The story of how Ryohei Otani landed a coveted role on Korean national TV could make every model in Japan want to move to Korea. Three years ago, Otani, then 23, came to Seoul for two days to do a doughnut commercial. The first-time model, who managed to smirk somewhat awkwardly while holding a doughnut in front of the camera, caught the eyes ― and hearts ― of even those who didn't like doughnuts. Over the following months, Otani was brought back to Korea for more endorsements. By the time he moved his base to Seoul in 2004, he was already a star in Korea's lucrative advertising industry. Earlier this year, female writers at the MBC TV station also fell for the strikingly handsome model and created a role in a new drama just for him, a "hot guy" for the leading lady.
Choi Sung-eun, director of the Spring agency, which represents the Japanese model-turned-actor, thinks he is every talent agent's dream-come-true. "We didn't have to do anything actually [to promote our actor]", she said raising both arms in the air. "For a Korean actor to get a spot like that, managers have to 'work it' big time ― to entertain directors, production people and the like. He became naturally popular here, and the money keeps rolling in. We feel incredibly lucky to have merchandise that can sell so well, especially when there is a huge hurdle that divides the fashion and entertainment industries".
Less than a decade ago, it might have been unthinkable for foreigners, especially Japanese, to high-jump from the modeling industry and snatch a prime-time segment in mainstream Korean entertainment, but thanks to local fans, Otani was able to join a scarce new breed of young Japanese actors, which includes Sadaharu Shiota, Yukei Mori and Yuko Fueki. They have made names as "Japanese actors based in Korea", in contrast to Japanese actors who are merely cast in Korean films, such as Toru Nakamura, who appeared in two Korean films, "2009 Lost Memories
" (2002) and "Blue Swallow
For the general public nowadays, especially the young generation that has grown amicable toward Japan and its culture, discovering that their favorite celebrities are in fact Japanese is increasingly less shocking.
Already, Korean brands and advertising companies specializing in trendy commercials have become familiar with using international models and, in search of qualified "Korean-looking" faces, local industry professionals have turned to Japan. Kim Kyu-hwan, a leading commercial film director who shot Otani three years ago, has employed a few other Japanese models for Korean automobile and apartment complex commercials.
One of the reasons for using Japanese faces, in place of Korean, is that Korea lacks long-term, professional models. "In Korea, modeling is usually a brief stint as a way of entering the lucrative entertainment industry", Ms. Choi said. "Here, it's hard to find experienced models, especially aged over 35, so a small number of older models overlap their work. We can't hire a guy who sells cheap irons on a TV shopping channel to pose for a luxury apartment complex". On the contrary, she says, in Japan, models work for a more advanced and diversified market, so their faces remain relatively fresh.
Economics also play an important role. As desirable Korean celebrities have gone global and their price tags have skyrocketed accordingly, companies and casting directors have found Japanese models a handy option to replace the sophisticated look in campaigns selling fashion, mobile phones, automobiles and the like. "Overnight, the asking price of a young guy, with no acting experience, can jump 100 times, right after, say, an appearance on a local talk show. It's ridiculous", Ms. Choi explained.
So, if they look "just right" ― fashionably speaking ― Japanese models are brought into the picture, and last year a team of agents formed a new company, Spring, to handle three popular Japanese models, including Otani, who are based in Korea.
Before Spring started, though, most Japanese models, who came to work in Korea, suffered horror stories shared by many foreigners working here. Legally and personally unprotected, many saw no chance of living and working with Koreans, and Fhifan and Otani both lost earnings and trust while with their former agency. Strokes of luck helped launch their careers; as these "natural stars" began garnering a "who-is-THAT?" response from industry professionals and consumers.
When Fhifan, a Japanese-born Korean fashion model, starred in a KTF mobile phone commercial in 2001, his former agent fielded phone calls all day asking who the new face was. Last year's Levi's advertisement, featuring a veteran Japanese model, Yuki Suzuki, was so well-received in Korea that Suzuki moved his base from Hong Kong to Korea, also. Online fan clubs that sprang up for Fhifan and Otani currently list over 2,000 members each, and the Web sites are plastered with enthusiastic postings from young Koreans.
The models' rising popularity in Korea in recent years has caught Japanese media attention as well. In its May issue, the "Nikkei Trendy" magazine wrote a two-page story on young Japanese men, who are virtually unknown in Japan, breaking grounds in the Korean fashion and entertainment industries.
Industry professionals agree that timing is ― at last ― ripe for Japanese nationals to openly work in the Korean entertainment industry, formerly reserved for Koreans only, and to nurture their potentials in the Korean market and beyond.
But, what happens when Korean politicians remind people of how "evil" Japan really is? Rooted resentment against Japan in Korean society has not entirely subsided. Every time the two countries reinstate their former archrival status, models and actors with Japanese passports are the first to be hit, as the public don't want to see Japanese faces in catalogues, magazines or on TV. In that case, Fhifan, who is thoroughly Japanese but is a holder of a Korean passport, can be "excused". When it's forgotten ― if not forgiven ― the young generation welcomes back attractive Japanese stars representing the hip Japanese culture.
Photogenically appealing images aside, in acting onscreen, the toughest obstacle Japanese actors face is mastering the Korean language, whose vowel system is a lot more complex than Japanese. When Yeoubeak Entertainment debuted Yuko Fueki, better known as Yoo Min
in Korea, as a cross-cultural entertainer in 2001, before the fad for Japanese celebrities started, Koreans at first cheered her for being the first Japanese entertainer to speak Korean, but quickly grew impatient with her limited language skills. Roles for Japanese actors are thus limited mostly to playing Japanese characters. Fueki once played a deaf person in a Korean drama.
"Even famous [Korean] stars like Choi Ji-woo
and Han Go-eun
, who pronounce Korean words incorrectly, get nasty attacks from viewers. Viewers switch off and eventually turn away from actors who speak a language they cannot comprehend", Ms. Choi said, adding that she has stressed the importance of mastering Korean to another star, Fhifan. "Because directors prefer to hire Korean actors and teach them Japanese instead".
Of his role in the first episode of Soul Mate
, which rated a moderate 15 percent, Otani says, "My part was to say some cool lines to [the woman his character dated], but the words from my mouth came out weird to the Korean audience. So, the writer and director changed my role to more action- and image-oriented".
Off-screen, Otani can speak fluent Korean after two years of intensive training and is proud to be living and working in Korea. Comparing himself with Takeshi Kaneshiro, the Taiwanese-born actor working in Japan, Otani says, "In Japan, Kaneshiro, who can speak fluent Japanese, is criticized for having a foreign accent in his speech. There's nothing I can do about [my accent] now, but I'm trying hard to improve my pronunciation".
At the moment, lucky breaks are reserved only for those who can pass for Korean, unlike in Japan where Eurasians and Westerners dominate the market. "It is the mind of top-level businessmen who are the older generation. They cannot imagine anyone other than Korean can possibly sell, say, a 10-cent candy, even though big Korean companies make separate advertisements that fit the local market elsewhere in the world", Ms. Choi said.
While conservative critics representing older Korean society attest that the trend to support Japanese entertainers may be short-lived, demand for Japanese models has increased over the years, and now Japanese viewers can also see Korean actors on Japanese TV.
"With this, the distance between Korea and Japan has been greatly reduced", said Hatsue Kinou, the director of the Tokyo-based Iara agency, which has supplied by far the largest number of Japanese models to Korea.
From now on though, the eastbound wind might blow backward, as the French cosmetic group L'Oreal has employed Macau-born Michelle Reis for a TV commercial in Korea.
Quickly sensing the possible market shift, Ms. Choi of Spring went to Hong Kong in search of potential "merchandise to sell" in Korea. "God knows how the market will turn out. The Korean market is becoming more open to the world for sure. We'll need to be able to initiate new directives in the market", Ms. Choi said, adding that her company plans to export Korean models to Japan in the future. From her decade-long experience in the fashion industry, she believes that Japanese male models appeal in Korea, while well-proportioned Korean women can do well in Japan.
Will there ever be a Penelope Cruz or Jean Reno of Asia, who can cross borders in the pan-Asian entertainment scene some day? The answer is, unless there's a common language used between Asian countries, like English in the Western hemisphere, it's not likely soon. Otani believes, however, that the recent Korean wave, or hallyu, has helped Asian countries open up culturally. "In Asia, Japan alone had been segregated from the rest of the Asian entertainment scene. It appears that since Korean entertainers came to Japan, other Asian entertainers, say, from Taiwan, are coming to Japan", Otani said. "When the time comes, I'd like to go back to Japan and pursue an acting career there. Now, I'm still new, and it's only a beginning for me".
by Ines Cho
Additional reporting by Jin Hyun-ju