SEOUL -- Diplomatic ties between South Korea and Japan may be strained at the moment, but young South Koreans' fascination with Japanese popular culture and travel may offer an unofficial route to better relations between the often prickly neighbors.
Novelist Keigo Higashino is popular in South Korea. His books hold prime shelf space in the country's bookstores. On a September day, two college students in Seoul chatted in a bookshop about Higashino's novel, "Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki" ("Miracles of the Namiya General Store").
"Have you read this book? It's good," said one friend.
"Not yet, but I should read it," the other replied.
Two of Higashino's works were among the 15 best-selling novels at the shop. But as of Sept. 1, the top selling book of any genre was "Seiyaku," ("The Vow") by Gaku Yakumaru, another Japanese novelist. Several other Japanese novels were also on the best-seller list.
One 35-year-old Seoul resident said Japanese novels are an everyday topic of conversation. For young South Koreans, Japanese novels are a window into the country's society and culture.
Many take the next step, visiting Japan to experience it for themselves. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, 7.14 million South Koreans visited in 2017 up 40% on the year. That put it just behind (much larger) China, which sent 7.35 million tourists.
In the first half of this year, arrivals from the two countries came to about 4 million each. South Korea could be the top provider of foreign tourists to Japan for the full year.
The rapid increase in tourists from South Korea reflects their greater willingness to explore. One 25 year-old woman, for example, visited Tottori Prefecture in western Japan, which is famous for its sand dunes. For younger travelers, the countryside offers a change of pace from the urban centers like Tokyo and Kyoto that many first-time visitors see.
According to Park Kyung-hee, who has run a Japanese language school in Seoul for more than 10 years, more people in their 20s and 30s are learning Japanese, often motivated by travel programs and variety shows that introduce different aspects of Japan.
The Japanese language boom in South Korea began several years ago. Before that, Chinese lessons were more popular, particularly among job-seekers looking for an edge. But many find Chinese tough to master. The younger generation, which grew up with Japanese manga and anime, is showing renewed interest in Japanese, said Park.
Despite the affinity for Japanese pop culture among some South Koreans, negative sentiment toward Japan runs deep, especially among people on the political left. And even the cultural openness is relatively new. Until 1998, South Korea banned Japanese pop culture, including films.
Earlier this month, South Koreans protested a planned visit by a Japanese warship because it flew the naval ensign, which is the same flag used by the Japanese military during World War II. South Korean TV programs that highlight positive aspects of Japanese society also attract criticism from nationalists.
People in their 20s and 30s seem less touchy about Japan, however, and they have more immediate concerns, such as their own country's high jobless rate.