Hong Kong – a city in love with Japan, but flirting with a new flame as Korean culture explodes
From food to consumer goods, travel to television, Japan has fascinated Hongkongers for decades, but a new generation is now looking to its neighbour for inspiration
Take a walk around Hong Kong, and maybe the first thing you will notice among the jumble of wet markets, convenience stores and cha chaan teng is the large number of Japanese restaurants, with almost one on every corner in some districts.
Pop into a 7-Eleven or Circle K, and the shelves will be piled high with all manner of Japanese branded confectionery, snacks and soft drinks.
Japanese products also dominate the health and beauty stores found everywhere in Hong Kong, and Japanese luxury department stores such as Sogo have an unmistakable presence in the city’s busiest shopping districts of Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui.
Japanese chain stores such as Muji, Okashi Land, 759 Store and Japan Home Centre have also made a mark on Hong Kong’s retail landscape and infiltrated the daily lives of many Hongkongers.
Japan is Hong Kong’s fourth largest trading partner after mainland China, the United States and Singapore, according to statistics from the government’s Trade and Industry Department. Figures from the Japanese consulate show that the city has been the world’s biggest importer of Japanese foods since 2007.
These facts go some way to explaining Hong Kong’s love affair with Japanese culture, but that popularity also stems from Japan’s economic and manufacturing boom of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Propelled by the Japanese economic miracle, Japanese products developed a reputation for being higher quality and more technologically advanced than their counterparts from China and the West.
Japan has also largely managed to avoid the consumer scandals that have plagued Chinese manufacturers, from the 2008 contaminated baby milk controversy to a booming counterfeit goods market.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of locals think products from the West, Japan and Korea are ‘higher class’ than things from the mainland, which they see as tacky,” says Sathya Naidu, 32, who moved to Hong Kong four years ago from Bangalore in India.
“Even on big Chinese e-commerce sites like Taobao, the most popular clothes always seem to be Japanese or Korean styles.”
Hong Kong’s geographical closeness to Japan and its economically developed neighbour South Korea have also influenced significant cross-cultural exchanges.
Both are popular travel destinations for Hongkongers: tourist numbers to Japan reached an all-time high of 1.84 million last year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation.
Locals also flocked to South Korea earlier this year following a Chinese boycott of the country due to its installation of the controversial THAAD anti-missile defence system.
In addition to consumer products and travel, Japanese and Korean soft culture is also much more popular among Hongkongers than that of mainland China, especially in the younger generation.
In the language learning sections of Hong Kong bookstores, the amount of Japanese and Korean educational material is almost on a par with that in English.
Konstance Li Chun-tong, 32, is fluent in Japanese and has been an avid fan of Japanese culture since childhood, when he would spend hours glued to the television watching the country’s cartoon series.
“As a kid, I imagined what life would be like in Japan and this carried on until university, when my major offered a course in Japanese art history along with language lessons,” says Li, who is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Hong Kong.
“During this time, I finally got to travel there and experience Japanese culture first-hand.”
He now returns to the country once or twice a year, mainly to catch the latest television shows and go shopping. Li also enjoys the easy access to Japanese language learning resources in Hong Kong.
“I definitely find Japanese culture more attractive than Chinese culture – it’s very sophisticated, and has a blend of the traditional and the modern,” Li says.
“When I grew up in the 1990s, the Japanese economic bubble had burst but it was still the richest country in Asia, and exported a lot of soft power overseas. It’s just what I grew up with, and this affinity continues until now.”
But there are growing signs that Hong Kong millennials are leaning towards Korean culture over Japanese culture.
This is in large part driven by the explosive worldwide popularity of “K-pop” and “K-dramas” in the past decade, such as Descendants of the Sun and My Love From Another Star.
K-pop is now valued at a staggering US$4.7 billion, according to Bloomberg. Streaming figures and YouTube views for Korean chart hits occasionally dwarf those of US music industry superstars.
Tiffany Ho Wing-ka, 26, can date her love of K-pop back to 2005, when boy bands like TVXQ and Super Junior were popular in Asia.
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“Nowadays, they perform in Hong Kong more frequently but back then, we could only access their music through YouTube videos,” she says.
The paralegal, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, claims that her preference for Korean over Japanese pop culture is due to a generational shift in tastes.
“My elder sister is fluent in Japanese, and like her, many Hongkongers born in the 1980s love ‘J-pop’ while people born after 1990 love K-pop,” she says.
“Hong Kong is a very multicultural city and we can fall in love with whatever we come across on the internet – it’s easy for our interests to change within a short time.”
Hongkongers’ love of Korean culture inevitably extends to fashion, in which South Korean models, designers and social media influencers have been the style trailblazers of Asia in recent years.
Korean fashion has also benefited from the massive global popularity of street wear, in large part driven by the highly image-conscious, aspirational Instagram feeds of millennials.
As a result, Korea remains at the forefront of innovative youth culture, with Seoul Fashion Week becoming a major fixture in the fashion calendar.
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According to Korea expert and Chinese University of Hong Kong lecturer in global studies Steve Chung Lok-wai, Korean pop culture’s specialisation in visual impact means it is especially popular among young people.
“Nowadays young people in Hong Kong are obsessed with what’s trendy, and that suits the big presence of Korean pop culture online and on social media,” Chung says.
Tiffany Ho admits that she and her friends in Hong Kong regularly scour the Instagram pages of Korean online clothing storesfor fashion and beauty inspiration.
It also helps that Hongkongers are used to enjoying foreign popular culture of all kinds since the city does not have a history of censorship, Chung adds.
Chung also believes that the rising popularity of Korean culture in Hong Kong has coincided with the waning influence of Japan as an economic power in the 2000s.
“The South Korean entertainment industry has received a lot of government investment in the last decade to promote the country’s image globally. During this time, the Korean economy specialised in hi-tech and pop culture, so now it’s a very important cultural power in Asia.”
But does he believe that Korean pop culture will overtake Japanese pop culture in popularity in Hong Kong?
“Of course, this is the phenomenon nowadays,” he says. “If you talk to young people and see how they dress, they’re all affected by Korean over Japanese culture.
“I think they’d even choose Seoul over Tokyo for travel – it’s a pop culture paradise.”