South Korea's "Parasite" spread the word worldwide on the nation's film-making prowess. Image: Facebook

SEOUL – Hollywood, look to your laurels.

Leveraging both the world’s biggest economic power and the English language, the United States dominated global popular culture from the second half of the 20th century.

Black American art forms – jazz, blues – morphed into modern popular music that is today diversified into pop, rock, rap and multiple other genres. Hollywood dominated the production of both film and TV, leading trends in both from thrillers to sitcoms.

But just as manufacturing largely fled the West for the East, so too is the globe’s cultural center of gravity shifting.

This is not to say America’s day in the sun is done. Regardless of current political fractures across the US, Hollywood is not going away and the US will remain an entertainment behemoth for the foreseeable future.

Still, expanding consumer bases and digital distribution and payment networks across the globe are creating bigger-than-ever borderless markets for pop culture products and services. Asia has long been a consumer and importer of this fare but is now increasingly a producer and exporter.

Indeed, regional players are already deeply established in both niche and mass markets: Japanese console games, anime and manga; Hong Kong kung fu and action movies; Bollywood musicals; and the current commander of the zeitgeist, South Korean film, TV dramas and pop music.

K-Pop sensation BTS performs during the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena, May 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP

At present, South Korea appears to be winning the culture wars across both the region and the world. Yet content from national uber-rival Japan – while it may have a lower profile – is quietly raking in more cash.

So where does that put China? The G2 colossus is increasingly asserting itself, but its global soft-power portfolio is a mouse compared to its hard-power elephant – manufacturing capabilities, high-tech companies, worldwide infrastructure spending and visionary macro plans. 

But that mouse is set to roar. China is well-positioned to make a push into the space but it will be less about content and more about the platform. In 21st century Asia, the media will be the message.

According to one expert who has been both fighting in and analyzing Asia’s culture wars since the 1980s, that is reflective of a larger trend that is propelling Eastern content and which offers lessons to the West.

Top-down, Millennial Asian entertainment is enabled by digital distribution networks. Bottom-up, the 24/7 access and services enabled by personal digital devices are driving new formats of fan inter-action and related monetization. This is the “engagement economy.” 

The expert is Keiko Hagihara Bang. The 55-year-old producer/researcher/marketer has a foot in three key cultural powerhouses: The product of a Japanese father and an American mother, she is married to a South Korean, from whom, incidentally, she takes her surname and her company takes its name.

A model and TV persona in Japan in her youth, Bang studied in the US and Taiwan, where she learned Mandarin, and subsequently deployed to Shenzhen in newly-opened China in 1985 as a reporter with Fuji TV.

She also lived in the fast-prospering South Korea of the late 1980s, where she studied the language and advanced her career in journalism. She would become a correspondent for CNN and NHK and then a producer for ABC.

But her interests pushed her deeper than news coverage.

“Everyone forgets the news from day to day, but a documentary can live forever,” she told Asia Times in an exclusive interview. “I love storytelling and documentaries are enjoying a renaissance under Covid-19 and Netflix.”

In order to make documentaries in and on Asia, she established her company, Bang Asia, in 1995 in Hong Kong. 

Bang produced a range of region-centric documentaries for channels such as National Geographic, Discovery and Nova. Subjects ranged from the Japanese super-battleship Yamato – Bang came out with the first English-language documentary on the subject – to Indian gurus, to “Hip Korea.”

She also developed a range of top-drawer contacts. For her documentary on the 14th-century Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He, Chinese director Chen Kaige supplied the dramatic reconstructions and she met kung fu star Jackie Chan and K-pop sensation Rain.

Cultural maven Keiko Hagihara Bang. Photo: Keiko Hagihara Bang

Today, Bang’s firm is headquartered in Singapore with satellite offices in India, Japan and South Korea. And it has expanded out of production.

Currently – or at least before Covid-19 closed down global travel – she and her team were engaged in projects across the region. This has led her to dig deep into various Asian cultural formats from Taiwanese rock music to Chinese art house cinema and Hong Kong kung fu flicks.

“We go to a country, we meet the experts, we ask ‘What is on fire?’” she said. “We try to determine what people really like, so we are taking Hallyu and K-pop lessons and learning about what fandom is.”

Her most recent projects include creating K-pop (“Namas-K”) and J-pop (“DesiOtaku”) branded platforms for the Indian market, and producing a Korean War 70th anniversary documentary.

So across the region: What is hot now?

J-culture versus K-culture

Clearly, South Korea is punching above its weight. In music, it can boast arguably the biggest boy band in the world, BTS. In film, dark social comedy Parasite cleaned up at the Oscars and on TV, zombie show Kingdom is the toast of Netflix.

Yet Japan has not been shunted aside. Bang recognizes that Japanese players may feel defensive, but points to the difference between what’s hot with media visibility and the online buzz, and underlying dollarized muscle, as well as to the impressively broad swathe of J-culture.

“The ‘Cool Japan’ campaign after the late 2000s looks like a soft power war, but it was purely a reaction, I think, to the Korea Wave being such an upstart,” she said. “Before the 1990s, no Japanese wanted to go to Korea – then it became the most popular destination.”

The “Korean Wave” (Hallyu”) is a Chinese term coined in the 1990s to describe the flood of Korean pop, TV dramas and films rolling over Asia. Hallyu was a convergence of multiple factors.

These included the long-term lifting of censorship and related mindsets in previously authoritarian Korea, the exit of heritage players from the entertainment sector due to the 1997 Asian economic crisis, leaving a vacuum for new and younger market entrants, and the sudden and extensive digitization of South Korea.

Hallyu was a hybrid phenomenon based on both Hollywood and Japanese benchmarks – from American rap and MTV videography to Japanese idol shows and dramas – but with native Korean tweaks added. It took off in the late 1990s and has not slowed since.

While much K-content was, in fact, based on Japanese originals, the South Koreans overtook the Japanese in Southeast Asia markets. One reason was financial – South Korean content was cheaper than Japanese. More importantly, the South Koreans went all-out on fan engagement.

A decade ago, bewildered J-pop executives asked Bang how they had lost Southeast Asia.

“I asked them, ‘What did you do? You ruled the roost for 20 years: What did you do to encourage engagement?’” Bang recalled. “They said, ‘Well, we had tons of fan mail from Southeast Asia, but we had a big domestic market, so we just did not care.’”

The South Koreans, from the start, had aimed beyond home turf with the aim of winning overseas markets. “The Koreans felt responsible for their fandom abroad as they did not have that big of a [home] market,” she said. “Rain went overseas for the first time to play a 600-person gig in Thailand.”

The fandom curation process is sophisticated. “K-pop gamified social media: ‘If you do this much, [the idol] will do a fan meeting, it is reward-reward,” Bang explained. “You have got to be on YouTube, on Instagram, you have got to look at the numbers – you have got to have that engagement.”

Yet, for all the undoubted success of Hallyu, J-culture remains massive across the region and the world.

 “Living in Korea, you can feel that Korean exports are so wow, they are such a milestone,” she said. “But we forget other nations with enduring Asian cultural exports.”

While the glory days of Akira Kurosawa’s films are long past, she notes that Japanese design and fashion remain well north of their South Korean counterparts.

And she reels off a list of “quirky Japanese” characters and products that have gone global across multiple platforms – city-stomping monster Godzilla, cute cat Hello Kitty, mobile game and character phenomenon Pokemon, cartoon Astro Boy and beloved anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli, the maker of such classics as My Friend Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Run for your lives, Tokyoites, its Gojira! Photo: AFP

Moreover, Japan has originated and still leads in three unique formats – anime, manga and console games.

While there is plentiful talk in South Korea about the difficult-to-quantify dollar value implicit in national brand power, and certainly, K-pop has been used as a marketing tool by South Korean companies selling products ranging from digital devices to cosmetics, Japan has been better at monetizing its entertainment offerings.

“I celebrate all cultural milestones,” Bang said, but noted that Hallyu was worth about $12 billion in annual revenues, while Japanese products and services in the entertainment sector were worth some $60 billion.

Take gaming. Education-obsessed tiger moms in South Korea refused to buy their children such trivialities as console games, but when the country went online in the mid-1990s, they ensured that their children had PCs for study purposes.

South Korean gaming companies, recognizing the obvious trend, made their offerings online and subsequently mobile, winning major successes in both spaces.

Nintendo game character Mario is seen at a new Nintendo store during a press preview in Tokyo, November 19, 2019. – Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri

However, due to this domestic trend, South Korean gaming companies never made it into the lucrative business of selling hardware – game consoles – that continue to be such a big earner for Japanese companies like Nintendo and Playstation. Moreover, Japanese graphics quality and game themes were good enough to drive consumer loyalty across decades.

“In the 1980s we had console games,” Bang said. “And they are still parts of our lives.”

So while Japan and South Korea may be leading Asia’s cultural charge at present, where is China?

In Part 2, Bang looks at China’s soft power sphere, where the next big markets are and what lessons Asia’s culture and content industries have to teach the West