Korean Sociological Image #6: How about a date with Lee Yeon-hee?

Lee Yeon-hee Oz Date

An otherwise innocuous, quick slice of Korean life…but which inadvertently prompted some soul-searching and a minor epiphany about Korean society on my part. Please bear with me!

If you’re reading this blog in Korea, then by virtue of its inane “We Live in OZ” catchphrase you’ve probably more aware of LG Telecom’s “OZ Generation” advertising campaign than most. But you may not have heard of its online virtual first person “date” with model and actress Lee Yeon-hee (이연희) that was launched about two weeks ago, and which deserves kudos for being the first of its kind in Korea (indeed, this post was originally intended to be #16 in my Creative Korean Advertisingseries). As Coolsmurf explains at allkpop here:

Users get to have a complete, enjoyable date with Lee Yeon Hee by completing 6 stages with varying difficulties, but all of which can be solved by using the LG mobile phone and your trusty keyboard. You get to hold the hands of Yeon Hee as you dash away from the crowd, ride a bus with her, have a meal, celebrate her birthday, etc.

And as of Saturday, 200,000 people had participated since it was released 10 days earlier, with 20,000 visitors daily. Unfortunately, and all too typically for Korea, the main site requires your national ID number to participate (I didn’t check if my “foreign” one worked or not sorry), but strangely this alternate entry site (in the screenshot below) doesn’t, which will hopefully give K-pop fans outside of Korea a chance to participate.

Lee Yeon-hee Oz Star Date Game

I confess, I did it myself for a little while: it’s like a surreal bubblegum version of Doom 3, with eye-candy as the target rather than demons. And my 3 year-old daughter sitting on my lap found it hilarious when I crashed into people and potholes while running to meet Yeon-hee in “Mission 1” (hint, use the cursors), but neither of us were sufficiently motivated to figure out how to rouse her after she fell asleep on the bus in Mission 2 though I’m afraid (but get on the bus using the mouse this time). Not for a fifth time at least…

But what epiphany about Korean society did this prompt on my part? Other than being reminded, say, of the penetration and pervasiveness of mobile phones into all elements of Korean life that is?

Well, consider the rather childish and platonic way the couple interacts on the “date” itself, replete with numerous uses of the word Oppa (오빠): to Western eyes it makes it appear more reminiscent of the sorts of dates we had – or perhaps, our parents liked to think we had? – back in our early teens, and certainly nothing like what most Western adults would consider worth showing up for. Lest you feel like that’s an exaggeration though, then by all means examine it for yourselves, but I’m sure that most people at all familiar with unmarried Koreans need no such assurances.

A Typical Korean Date

In the original version of this post, this prompted a lot of speculation on my part as to whether the date game was in fact primarily targeted towards teenagers, but that was misguided: as Charles points out in his comment that made me realize that, I myself went on “dates” like that with a 25 year-old Korean woman before I met my future wife, and although I haven’t dated in the 9 years since – and so by no means claim to be an expert on Korean dating culture – I’m confident that a sizable proportion of 20-something Koreans do have indeed have platonic dates like this. After all, the various cultural, social, and economic factors that lay behind the plethora of blind-dating systems in Korea certainly do still exist, although as Michael Hurt in this excellent practical guide to the cultural pitfalls of dating Korean women points out, the move from single-sex to mixed schooling is beginning to change those (see the KoreanClass101 Blog here also).

Lest I give the wrong impression though, I’m not against such dates per se. And while it’s true that I don’t personally consider dating without the ultimate aim of a sexual relationship as dating at all, that’s isn’t quite the same as thinking that, say, any woman that doesn’t sometimes put out on the first date (or guy that doesn’t want that) is a prude! And that so many Koreans go on such dates is – however patronizing it may sound – a very nice and endearing aspect of Korean society.

However, it is but one version of Korean dating culture. And yet while Koreans as a whole are certainly more sexually reserved than your generic Westerners, I doubt that any readers need convincing of the fact that over 50% of Koreans have sexual experiences before marriage. Yet- and herein lies the (belated) beginning of my epiphany – why is it only the platonic version of dating that is still overwhelmingly presented in the Korean media? And particularly when depictions of so many other aspects of sexuality in the Korean media are becoming increasingly bolder and more liberal over time?

Girls' Generation... Korean Teens are Sweet and Innocent

True, if you take issue with my description of the way dating is depicted in the Korean media, then I have no data to back that up: indeed, I don’t watch Korean dramas precisely because on the rare occasions I’ve naively wanted to spend more than 5 minutes with my wife on the sofa while she’s watching one, then I’ve soon been forced to leave the room at sheer disgust and incredulity with the surreal, Disneyland version of Korean life presented on the TV screen. Still, as commentators on this lengthy post on that subject pointed out, there are more realistic and palatable dramas out there if you’re prepared to look for them.

Also, granted: the ways dating and premarital sex are depicted in the Korean media are in many respects quite separate to, say, the censorship issues that I’ve been following closely in my weekly(ish) Korean Gender Readerposts. But still, rather than censorship being akin to some inexorable fact of nature (i.e. Korea is a conservative country…what else does one expect?), the numerous forward and backward steps in Korea just this year has provided me with a healthy reminder that what is considered suitable for Korean viewers is in reality a very mutable concept (and don’t get me started on Japanese censorship issues). Which begs the question of who is doing the defining, and why.

This brought to mind the following lesson I learned from An Introduction to Japanese Society by Yoshio Sugimoto (and easily the first book you should ever read on the subject):

Japanese culture, like the cultures of other complex societies, comprises a multitude of subcultures. Some are dominant, powerful, and controlling, and form core subcultures in given dimensions. Examples are the management subculture in the occupational dimension, the large corporation subculture in the firm size dimension, the male subculture in the gender dimension, and the Tokyo subculture in the regional dimension. Other subcultures are more subordinate, subservient, or marginal, and may be called the peripheral subcultures. Some examples are the part-time worker subculture, the small business subculture, the female subculture, and the rural subculture.

Core subcultures have ideological capital to define the normative framework of society. Even though the lifetime employment and the company-first dogma associated with the large corporation subculture apply to less than a quarter of the workforce, that part of the population has provided a role model which all workers are expected to follow, putting their companies ahead of their individual interests…. (p. 12).

yellow-salaryman

Yes, Japan, supposedly the land of the faceless salaryman…is anything but. And yes, the subject of salarymen may seem a little out of place at first glance, but I’m sure you’re seeing the connections already. Continuing in the same vein (although as a quick aside, it’s interesting to consider why Japan is so well-known for the salaryman system, when if fact it’s only Korea that ever had them as a majority of workers):

Dominating in the upper echelons of society, core subcultural groups are able to control the educational curriculum, influence the mass media, and prevail in the areas of publishing and publicity. They outshine their peripheral counterparts in establishing their modes of life and expectations in the national domain and presenting their subcultures as the national culture. The samurai spirit, the kamikaze vigor, and the soul of the Yamato race, which some male groups may have as part of the dominant subculture of men, are promoted as presenting Japan’s national culture….

More generally, the slanted views of Japan’s totality tend to reproduce because writers, readers, and editors of publications on the general characteristics of Japanese society belong to the core subcultural sphere. Sharing their subcultural base, they conceptualize and hypothesize in a similar way, confirm their portrayal of Japan between themselves, and rarely seek outside confirmation….(pp. 12-13).

As another aside, this last point highlights how Koreans are in many senses shooting themselves in the foot by alienating and demonizing a whole generation of English teachers in Korea (see here, here, and here):

Core subcultural groups overshadow those on the periphery in inter-cultural transactions too. Foreign visitors to Japan, who shape the images of Japan in their own countries, interact more intensely with core subcultural groups than with peripheral ones. In cultural exchange programs, Japanese who have houses, good salaries, and university educations predominate among the host families, language trainers, and introducers of Japanese culture…(p. 13)

(Update: See here for some quick recent examples of how different the Japanese are to the way they’re normally represented in the foreign media)

No, I’m not suggesting that there is a big conspiracy to keep premarital sex off Korean screens. Nor am I suggesting that the above is all that original or profound, and certainly my ultimate epiphany – merely to extend the above lesson to depictions of Korean dating and premarital sex in the Korean media also – is much less so.

But the point that I want you to take away from all this is that at the very least it provides an interesting and useful alternate framework with which to analyze the topic in future. For instance, the completely ineffectual Youth Protection Committee’s (of the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs) recent banning of music group TVXQ’s latest songs from being played on TV and the radio because of “lewd content” and the need to “protect teenagers” (see #2 here), may be most explicable in terms of corporatist motivations, or in other words be the result of the Ministry’s struggle for relevance and definition under the hostile Lee Myung-bak Administration, which originally planned to disband the former Ministry of Gender Equality and Family altogether (now a separate Ministry of Gender Equality exists: see #4 here), and despite the compromise being opposed by all ministries involved. No, I’m not saying that that is the case necessarily, just that it’s a possibility that needs to be considered.

And on that note, I’d better end this post, which has admittedly somewhat evolved from its ostensible original topic. Which reminds me, presumably other male and female members of the “OZ Generation” in the advertisements will have similar dates set up for them, and it’ll be interesting seeing the different conventions for the former’s behavior and writing about that a later date. And probably this topic will be in IM AD (아이엠 애드) also (Korea’s only magazine devoted to online advertising), and I’ll make sure to buy it and translate the corresponding article also. In the meantime, I’m curious as to if this virtual date has already been done overseas, so if any readers know of foreign examples then please pass them on.

Image sources: first & second, third, fourth, last.

(For all posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)

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13 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #6: How about a date with Lee Yeon-hee?

  1. James, 10:15pm–Hopefully(!), most of Charles’s criticisms now sound unfair, as I’ve completely changed the post in response to them. They were certainly valid when they were written though, and were much appreciated.

    James,

    Man, you know that I love you (in that safe teenage way) but your attempts to demolish the “shibboleth” that Korea is a sexually conservative country are too simple. It is a profoundly sexually conservative culture in many instances and, also, also profoundly liberal (I’m looking at you, two barber-pole places) sexual culture in others.

    Acting much younger than your age, for instance, is a profoundly sexually conservative approach. In your linked post the “crying starfish” is also the face of a sexually conservative country, as is feigned innocence about contraception. People wouldn’t act this way except to pretend to fit the culture in instances in which they are transgressive. This is more evidence of a shift beginning than a shift concluded.

    Some brilliant dude once noted that Koreans will not have kids out of wedlock (https://thegrandnarrative.wordpress.com/2008/08/29/korea-as-a-social-laboratory-the-impending-depopulation-crisis/_ and that implies a required sexual conservativism that is clearly missing in other Western countries. That same clever dude said “I expect that when young Koreans can afford to live away from home then they will, and ultimately rates of premarital sex and cohabitation will reach those of Western countries today.” This seems to admit a more conservative culture exists, and that quote also seems to indicate that the author (who is this brilliant man! ;-p) believes that young adults living at home is more economic than social (https://thegrandnarrative.wordpress.com/2007/12/12/flatting-premarital-sex-and-cohabitation-in-korea-part-2-some-theoretical-perspectives/). I’d argue it is still plenty social and even to the extent that it is economic – well, hey, the Koreans created this kind of economy along several lines including their social preferences.

    That, of course, is not why I came here.

    I was in a yeogwan in Daejeon last weekend and was shocked to see two ads in which a young, dating couple, kissed. One was a Gatorade ad and I can’t remember the other, as I was under the influence of soju at the time. Still, I don’t recall seeing that much last year (the last time I had a TV). I asked Yvonne and she said that it seemed that some kind of threshold has been passed and now kissing can be shown in adverts. This could be too small of a sample to mean anything, but I wondered if any of your other readers had noted this?

    If so, it would be another milestone on the way to that wild n’ wacky sexual culture that we have in the west..

  2. Interesting game. Are there any Japanese games like this? I would imagine that would be the first place to find them…

  3. actually, the premise bears a passing resemblance to the very creepy Japanese game “princess maker” where the object of the game was to create a character, then get her to fall in love with you…

    • Charles–Like I said in my original, temporary response (now deleted), all granted, and to be honest I was wincing when I reread the muddled, all over place original post after a break. Consider the last two hours I’ve spent updating it my new response(!), and I’m certainly going to avoid general terms and only focus on very specific aspects of Korean sexuality (and so on) in the future. Thanks again.

      Actually, I did mention one of the ads you’re probably describing (I discuss it in passing here, but see here for pictures), and I certainly noticed the one you link to also Walter (and thanks for it), but paid little attention to it because it’s very similar to one 1 or 2 years old, which had a woman kissing a stranger at a tennis match to get a taste of his ice-cream (I can’t remember any details sorry). But in hindsight, this one is definitely a small but significant step up from that, as that was intended to be humorous, whereas this new clearly depicts that kissing in public is what the fun attractive couples that drink Cherryade do.

      Charles, by the way, what is with your links? Here and here they are!

      PJB–If anywhere, I expected to find similar games in Japan first too. Thanks for answering him(?) Gomushin Girl.

  4. No, it ate my comment…huh…I was trying to say that this genre of video games, called dating sims in English, is a long-standing genre in Japan. Tokimeki Memorial is the most famous. Here’s the Wikipedia page…Some are totally chaste; others are XXX-rated. Most are for guys to chase girls, but some are for girls to have their pick of pretty boys.

  5. Interesting post and comments, as always. Keep up the good work!

    I have been riding the metro a lot for many years now and I noticed more and more young couples holding hands, caressing each other arms etc. and even (quickly) kissing. As usual, I have this chicken vs. egg doubt: who came first? The ad or the social trend? The ad is part of the social trend, isn’t it? Is there a methodology that could help decide?

    PS: It’s “begets the question” or “raises the question,” but not “begs the question.”

    • Lily–Sorry for the problems with the spam filter: it’s been a long time since my first ever troll visited, but seeing as he sent 210 comments in the 3 days after I banned him (I’m not exaggerating), I have to keep my guard up lest I be subjected to a repeat performance!

      Thanks for the info and the links. I wonder if there’s any Korean versions, and for just as long? It’d be surprising if there weren’t, but then Korea isn’t exactly as well known as Japan for that sort of thing…

      Christian–Thanks, although as for your chicken or egg thing I doubt there’s a universally applicable methodology. But is should be possible to determine it for very specific behaviors and fashions and so on, provided you knew what you were looking for beforehand, and especially if you could ask people why they were adopting them.

      Not that this entry on Wikipedia is the definitive guide, but I *cough* beg to differ on the phrase “begs the question” being incorrect, as in its modern usage (and all I ever learned) it has indeed come to be equivalent to “raised the question,” and to my ear at least it is both less formal-sounding and more elegant and poetic too.

      Edit: I forgot to link to this post when I wrote the above: it takes him a little while to get to that particular point, but Michael Hurt at least noticed Korean couples doing those sorts of things way back in 2006.

  6. Christian and James I’d say that a better metaphor than chicken or egg is just the simple feedback loop. The chicken or egg metaphor is so concerned with creating certainty about how something started, rather than caring about what the cycle creates (well, you know, omelets and KFC).

    There is a great Frontline documentary “Merchants of Cool” that shows how once these marketing/social trends get started, both sides tend to feed the other. I show that to my culture class each semester and the Korean kids get it, and are appropriately appalled, each time I do.

    Here’s a great article about marketing having become the most dominant force in human culture which suggests that not only is marketing on one side affecting culture, but that it has also become a critical part of the culture itself.

    I personally, am happy to surrender to my new corporate advertising overlords and suggest that blogs like this, those that attempt to look behind the curtain, will be sharply dealt with in the near future. All right-thinking citizens look forward to that day!

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