to attract tourists to Korea. In a survey conducted by the country, the level of contact with the Korean popular culture through television reached 57.4 points, then followed by music and magazines. Television ranked the highest with 85 points as the most preferred Korean popular culture. In the same year, the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute also conducted a survey with 2,200 Japanese people and 1,289 people responded (38 percent) that they watched Winter Sonata and acknowledged that the drama raised their interest in the Korean culture. More interestingly, 26 percent of the respondents said their image of Korea has changed (Choi, 1). In the Japanese media, Winter Sonata was praised and compared to one of the most popular Japanese dramas, Oshin (10) (Eguchi Hirayuki et. al., Japan 1983-84). Furthermore, when Yoon Seok-ho attended a seminar organized in Japan in 2004, Yoshihiro Mori, a former member of a political party, argued that Korea and Japan's history exists before and after Winter Sonata. While both the economic and cultural impacts affirm the popularity of the drama in Japan, one of the greatest phenomena created by the drama is the Yonsama phenomenon.


While the economic and cultural impacts are resounding, one of the surprising effects of the drama is the popularity of Bae Yong-jun (Fig. 3.4), known as the Yonsama phenomenon. (11) The mega-popularity of the actor is more interesting to examine as one newspaper article reported that 7,000 women gathered at Tokyo's Narita airport to catch a glimpse of Bae's arrival. Even former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi affirmed the actor's popularity during the recent elections when he said, "I will make great efforts so that I will be as popular as Yonsama and be called 'Junsama'" (Onishi, A3). Winter Sonata marked a turning point in Bae's acting career. He made his debut on the KBS (Korean Broadcasting Station) drama Salut d'amour ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Jeon Ki-sang, South Korea 1994-95). He did not catapult to stardom until his breakout performance in A Place in the Sun ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Jeon San, South Korea 1995), in which he played a gentle character. In the middle of the drama, he changed his looks with a new fashion--plastic-framed glasses and a new hairstyle--that appealed to audiences and helped him rise to stardom.

Following the success of A Place in the Sun, Bae played a similar character in Papa ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Jeon Ki-sang, South Korea 1996). In his next project, the weekend KBS drama First Love ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Lee Eung-jin, South Korea 1996-97), he changed his image from a gentle character to a tougher and stronger male character that displayed more of his masculine side, even going so far as to remove the glasses that had become his trademark. The drama was an enormous success not only because of Bae's new image but also the presence of an all-star cast, which included Choi Soo-jong and Lee Seong-yeon. While this drama became one of the most popular dramas in Korea, accruing a one-time audience draw of 65.8 percent, which is an all-time record for a Korean television drama, Bae's new experiment did not produce satisfying results as his character was outshined by Choi Soo-jong's character.

He later attempted to play similar characters with an anticipated drama entitled Barefoot Youth ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Kim Yong-kyu, South Korea 1998), co-starring Ko So-yong, but failed to attract the high ratings characteristic of his earlier works. Nevertheless, the failure of this drama cannot be solely attributed to Bae's new persona--its narrative is also remarkably weak in comparison to the other more tightly constructed dramas. In contrast to the popularity he experienced with A Place in the Sun, Bae slowly lost audiences' attention, a fate typically faced by Korean television stars. In subsequent years, he chose to play similar roles that matched his previous persona, starring in the MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Company) dramas Did We Really Love? [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Park Jong, South Korea 1999) and Hotelier ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Jang Yong-woo, South Korea 2001). However, these dramas also remained caught in ratings purgatory. After experiencing this downturn in popularity, Bae was offered a role in the second installment of the popular season-themed miniseries, Winter Sonata. Under the guidance of director Yoon, he changed his hairstyle and reclaimed both the plastic-framed glasses and his old persona of a gentle, soft, caring, and feminine male. This transformation did not disappoint Bae as it helped him revive his career.

In contrast to other Korean stars that appear on various talk shows to promote their new dramas and films, Bae strictly limited his public appearances, shying away from guest spots on other television programs and accepting few public interviews. He even declined to appear on "Red and White," a year-ending Japanese variety show that features top stars. Bae's decision to avoid appearing on talk shows, and his reluctance to disclose information about his private life have both attracted a great deal of criticism from the media. Despite his minimal appearances in the media, he has been able to maintain the star status.

Nevertheless, the popularity of Bae Yong-joon cannot be solely attributed to a single text. The evolution of the Yonsama phenomenon is the culmination of both Joon-sang and Min-hyeong's characters' nostalgic traits that Japanese women no longer experience with their men. In the first part of the series, Joon-sang exerts mysterious qualities and conveys his dark side. On the surface, he displays toughness, cockiness, and insensitivity, but as he grows closer to Yu-jin, his sensitive and caring qualities become more apparent. In contrast to Joon-sang, Min-hyeong is an extrovert who is bright, active, and expressive. The Yonsama phenomenon is the result of the fusion of both Joon-sang and Min-hyeong's characters. Since the characters are not a part of the real world, it is merely a utopian construction. But the popularity of the two characters luckily transferred to the physical actor Bae Yong-joon, whom women believe embodies the best qualities of both Joon-sang and Min-hyeong. Further, the inaccessibility of audiences to see Bae outside of the television screen, excluding his few public interviews, has helped him maintain this persona. These promotion and publicity strategies are key attributes in the construction of Bae's star image, and thus further gloss over any tensions or disparities that might potentially arise between his real identity and his star persona (Dyer, 61-62).

Many Japanese women described Yonsama as a man possessing qualities such as sincerity, purity, and passion. Iwabuchi, through his interviews with Japanese women about the popularity of Hong Kong stars, attributed their appeal to their aura and friendliness. He further explained, "Japanese idols look too causal to be identified as stars and they are not friendly, as Japanese agents are very fussy about protecting their commodities from direct contact with anonymous fans" (190). Bae Yong-joon is not a single nostalgic character but becomes a metaphor of the collective identity of Korean men. Yoshiko Takeuchi, a 50-year-old fan, said, "Bae is an old-fashioned gentleman: cultured, well read and kind--nothing like the shallow pretty boys who seem to dominate Japanese pop culture" (Wiseman, 1).

More importantly, the personified image of Bae on the television screen evokes memories that intersect with discourses surrounding the past and the present. The Japanese predilection for masculinity exerted by Bae signifies not so much their longing for the past, but their desire for a different type of masculinity. Since the popularity of Winter Sonata, Japan has produced programs that incorporate the values absent in their families. As one newspaper article reported, "Many of the women who really follow him do so because there are things they want from their husbands that they don't get" (Lies, 1).


While many newspaper articles have underlined the popularity of Winter Sonata and the rise of Yonsama phenomenon in Japan, I would like to assert that Winter Sonata embodies elements of memory, nostalgia, and identity, qualities that invited viewers to recollect and reclaim a Japanese identity that has been fading in the midst of globalization. Thus, the television text acts as a kind of jigsaw puzzle for Japanese women, who, through their consumption of the text, enact a construction of nostalgia, memory, and identity that engenders favorable sentiments towards Korea, and reaffirms a specific Japanese identity through its recovery of the past. The text serves as a catalyst to this process. So the popularity is not so much about its narrative and aesthetics, but rather, the drama affirms the importance of nostalgia in the age of globalization. It is not about Japanese people's affinity with the Korean popular culture--even though the drama sparked an increased interest in Korea--but through closer interactions with Korea, Japan is reasserting its status in East Asia. "Nostalgic recollection gives us the opportunity to observe and juxtapose past and present identity," writes Wilson (35). Through this nostalgic recollection, Japanese people seek what they miss and desire, thus shaping the construction of a national identity.

Winter Sonata has received global attention as KBS Media reports that the show has been sold to fourteen countries, including Egypt, Ghana, and Uzbekistan. Additionally, Winter Sonata has been produced into a musical and will showcase at major cities in Japan until 2010, including the Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido. Many have argued that Winter Sonata has eased the relationship between Japan and Korea, but to attribute a single media text in easing a historical relationship undermines the historicity of South Korea. History can be revised, rewritten, and reconstructed, but it can never be erased from a nation's identity as it is inherently part of memory that is passed down from one generation to another.

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(1) Korean miniseries generally run from 16-24 episodes. In this essay, I use the term miniseries and drama interchangeably.

(2) The term hanryu originated in 1997 after the popularity of H.O.T (Boy Band) and the successful launch of Clon's (Korean dance duo) concert in Taiwan.

(3) Numbers in parenthesis () represent thousands.

(4) These data were obtained from the Korean Broadcasters Association (

(5) The popularity of Winter Sonata in Japan has received worldwide media attention, including the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the New York Times.

(6) Winter Sonata was broadcast four times in Japan

(7) ER drew a 5 percent viewership in Japan.

(8) In Japan, an audience share of 15 percent is considered a hit.

(9) Kokutai, loosely translated, means Japan's exceptional identity.

(10) Oshin embodied nostalgic values of traditional Japanese women.

(11) Yon refers to Bae Yong-jun's middle name, and sama, a nickname, implies great respect and often refers to royalty in Japan.
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