Author | Β SHIM Doobo, Β Department of Communication, Sungshin Women's University

Tanaka's popularity is out of control. Tanaka is the "Bu-kae" (secondary character or multi-persona) of comedian Kim Kyung-wook, who gained popularity on SBS's "Find Me" in the early 2000s and now plays the role of Tanaka, a Japanese bar host character. Since the summer of 2022, he has appeared on YouTube's 'Mukbang' (according to Kim Kyung-wook, he has been Tanaka since 2018) and has gained even more attention by appearing as a guest on terrestrial broadcast programs. His appearance, speech, and behavior make him look like a real Japanese who came to Korea because he loves the country. However, even after it was revealed that he was a fake Japanese, people accepted the fact and his popularity continued to rise.

After all, we are all used to Bu-kae nowadays. Comedian Yoo Jae-suk is a singer named Yusansle, and comedian Kim Hae Jun is a cafe owner named Choi Joon. The YouTube comedy channel 'Psick University' is full of bukae content. As virtual reality such as the Metaverse has expanded, creating and communicating with bukae has become a new culture among teenagers. Tanaka's popularity on YouTube has led to numerous commercials, fashion magazine shoots, and even a solo concert in several cities. His concert tickets were so hard to get that they sold out in five seconds.

From Danakais Musi Video "Wasurenai (εΏ˜γ‚Œγͺい, Don't forget me)'

21st Century Korean Popular Culture

My attention was drawn to Tanaka when I saw him sing on Mnet's music program 'M Countdown' in late 2022 after he released his rock ballad 'Wasurenai (εΏ˜γ‚Œγͺい, Don't forget me)'. The female audience, captured by the broadcast cameras, shouted and cheered for Tanaka as if they were at a Hallyu star concert, waving fans and glow sticks with happy faces. In fact, these twenty-something fans have been following K-pop choreography since childhood and have grown up as fans of someone. As I watched them engage in various fan practices commonly observed in the K-pop world while cheering for Tanaka and reading Tanaka's text, I realized that I could gain insights into various aspects of 21st century Korean popular culture.

In some places, there are a lot of Japanese people around us. They are fascinated by Korean dramas and K-pop, admire Korean food and style, and eventually learn Korean and visit Korea with the intention of making Korean friends. One Japanese graduate student even had a Korean boyfriend, and her love for Korea led her to study abroad in the country. According to her, many of her Japanese friends dream of dating Korean men. In fact, there have been a lot of videos and short films on YouTube lately about Japanese-Korean couples living in Korea. From a demographic point of view, this is quite interesting. Until the 1990s, Japanese visitors to Korea were mainly middle-aged male businessmen, but with the popularity of the drama "Winter Sonata," middle-aged women became the majority of Japanese tourists to Korea. More recently, there has been an increase in interaction between the younger generations.

Korea has become a symbol of coolness and sophistication on Japanese social media. Japanese youth not only translate Korean expressions such as 'λ§›μžˆμ–΄μš” (delicious),' 'μ‚¬λž‘ν•΄μš” (I love you), ' 'μ•ˆλ…•ν•˜μ„Έμš” (hello)' in Katakana, but also words like 'κΏ€μžΌ (the literal meaning is honey fun, which refers to something very funny),' '심쿡 (heart fluttering),' 'ν™”μ΄νŒ… (fighting)' in Hangul. This language borrowing gradually evolves into a pidgin. The term "pidgin" refers to a hybrid language created by combining the vocabulary of a specific language with that of the indigenous language. It often emerges during long periods of war and colonization and sometimes evolves into a single, similar language.

According to Kim Kyung-hwa, the author of "Same Japan, Different Japan," the expression "가무사 (gamusa)," which represents the Korean word "감사 (thanks)" written in Katakana, is often observed on Japanese social media. Recently, it has been combined with the Japanese verb "슀루 (suru, する)," meaning "to do," resulting in the use of the new verb "κ°€λ¬΄μ‚¬μŠ€λ£¨ (gamusasuru). Similarly, in Korea, Japanese words such as "kanji" (γ‹γ‚“γ˜, originally meaning impression or feeling, but now used in Korea to refer to something cool), "ningen" (にんげん, meaning human), and "kawai" (かわいい, meaning cute) have become part of everyday slang.

Some young people use the Japanese auxiliary verb 'ꡬ닀사이 (kudasai, ください)', which means 'please', to create expressions like '도움 ꡬ닀사이 (please help)'. This kind of language play is known online as "hanbono" (mixing Korean and Japanese to create funny phrases). Recent excessive honorifics such as "직원뢄 (employee)," "νŒ¬λΆ„ (fan)," and "μ†λ‹˜λΆ„ (guest)"-by adding the honorific of addressing another person "λΆ„ (bun)"-are also believed to be influenced by the use of beautifying language in Japanese.

The Secret of Tanaka's Popularity

There is a kind of "tasteful jiil(ηŸ₯ζ—₯)" in the culture of young people these days (I use the word "jiil" because I am unsure of the connotations of the pro-Japanese label). In a college lecture hall, when asked to name their favorite shows and movies, more than a few students will name Japanese anime and dramas. While the weakening yen plays a role, there has been a recent surge of interest in Japanese tourism among Korean students. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), South Korea was the single largest source of tourists to Japan from January to May 2023. Japanese sushi restaurants and izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) now line many of Seoul's food streets, and wasabi is even served as a condiment in galbi restaurants.
Let's return to Tanaka. There are several codes at work in Tanaka's popularity. First, there is the depoliticizing effect of Japanese's awkward Korean pronunciation. Tanaka is not one of those "bad" Japanese who aggravate Korean sentiments with offensive remarks; rather, he generates both laughter and sympathy by deliberately pronouncing single-syllable Korean words as two syllables ("mukbang" as "meokkubang")-a presence that elicits both amusement and empathy. Tanaka is also a pathetic bar owner who lives in a guesthouse and wears fake designer clothes because he is unpopular and cannot make enough money. However, he is resilient and extremely funny, as evidenced by his rambling gestures. People are disarmed by his pathetic but honest charm and become his fans.

But Tanaka's body and language are accompanied by sexualized codes. As a Japanese man struggling with Korean pronunciation, Tanaka pronounces "kkot" (flower in Korean) as "kotsu," "M" as "emu," and "brother" as "braza," evoking sexual associations and eliciting laughter. To make matters worse, he dances with an emotionally charged voice and excessive pelvic thrusting. Younger viewers, however, find Tanaka's use of sexual codes familiar and entertaining. This is due to the proliferation of YouTube culture in our society.

NewJeans, a girl group that debuted in 2022, promoted their new song on various YouTube entertainment channels instead of appearing on a terrestrial television program. This decision was based on the fact that young people do not watch terrestrial TV but rely on YouTube. The main actors of the movies "Ghost" and "Negotiation", which were released in January 2023, also appeared on YouTube channels first instead of choosing terrestrial channels for promotion. YouTube is preferred over terrestrial broadcasting because it allows for more freedom of speech and a more targeted audience.
In fact, many comedians who lost their footing due to terrestrial broadcasting regulations are experiencing a second coming on YouTube. YouTube comedy channels Shortbox and Psick University have more than 2.7 million and 2.4 million subscribers, respectively. Some episodes have even surpassed 12 million views. However, these YouTube comedy channels freely use sexual content such as "host," "motel," and "premature ejaculation," which are taboo on terrestrial channels. Tanaka is a cultural phenomenon created by the freedom of the YouTube era.

The Hallyu universe and East Asian subcultures

Tanaka's worldview is also interesting. Tanaka lives in a worldview composed of several symbols that evoke memories of "the end of the century" or "20 years ago. Tanaka adheres to the shaggy hairstyle, tight shirts, belts with logos, and stone-washed jeans that were popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. He also likes to sing Japanese songs that were popular in Korea at the time. For example, X Japan, who sang Tanaka's favorite song 'Endless Rain', are a Japanese rock band who have had a great influence on many Korean musicians, including Seo Taeji, Kim Tae Won and JUKJAE. Their hits 'Endless Rain' and 'Tears' were featured in several Korean dramas and movies in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and were karaoke favorites for males in their teens and twenties at the time.

In addition to X Japan's songs, Tanaka also sang "Driver's High" by the Japanese rock band L'Arc~en~Ciel and "We Are," the opening song of the anime "One Piece," at his concert, evoking nostalgia for J-pop and Japanese styles that were popular as a youth subculture in the 1990s and early 2000s. Fans who are aware of the influence of Japanese culture embedded somewhere in Korean popular culture connect with Tanaka on stage when he performs old Japanese songs and engage with his worldview.

However, Tanaka constructs his narrative around the Hallyu phenomenon. When Tanaka's fluency in Korean threatens to reveal his identity as a Korean actor, he sidesteps the situation by saying, "I learned it from Korean dramas. He justifies his early acquisition of knowledge that only Koreans could know by explaining that his parents have been fans of Korean dramas since his childhood. He often collaborates with Hallyu stars in Japan to make YouTube episodes. Stars such as Jang Keun-suk, Kim Jae-joong, Kara, Taeyang, and Sung Si-kyung have appeared on his YouTube channel, and Tanaka talks to them about Hallyu in Japan. Tanaka's comments about his love for K-pop and his dream of debuting as an idol in South Korea illustrate the truth of K-pop's recent popularity.

Tanaka often says, "Our Japan is...," but by declaring, "Dokdo belongs to Korea," he establishes a sense of empathy with fans regarding historical issues. In the end, Tanaka is a simulacrum, a replica of the original Japanese, but with its own meaning as a representation separate from the original. Through Tanaka, fans enjoy and express what they consider "tasteful jiil" (ηŸ₯ζ—₯), their guilty pleasures. A 'bukae' is a virtual reality, but it becomes real when we come to like that bukae. Through Tanaka, fans experience a simulation of a new reality, liberated from the context of Japan as a 'colonizer'. By inserting the parameter of the Hallyu phenomenon into the Tanaka phenomenon, one can trace the footprint of a subculture that is intimately connected to East Asian popular culture. Tanaka lives as a simulacrum in the universe of Hallyu. If we apply the parameters of the Hallyu phenomenon to the Tanaka phenomenon, we can trace the footprint of a subculture intricately linked to East Asian popular culture. Tanaka is a simulacra living in the universe of Hallyu. (END)

Author | SHIM Doobo, Department of Communication, Sungshin Women's University