Male Celebrities Just Latest Twist in Asia-Wide Craze
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 31, 2006; Page A01
TOKYO — Thin and gorgeous in a slinky black dress, Mikimoto pearls and a low-slung diamond Tiffany pendant, 26-year-old Kazumi Yoshimura already has looks, cash and accessories. There’s only one more thing this single Japanese woman says she needs to find eternal bliss — a Korean man.
She may just have to take a number and get in line. In recent years, the wild success of male celebrities from South Korea — sensitive men but totally ripped — has redefined what Asian women want, from Bangkok to Beijing, from Taipei to Tokyo. Gone are the martial arts movie heroes and the stereotypical macho men of mainstream Asian television. Today, South Korea’s trend-setting screen stars and singers dictate everything from what hair gels people use in Vietnam to what jeans are bought in China.
Yet for thousands of smitten Japanese women like Yoshimura, collecting the odd poster or DVD is no longer enough. They’ve set their sights far higher — settling for nothing less than a real Seoulmate.
The lovelorn Yoshimura signed up last year with Rakuen Korea, a Japanese-Korean matchmaking service, to find her own Korean bachelor. And she is hardly alone. More than 6,400 female clients have signed up with the company, which says its popularity has skyrocketed since 2004, when "Winter Sonata" became the first of many hot Korean television dramas to hit Japan. Even in Shinjuku ni-chome, Tokyo’s biggest gay district, niche bars with names such as Seoul Man have sprouted like sprigs of ginseng in a Pusan autumn.
"South Koreans are so sweet and romantic — not at all like Japanese guys, who never say ‘I love you,’ " Yoshimura said as she waited for her blind date, a single Korean man, in the 50th-floor bar of a chic Tokyo skyscraper. A telephone operator who lives with her parents in Hiroshima, she has spent thousands of dollars on her quest for a Korean husband, flying to Seoul 10 times in the past two years and bullet-training to Tokyo for seven blind dates with Korean men.
So far, though, she hasn’t found the one she’s looking for.
"Maybe I’m living in a fantasy world," she said, pouting her blood-red lips. "Maybe I’m looking for the TV stars I can’t really have. But we are all allowed a dream, aren’t we?"
In part, the new allure of Korean men can be traced to a larger phenomenon known as the "Korean Wave," a term coined a few years ago by Beijing journalists startled by the growing popularity of South Koreans and South Korean goods in China. Now, the craze for all things Korean has spread across Asia, driving regional sales of everything from cars to kimchi.
Meanwhile, the number of foreign tourists traveling to South Korea leapt from 2.8 million in 2003 to 3.7 million in 2004. The bulk of the growth, South Korean tourism officials say, stemmed from Korean Wave-loving Asian women. Partial statistics for 2005 indicate the feminine tide has not yet let up.
For the South Koreans — who have long suffered discrimination in Japan and who have hardly been known as sex symbols — it all comes as something of a shock.
Korean male celebrities are now among the highest-paid actors outside Hollywood. According to the South Korean media, "Winter Sonata" star Bae Yong Jun — whose character stood by his first love through 10 years of car accidents and amnesia — is now charging $5 million a film, the steepest price anywhere in Asia. In a few short years, Bae is said to have accumulated a merchandising and acting-fee empire worth an estimated $100 million. At least nine other Korean male stars earn more than $10 million a year, according to a list published in June by the Seoul-based Sports Hankook newspaper.
In Seoul, the neon-lit streets are mobbed these days by visiting Asian women, many sporting rhinestone-studded T-shirts emblazoned with images of their favorite Korean stars. Some fans have been known to stake out famous eateries for hours in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their celluloid beaus.
"It’s still a little hard to believe that it’s gone this far," said tall, tanned Jang Dong Gun, now one of the highest-paid actors in Asia, during an interview in Seoul.
Jang said he was shocked when, during his first trip to Vietnam in 1998 to promote his new Korean TV drama, thousands of women mobbed his plane at the Hanoi airport and an armada of female fans on motor scooters chased his car all the way to his hotel.
In 2001, the Seoul-based manufacturer Daewoo Electronics hired him as its Vietnam spokesman. Over the past five years, the company said, its refrigerators’ market share in Vietnam went from a blip to a robust 34 percent.
"If we can give them a little more joy in their life and show them another side of Korea, than I can only see that as a plus for us and them," he said.
In China, South Korean programs broadcast on government TV networks now account for more than all other foreign programs combined, including those from the United States and Japan, according to South Korean government statistics. Even in Mexico — land of the telenovela — a flock of local women stood outside South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun’s hotel during a recent visit, holding placards with Korean stars’ names. In the United States, the Seoul-based singer Rain played two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden in 2005. Also last year, sinewy Daniel Dae Kim, the Korean-born actor from the hit show "Lost," was the only Asian to land a spot in People magazine’s "Sexiest Men Alive" edition.
Entertainment industry leaders in Seoul credit the phenomenon to good marketing coupled with an uncanny response throughout Asia to the expressive nature of the South Koreans — long dubbed the Italians of Asia. A hearty diet and two years of forced military duty, industry leaders and fans insist, have also made young South Korean men among the buffest in Asia. Most important, however, has been the South Korean entertainment industry’s perfection of the strong, silent type on screen — typically rich, kind men with coincidentally striking looks and a tendency to shower women with unconditional love.
"It’s a type of character that doesn’t exist much in Asian movies and television, and now it’s what Asian women think Korean men are like," said Kim Ok Hyun, director of Star M, a major star management company in Seoul.
"But to tell you the truth," she said. "I still haven’t met a real one who fits that description."
Though the Korean Wave hit Japan relatively late, washing ashore only within the past 24 to 36 months, the country has quickly become the largest market for Korean stars. Bae remains the biggest, but his supremacy is being challenged. Actor Kwon Sang Woo, for instance, is charging $200 for some seats at an upcoming "fan meeting" in Tokyo. Thousands of Japanese are scrambling for a chance to watch him play games with fans, chat and perform little song-and-dance numbers. Some tickets are going for as much as $500 on online auction sites.
Almost all the major Korean male stars have opened lucrative "official stores" in Tokyo. In the three-story boutique of Ryu Siwon, a baby-faced Korean actor-crooner who sings in phonetic Japanese for the local market, the top floor boasts a recreation of his living room, complete with a life-size, high-tech plastic model of Ryu lounging casually on a white leather sofa. It has become a meeting place of sorts for his Japanese fans, where a gaggle of women ages 17 to 61 sat and stared longingly at his statue on a recent afternoon.
Some call it a fad. But Yoshimura — whose latest blind date turned out to be a slightly paunchy Korean computer programmer — says she is nevertheless digging in her extraordinarily high heels for the long run.
"I intend to keep looking until I find the right one," she said.