A record album of once-popular American songs, including "Tennessee Waltz," "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Fly Me to the Moon," has missed the nostalgia market it was aimed at here but has scored a political bull's-eye.
Only 2,000 copies of the album have been sold since July, when the Hankook Record Co. put it on the market, but it has precipitated warnings from the Ministry of Culture and Information and a public condemnation by the government's Korea Broadcasting System.
It is not the choice of songs that is at issue, it is the singer--Frank Nagai, a Japanese who got his start as an entertainer for American troops during the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II.
At the end of the war--and of 35 years of Japanese colonial rule in Korea--the government here banned the recording and broadcasting of Japanese songs. The ban is still in effect and, judging by the reaction to the Nagai album, the prospects for lifting it are not bright.
Nagai's album of American oldies, all sung in English, raised eyebrows here because it is the first time in about 20 years that an album by any Japanese singer became available legally here.
Paek Won Moo, international manager for the Hankook firm, made it clear that his decision to bring out the record was in no way designed to challenge the government ban on Japanese songs.
Paek said the record was aimed at Koreans in their mid-30s or older, people who heard Nagai in his heyday. Nagai, he said, has a "distinctive baritone voice, the kind that appeals to Koreans, and most of his songs are waltzes, which are almost extinct now."
Popular music in Korea is heavily influenced by hard rock, he complained, and added: "Can you imagine young couples growing old and, upon hearing any of today's popular songs, holding hands and saying to each other, 'Dear, they're playing our song'? "
The Nagai album, Paek said, was meant to fill that void.
Hankook has not given up. Another 1,500 copies of the album are being issued and Paek said the firm considers it "a long-range project, like a classical music recording."
But the government may have something to say about that. Paek said that officials of the Ministry of Culture and Information have warned that the ban on Japanese music might have to be expanded to include Japanese singers if the industry starts putting out great numbers of recordings by Japanese artists singing in English.
The Nagai record has had little exposure on radio and television. A spokesman for the Korea Broadcasting System told a newspaper that it regards Nagai as being from a "bygone era" and sees no reason to play his music.
This is not the first time Hankook has suffered failure in reproducing music under license from the Victor Record Co. of Japan. Paek said his firm also fell flat in an attempt to sell classical music performed by the Osaka Symphony Orchestra. "Koreans," he said, "are prejudiced against Japanese in classical music. They prefer recordings by European orchestras."
The only successful records Hankook has produced under license from Japan Victor, Paek said, have been by American and French artists, records the Japanese firm produced under license from American and French companies.
Paek said he agrees with the government's ban on Japanese songs, pointing out that the colonial period "produced many bitter experiences and many bitter memories." The government, he said, "has to listen to cultural and civic organizations that are opposed to exposing the younger generation to any Japanese culture."
He added that he finds it irritating that not only many Western scholars but also South Koreans themselves are ignorant of the musical traditions of Korea, which he said has a longer history and a higher level of development than Japanese music. For example, he said, the koto, a harplike Japanese instrument, dates back only several hundred years, whereas similar Korean instruments, the kayakum and the komungo , have existed for more than 1,500 years.
Paek said that lifting the ban on Japanese songs would encourage unscrupulous Korean entrepreneurs to create "an unfavorable market atmosphere to sell Japanese records, and I think this should be avoided."
Paek refused to spell out what he meant by "unfavorable market atmosphere," but he said that South Koreans must be educated in their musical history and culture before the ban on Japanese music can be lifted.
Even though Japanese prejudice toward Koreans is well documented, South Korea's ban on Japanese songs has been called unreasonable in view of the recent success of Korean singers in Japan. There are many Koreans living in Japan who perform under Japanese names, and two South Korean singers, Cho Yong Pil and I Sung Ae, have had major hits in Japan in recent years. Both have grown wealthy on the royalties from Japanese sales of their recordings.
Despite the ban on Japanese songs, Japanese music is widely heard in South Korea, on tapes and records brought back by travelers and by means of pirated recordings. Korean businessmen and students, even government officials, know dozens of Japanese songs--and sing them in bars and clubs. But formally lifting the ban is another matter .
Despite an exchange of visits by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, an exchange that both described as ringing down the curtain on memories of the "old era," the ban on Japanese songs is so sensitive to Koreans that Japan has refrained from raising it as a diplomatic issue.
Still, the Nagai album has been a step forward. Nagai is the first Japanese singer ever to receive a royalty payment from South Korea (his earlier recordings that were played here were all pirated).
Until about three years ago, Korean recording companies paid no royalties for any foreign music. Now all 10 of the recording firms registered with the Ministry of Culture and Informaton produce foreign music under license from foreign firms.
There are 50 other, smaller record companies, and some of them continue to engage in piracy, but according to Paek "illegal production of records is almost extinct in South Korea."