About 20 years ago, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man with a scarf around his neck showed the world how spellbinding South Korean dramas can be.
“Winter Sonata,” a television drama series starring Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo, dazzled countless Japanese women, some 6,000 of whom gathered at the Tokyo airport to catch a glimpse of Bae in November 2004. Some of them -- mostly aged 43 to 65 -- were even injured while pushing through the crowds to get a better view of the actor, whom they called “Yonsama.” “Sama” is a Japanese suffix used to show respect for royalty, among others, and “Yon” comes from “Yong” in the actor's name.
Initially aired in Korea in 2002 and in Japan in 2004, the show's plot follows the story of an illegitimate son of a renowned musician who falls in love as a teenager. He then loses his memory after a car accident and is found by his first love 10 years later. Although he doesn’t remember her, he falls in love with her again.
Japanese fans told media at the time that they fell for Yonsama because the character he played was gentlemanly, refined and "not like" the Japanese men of the time. He appeared to have touched on older women’s nostalgia for the way things used to be, and their longing for an emotional bond they felt they would not find in their own lives.
“I liked that the highly unrealistic setting, plot and charm of the protagonist shut out all the noise from reality and allowed me to fully immerse in the feeling of a pure first love,” recalled Kim Sung-min, a mother in her 40s.
“It’s a shame that this kind of innocence or purity (in popular culture) is often ridiculed these days.”
Shot on the beautiful Namiseom -- a small river island in Gangwon Province -- and in Seoul, complete with melodramatic songs playing at the show's most crucial moments, “Winter Sonata” heralded a wave of Korean drama series that would sweep across other countries in Asia and beyond, starting with Japan.
The success of “Winter Sonata” led to a dramatic increase in Japanese tourism to South Korea, with throngs of Japanese women going on organized tours of the scenic locations where the series was filmed.
A collection of Bae’s photographs, many of which showed off his physique, quickly sold out in Japan as soon as it was published in 2004. The photo book, titled “The Image Vol. One,” sold more than 100,000 copies in just three days of its release, despite its price tag of over 150,000 won (about $142 at the time).