Photo/IllutrationMany Japanese sightseers visit this tourism spot in Gangneung, South Korea, where a Korean TV drama was set. (Nobuhiro Shirai)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

SEOUL--Diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Seoul may not be at their rosiest, but continued interest in K-pop and the culture of South Korea is drawing record numbers of young Japanese to the country, particularly women.

A survey by the Korea Tourism Organization showed that 375,000 people visited South Korea from Japan in March this year--the highest monthly figure since diplomatic relations were normalized in 1965--even with bilateral ties at their worst owing to the issue of wartime laborers.

Despite the political barriers, young women who learn about South Korean fashion and food culture through social media are promoting cultural exchanges.

On June 1, Aina Ishikawa, 23, and Sayuri Kijima, 23, both from Koshi, Kumamoto Prefecture, were seen with their luggage weaving through a crowd of sightseers in Seoul’s Myeong-dong toward their hotel.

Whenever they lost their way, the pair asked passers-by for help with directions while using a smartphone map app and with the help of gestures.

They said it was their third visit to South Korea and that everyone has been kind. While they are aware of the political issues between Tokyo and Seoul, Ishikawa and Kijima also said it doesn't bother them.

The purpose of their three-day, two-night trip was “buying clothing and cosmetics.” The pair said they decided which shops to visit by checking their Instagram accounts.

Twenty-year-old Kako Amano, who was also visiting Myeong-dong, stood in line in front of a cafe famous for its brown sugar milk tea with tapioca balls. She said she came here with her parents from Aichi Prefecture on a two-day, one-night trip.

"My impression of South Korea is that there are many delicious photo-friendly foods to be posted on Instagram and lovely clothes that even students can buy with pocket money," Amano said.

According to the Korea Tourism Organization, many of the recent visitors from Japan are such women in their teens and 20s. In contrast, when the previous monthly record of 360,700 was set in March 2012, most of the visitors were women middle-aged or older.

"Young Japanese who are not affected by political affairs but are excited about the new Korean boom are flocking to South Korea despite soured ties between Seoul and Tokyo," said Han Sun-sku, head of the organization's Japan team.

The new wave refers to the third round of a Korea boom among Japanese that is said to have started two years ago, buoyed by the popularity of K-pop groups such as Twice, which performed on the renowned NHK Kohaku Uta Gassen concert, and globally popular BTS, which has had a No. 1 hit on the U.S. Billboard chart.

Aya Narukawa, who studies at Dongguk University graduate school in South Korea and is knowledgeable about TV celebrities in the country, explained why diplomatic tensions do not tend to have a significant impact on such young people.

“As most of those in their teens to 20s who are fueling the third Korean boom obtain information they like through social media and YouTube, they are hardly affected by political affairs,” Narukawa said. “People who can enjoy traveling to the neighboring country despite political tensions have emerged in Japan.”

Meanwhile, the number of visitors from South Korea to Japan started surging several years ago, with the figure hitting a record-high 7.5 million last year. More flights are currently available linking South Korea with not only Tokyo and Osaka, but also local areas notable for hot springs and abundant nature.

There are so many repeat visitors to Japan that it is said in South Korea that "all South Koreans who travel once to Japan will surely visit again."

"Most South Koreans have long felt dissatisfied with the Japanese government over issues related to history, yet the good impression of Japanese culture and individual people does not constitute a contradiction,” said a South Korean scholar well-versed in Tokyo-Seoul relationships.

However, it remains unclear whether such active exchanges will continue as before, as tensions have been increasing between the two countries, especially after several rulings in Korean courts on compensation to wartime laborers.

South Korean plaintiffs are asking courts to sell assets seized from Japanese firms operating in South Korea, and the Japanese side has told Seoul that Tokyo “cannot help but take countermeasures if damage is caused to Japanese companies."

“If the Japanese government reviews its visa-free tourism program for South Koreans, Seoul would surely take a similar step, dealing a heavy blow to private exchanges,” said a former senior South Korean governmental official.