Yon-sama. Say it with me. Yon-SAMA. If you're a 40something Japanese
woman, your hands may glide down to your nether regions
while you say it. It's okay to explore your body. Especially if you're doing it while thinking of Yon-sama.
(Say, sport, what exactly is a yon-sama?
Oh, what's a Yon-sama? Philistine
! You mean "WHO is Yon-sama?" Yon-sama is, oh my god, the biggest thing to hit Japan since Space Invaders
. I'm totally not exaggerating. The Japanese press even voted "Yon-sama" as the
"word" of 2004, beating out "Iraq", "Brad Pittuh" and even "Those fucking Chinese submarines!"
(So could you see your way to telling me?
Right. Yon-sama is the Japanese nickname for a Korean actor named Bae Young-Jun
who appeared in a rather cheese Korean romantic mini series called Winter Sonata
. Young-Jun is a rather average Korean actor, not particularly handsome, sporting what might strike some as a Koreanized mullet
. Don't get me wrong. He's no Billy Ray Cyrus
with epicanthic folds
. There's nothing outright offensive about him. I suppose you might say he has a sincere
look. But something about Winter Sonata
, when it aired in Japan, just caused the Japanese, primarily women in their 40s, to go crazy for Yon-sama and, by extension, all things Korean. Why is a bit of a mystery that will keep armchair sociologist
s busy for years.
The most likely explanation is Winter Sonata
struck a generational chord. It goes a little like this, ya'all:
There was a long standing bilateral
ban on the import of movies, TV shows, and music. Koreans kept out Japanese media products. The Japanese kept out Korean media products. Korea
eventually signed a free trade
pact and these media bans were repealed. Winter Sonata
was one of the first Korean products to get wide distribution in Japan.
The Japanese, of course, are raised to believe their culture is unique in the world. No one is capable of understanding them. And no one else in the world is like them. Then suddenly they get an influx of Korean media. The Japanese were aware of Korea in the way someone from Kentucky
is vaguely aware of Canada
. With a little prompting they could find it on a map. The Japanese sort of had a view of Koreans like Americans have of Canadians. Japanese had a long standing view that Koreans, like Canadians, were a nice enough people, "cousins" one might even dare, but kind of backwards and, from all accounts, had very hairy asses. More than one Japanese business man who had dealings with their neighbors to the north-ish west would report that Koreans even flung poo
But now, before their very eyes, Koreans were shown to be these modern people, very much like them. They looked like them. They ate food just like them. They had similar geography, culture, and traditions. They bowed. They didn't fling poo. Again, it's like our fellow from Kentucky who goes North, who only understands foreign countries as being VERY foreign places like Mexico
where mammals lay eggs or nurse their young in pouches, only to find that there's this huge nation a day's drive away full of people just like Americans. And not like any Americans. They all sound, for the most part, like Americans on TV. They even have Burger King
and more of them can recognize a picture of the Vice President than the people who voted for the ticket.
The Japanese couldn't get enough. They were transfixed. It was like watching a monkey roller skate, smoke, and play a deft hand of canasta
And they also noticed something else about the deep and highly unexpected similarities. Korea was not similar to Japan of the current decade. Korea seemed to be Japan 1984-1996. No subculture
s. No children sass
talking their grandmother. It was Japan the beautiful, the loyal, the family oriented, the hard working, the monoculture
ascending to its rightful place in the economic scheme of things. That Japan. The 40something Japanese generation, who had known these better times, were hit by a wave of nostalgia. Everything they lost was present in Korea today.
In the middle of it all was han
-mullet Bae Young-Jun. Of course if you want to fit into Japanese society you can't have a name like Young-Jun or Henry. Young became Yon and because he was, like, dreamy, he got the name "sama
" tacked on for good measure. We all know "san
" as being an honorific from watching The Last Samurai
or even a repeat of the Shogun
miniseries on the Life channel
. Sama is one step above. One big step. Adding that puppy to the end of a name implies god-like abilities. And what was Yon-sama's super power? I'm glad you asked. Yon-sama knows 80 different ways to tie a scarf
Here in lies another ultimate super fresh funky appeal of Yon-sama. Every scene in which Yon-sama appeared, he wore a different scarf and he always had a new and intricate way of tying it. Web pages were devoted to the art of tying a scarf the Yon-sama way. He also had a pair of ever present spectacles from which he shot his love interest, a Korean actress of zero importance who shall not be mentioned again within the context of this write up, very sincere
looks. Very sincere
. Spine tingling sincere
looks. Oh my.
There in was another appeal of Yon-sama. He was dreamy
, or so I'm given to understand. He was sincere
. He was romantic
. He wore spectacles and knew how to tie a scarf. And he also seemed to pay his girlfriend some moderate degree of attention. Sincere
attention. Forty something Japanese women ate this stuff up like armies of single 40something North American women on the verge of becoming cat ladies consume Sara Lee pound cake
and Harlequin romance novel
s. Now in Japan it's harder to find a single 40something women than an entirely normal male Western ESL
teacher. In Japanese culture a 40something married woman has a better chance of being killed by a meteor than getting a kind, romantic, and sincere
comment or look from her husband. Cause he's working or drinking with the boss. And when he comes home at 2 am he's too tired for sincerity or scarf tying appreciation. The best thing a 40something Japanese man can do for his wife is die of over work on the subway and not in the arms of an attendant at a soapland
Yon-sama was what these woman had lost to Japan Inc.
, reborn in the body of a Korean man with a quasi mullet. Since you can believe everything shown on TV and since there was one sincere man only a hop, skip, and a jump across the Sea of Japan
YOU FUCKER), there must be legions of such Korean men there. Japanese women started to take Korean lessons. They started to listen to Korean ballad
singers. They started buying plane tickets to Seoul
and booking every last hotel room in Seoul and getting on bus tours to see where Yon-sama eats and what subway stairs Yon-sama spits his morning phlegm
upon and which walls Yon-sama pisses against at 4 am when he staggers out of a hof
Koreans began to notice Japan was taking an interest. Koreans, who know something about mania, were delighted Japan was taking an interest. The media gave it a term. It was the 'Korean Wave". It had a measurable effect on the economy and the value of the won
. Further, Yon-sama single handedly repaired a hundred years of bad blood
and hatred between Korea and Japan. The Japanese actually didn't hate Korea, as I established above. But Koreans HATED Japan, in the same way that Canadians HATE Americans. If you asked a Japanese what Japan had ever done to Korea, your average Japanese would scratch his head and then comment something about Japan teaching Koreans about indoor plumbing
. He might be slightly miffed Korea has never formally thanked the Japanese for all their hard work on the peninsula
but noblesse oblige
and all that requires a stiff upper lip.
Of course ask a Korean and he'll haul out pictures of an uncle who was tortured to death because he published a Korean-language newspaper during the Japanese colonial period. He'll pull out pictures of aunts who were turned into sex slaves for the Japanese army, the so-called comfort women
. He'll point to vacant lots where palaces stood for centuries until the Japanese burnt them to the ground. He'll list dozens of family members who were kidnapped and taken to Japan. He'll complain about Japanese kimchi
. He'll bitterly complain that Japan has never formally apologized for the myriad of atrocities it committed on the peninsula in decades past and the Japanese are, to the last, a vile people, hated only slightly less than the set of Americans which does not include Michael Jackson
or anyone who could help them establish residency in New York.
But Yon-sama revealed that the Koreans are a nation of Sally Field
s. "You mean you like me? You really, really like me?" The attention from Japan has become addicting. Decades and even centuries of bitter, mostly unidirectional hatred have vanished. All because of Yon-sama and the power of a sincere