Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

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Popular South Korean actor Jang Keun-suk made an appeal to all Japanese in a TV broadcast in Japan in January.

“We will be waiting (for you) in Pyeongchang,” Jang said in fluent Japanese. “Please come.”

Nicknamed “Gun-chan,” Jang is highly popular in Japan. He became in December 2017 an honorary ambassador of the Pyeongchang Olympics, which will start Feb. 9.

For Japanese, the Winter Games is the first chance to take a closer look at South Korea through a major sporting event since the two countries co-hosted soccer's 2002 FIFA World Cup.

In Pyeongchang, local residents are hoping that Japanese fans of "hanryu" (South Korean style) come to see the Games.

Sixteen years ago, a poll showed that 54.2 percent of Japanese respondents felt friendship toward South Korea, up 3.9 points compared with the previous year.

The survey, conducted by the Cabinet Office, indicated that the percentage of favorable feelings among Japanese toward its neighbor reached 62.2 percent in 2011 after experiencing several ups and downs.

But it plunged to 39.2 in 2012 when then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the disputed Takeshima islets, known as Dokdo in South Korea, which lie in the Sea of Japan.

After that, the ratio has been wildly varying from 30 to 49 percent. In 2017, only 37.5 percent felt an affinity with the country.

About 3.52 million Japanese people traveled to South Korea in 2012 compared with 2.47 million in 2000, according to the Korea Tourism Organization. The figure started to decline from 2013, totaling 1.84 million in 2015 and 2.3 million in 2016.

Interest in the country soared in Japan for the first time in 2003 when the South Korean TV drama "Fuyu no Sonata'' (Winter Sonata) aired on Japanese TV the following year after the 2002 soccer event. After that, a wide variety of hanryu movies and TV dramas followed in succession.

The Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) TV program “Hangul Koza,” which teaches Korean, aired on a terrestrial channel and became popular, evidenced by an average of 110,000 copies per month of related textbooks sold in 2004, which grew to 220,000 in 2005.

However, the boom withered when the bilateral relationship became strained due to historical issues after Lee set foot on the Takeshima islets.

Sales of textbooks for “Hangul Koza” dipped, according to an official of the publication division of NHK. About 150,000 copies a month were sold in 2017.

Another drop-off is the absence of South Korean groups from the traditional "Kohaku Uta Gassen" (Red and white year-end song festival), the long-running NHK program to ring in the new year.

On Dec. 31, the South Korean female idol group TWICE, consisting of nine members, performed on the nationally televised show. It marked the first time that K-pop singers have appeared since Tohoshinki, KARA and Girls’ Generation in 2011.

TWICE gained tremendous popularity through the Internet, mainly among young women in their teens and 20s. Some of their music videos have been viewed more than 100 million times each.

The TT gesture that members make, which represents a tear-stained face emoticon with both their thumbs and forefingers, as well as their stylish fashions, have drawn much attention, which have led to repeated feature articles in magazines for women.

“Young people have little sense that they are listening to such music because the singers are South Koreans,” said Soichiro Matsutani, a writer who is knowledgeable about K-pop music. “Such singers are simply the symbols of something cool and cute.”

Matsutani believes that the popularity of South Korean culture has been firmly fixed in Japan rather than becoming less popular saying, “K-pop music is now like Western music for the preceding generations.”

However, historical issues cast a long shadow over the relationship. A 24-year-old woman who works for an insurance company in Tokyo is planning to travel to Pyeongchang to see the Olympics with her friends.

The woman became a hanryu fan after she watched "Fuyu no Sonata'' when she was an elementary school fifth-grader. She traveled to South Korea eight times in 2017 alone.

She mentioned the strained political relationship between the two countries saying, “I want to remain only a bystander.”

The big hanryu fan collects information about her favorite actors and singers through social networking services in Korean. However, she never makes posts because, “If I said, ‘I like South Korean culture,’ I would come under attack on the Internet,” she said.

The woman felt shocked during her school days when her boyfriend said, “South Korea is dangerous,” after being influenced by what were obviously false rumors and calumniation about the neighboring country.

She also sometimes feels disgusted when she reads posts written in Korean that criticize Japan over historical issues.

Kim Sungmin, associate professor of media and communication and international regional culture studies at Hokkaido University, spoke about how Japanese view South Korea.

“They focus on their emotions, love or hate, based on the comparison with Japan," he said. "For example, ‘Fuyu no Sonata' features a pure love story that they could not find in Japanese dramas. They can also enjoy seeing the singing and dancing prowess that South Korean stars show off and Japanese performers do not have. They always talk about the country’s culture in contrast with that of Japan.”

He added, “However, those who are teens and in their 20s long for something that is internationally popular, which just happens to be South Korean culture. This is an unprecedented trend. The situation where people view South Korea only through their emotions, love or hate, toward the country may be changing.”

Kim predicts that there will be heated comments and exchanges of criticism over the upcoming Pyeongchang Games, mainly on the Internet.

“Whether it is good or bad, there will be nothing stunning that will be newly discovered about South Korea. Both countries have become the ‘neighbors’ known very well by each other,” Kim concluded.

(This article was written by Toru Nakakoji, senior staff writer, and Jun Takaku.)