There is little point in talking about the fundamental appeal of the countries as they are now, but I’ve come up with some possible historical explanations:
– Japan opened up to the world just as Chinoiserie was getting old hat, making Japanisme a sure fire hit. By the time that Korea also opened up, the last thing people wanted was yet another Asian fashion boom
– Like it or not, military success (even of your enemies) has a certain appeal. Just as the Nazis are much more interesting for the Hitler Channel (“affectionate” nickname of the History Channel) than the sufferings of the Dutch, the military exploits of the first Asian country to defeat a European one are much more interesting to read about, both as fiction and history, than the litany of victimhood that is the Korean past.
– Ditto for the militaristic Samurai and the bureaucratic Yangban, or at least the self image of them
– The economic growth of Korea is even more impressive than that of Japan, but happened when the Japanese overtaking the US made the news much more than the Koreans rapidly coming up behind.
– Korea simply doesn’t lend itself to the simplistic one line explanations that have spawned a million bullshit but still readable books about Japan
– Much of what we think we appreciate as exotic Japanese art (such as late ukiyoe, manga, Murakami Haruki, Kurosawa movies, and contemporary Japanese art) is much more affected by Western influence and therefore palatable to us than we might think
– Other examples of the Japanese just getting there first while we were still interested, such as Akira Kurosawa being the first Asian to win a big cinematic prize
– The conscious selling of Japanese culture by the Japanese government and business. The Koreans have mainly concentrated on selling their own pop music and soap operas to other Asian countries, a market with some understandable resistance to the Japanese, leaving the Japanese to take over the west
– Some random influences, like Memoirs of a Geisha, Shogun and The Last Samurai being the right kind of populist escapist tosh at the right time. They could just as easily have been based in Korea, but they just weren’t. Unfortunately for the Koreans, each random happening like that sets up another whole generation of people who are fascinated by Japan and so more likely to support the next Japan based Western cultural product rather than a
– Just as the Japanese economy was sinking and anyway becoming a story that had been covered to death and the Korean economic miracle looked like becoming newsworthy, the Chinese economy opened up and the film industry took off, making for a cultural version of most of their historical overshadowing