When the hugely popular South Korean television drama series "Winter Sonata" blanketed Japanese television screens in 2003, the total contracted value of South Korean programming in Japan was $6.28 million (480.7 million yen).
Last year, that figure reached $81.62 million with South Korean productions increasingly establishing themselves as a staple of non-prime time, satellite programming.
Among some Japanese, the Korean cultural wave has gone well beyond a joke. On Aug. 7, several hundred people marched outside of the headquarters of Fuji Television Network Inc. in Tokyo's Odaiba district, complaining that Fuji TV was betraying its country and should broadcast more Japanese dramas. About 5,000 people rallied against South Korean dramas and music at a second protest on Aug. 21.
While the protesters appear to see the issue in cultural terms, the increasing number of Korean programs on Japanese television is seen within the industry as largely a matter of economics: they are very cheap. With advertising revenues falling, buying a South Korean drama can be an easy way to cut costs.
"Rather than produce programs on our own, it is better to buy cheaper programs from foreign nations. South Korean dramas also attract fairly good ratings," a source at a Tokyo-based network said.
The Kanto region's TV listings for July reveal that Fuji TV was the most enthusiastic broadcaster of South Korean programming, showing about 38 hours. That was double the 19 hours or so of South Korean programs shown by Tokyo Broadcasting System Television Inc.
Generally, with TBS's action drama "Iris" a notable exception, the South Korean productions do not reach prime time. Most of the South Korean dramas shown on Fuji TV and TBS are broadcast on weekday mornings or around noon.
According to a 2009 study by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, there has actually been a decline in foreign programming on terrestrial, as opposed to satellite stations, although an official at the institute said terrestrial foreign programming started to rise last year.
The drive into Japan's daytime TV market has been part of an explicit South Korean strategy of exporting dramas and musical programs coordinated by the government-affiliated Korea Creative Content Agency. After the 1997 economic crisis, South Korean production houses began to look beyond their relatively small domestic market, in a country with only one-third of Japan's population, and making programs designed to appeal in foreign markets.
In large part, that market has been in Japan. Although the South Korean wave has washed across Asia, Japan accounts for about 60 percent of South Korean production companies' takings.
"While we export to various Asian nations, the large strides into Japan were due to cultural proximity and the large size of the Japanese market," said an official with the Korea Creative Content Agency.
Another factor has been Japan's lack of restrictions on television imports. Hiroyoshi Sunakawa, an associate professor of media studies at Rikkyo University, said: "Japan has excluded foreign programs through market competition alone. It is a special case in international terms."
In Taiwan, the National Communications Commission recently asked a major TV station to reduce its ratio of South Korean programs, following a parliamentary debate in January in which a member of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party pointed out that almost all programs on three drama channels came from South Korea.
Lawmakers called for stricter restrictions to protect Taiwanese culture, according to a report in a local newspaper.
The European Union has strict restrictions insisting that EU-produced programs account for at least half of broadcasting time in member nations.
Nobuko Kawashima, a Doshisha University professor specializing in cultural policy, said, "Behind the EU restrictions is the sense that TV programs that reach households support the culture and democracy."
Japan does not have a tradition of exclusion through regulation and, until now, has managed to support a large domestic television industry without it. In the postwar period, Japan did import numerous programs from the United States, but it was the domestic programs that tended to record the highest ratings and produce the biggest stars.
The language barrier was obviously a factor, but Japan's rapidly expanding postwar economy and an appetite for programs appealing to a sense of shared national identity also helped the domestic television industry. Automobile and electrical equipment companies riding Japan's export boom sponsored TV programs, vastly increasing production budgets.
Those budgets are now shrinking, but Sunakawa argues that Japan's best option would be to try to emulate South Korea's success, rather than adopting a defensive strategy.
"The quality of Japanese programs is still quite high," he said. "Rather than think about restrictions, the government should consider ways to support the development of overseas markets."