​[INTERVIEW] How K-pop culture reshapes Japan's music industry and fans

By Park Sae-jin Posted : September 17, 2021, 17:45 Updated : September 17, 2021, 17:48

[Courtesy of Big Hit]

SEOUL -- There was once a time when Japanese cultural content, especially music, had controlled the culture of fashion, arts, and entertainment in South Korea. During the 1990s, culture-savvy teenagers had indulged in Japanese media. Mainstream idol bands dressed like their Japanese counterparts and sang songs that had similar beats and rhythms. Many young South Koreans felt that their culture was inferior compared to Japan's.

However, the table has turned during the mid-2000s when the Japanese entertainment industry chose to focus on the domestic market while its South Korean counterpart constantly knocked on the door of the global market, utilizing the latest trends including YouTube and social media. K-pop artists directly reached out to global fans to communicate and establish a strong bond through social media, but Japanese artists had kept to themselves to create a closed hierarchy system that only involved domestic fans supporting and idolizing artists.

"Now, South Korea is ahead of Japan in sectors such as films and music. Japan was leading by a short margin in the early 2000s when TVXQ debuted, but now we are overtaken in the blink of an eye," Shunichi Tokura, the Commissioner of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, a division of Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, told Japanese media during a press conference shortly after taking his seat in April 2021.

The commissioner, tasked with promoting Japanese art and culture abroad, vowed to work hard and help the recovery of music in Japan and emphasized the importance of unity in the Japanese music industry so that Japan might keep up with the likes of South Korea.

It is unusual for a Japanese government official in charge of cultural development to say that Japan's culture was overtaken by a certain country. His comment clearly shows how Japan views the spread of Hallyu (the Korean cultural wave).

Korean cultural content, which has expanded its influence around the world, is rapidly increasing its presence in Japan. At the same time, it is a dangerous competitor that overtook Japanese culture, which once led the Asian market, and is also an uncomfortable genre produced by South Korea, which is politically and historically intertwined with Japan. Therefore, the acceptance of K-pop in Japan shows "complex and subtle enthusiasm" that is very different from other countries.

Japan topped the list of countries that tweeted a lot about K-pop in 2020, based on ordinary Twitter users, reflecting the strong presence of South Korean music in Japan. This phenomenon can be tracked in the music market. The number of K-pop albums that reached the top 100 of Japan's Oricon charts in 2020 reached 26. In tallies as of July, the number of K-pop albums ranked in the top 50 in monthly CD sales stood at 13.

With the release of her debut Japanese studio album, "Listen to My Heart" (2002), BoA became the first South Korean pop star to break through in Japan following the fall of barriers that had restricted the import and export of entertainment.

Since then, second-generation male groups such as TVXQ, Big Bang and SHINee and female groups like Girls' Generation and Kara have gained popularity. Although it had been lulled for several years, groups like TWICE gained popularity again and began to increase fandom again in the mid to late 2010s.

According to Japan's Nikkei Entertainment, which does a yearly release of surveys on talent in Japan, the number of spectators for TVXQ's tour in Japan reached about 1.28 million in 2018 alone, setting a new record.

"As the idol industry changed to a profit model centered on CD sales and offline meetings, the center of consumption has shifted to middle-aged people who are economically free and time-consuming," Tsukasa Shirakawa, a translator and cultural critic, said in an article titled "Why K-pop makes Japanese young people enthusiastic," which was published on Diamond Online, a premier online source for the analysis of Japanese business and current affairs. "On the other hand, young people who cannot afford it have turned their eyes to K-pop idols that are easy to consume through the Internet such as YouTube."

As the consumption of K-pop idols increased, the way they looked at idols in Japanese culture also changed. Shirakawa pointed out, "Japanese idols have been 'cheering' targets in the past, but for many young people in Japan now, K-pop idols have become an object of admiration that entertains consumers because they have many entertainment talents." In Japan, there was a unique culture of supporting idols by viewing them as "unmatured," but the trend changed as K-pop consumption increased among young people.

However, Japan is a country that has a passive consumption of Hallyu and is high in negative perception among Asian countries. According to the 2021 global Hallyu trend report released by the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE), Japan recorded 2.88, the lowest level among major Asian countries, in the index, which measures the level of popularization and growth of Hallyu. There has been little change in the past three years until 2020. The utilization and concentration of Hallyu are also the lowest among major countries, showing the notable Galapagos phenomenon of Japanese culture.

In Japan, the rate of negative awareness for Hallyu has been steadily increasing since 2018 in contrast to a decline in most countries except China. The negative recognition rate rose from 29.8 percent in 2018 to 31.4 percent in 2019 and 33.2 percent in 2020. The most common reason was cited as political and diplomatic conflicts, which accounted for 41.6 percent, followed by historical relations with 34.9 percent and negative thoughts on the character of Koreans with 31.6 percent. Non-content factors have adversely affected the perception of Hallyu. In particular, the item on South Korea's national character reflects the growing "hate" sentiment in Japan.

In the early 2000s, Japan led the Asian music market by creating a J-pop fandom. But the heyday didn't last. The 2020 music industry white paper published by the Korea Creative Content Agency, a government agency charged with governing cultural content, made an assessment: "Japan was one of the largest music markets in the world until the early 2000s, but it has fallen behind the trend of global markets, which were reorganized into streaming music with borders and genres blurred by the spread of idol culture, based on emotional empathy between fans and artists as a major marketing tool rather than musicality."

Such a sense of crisis prevails within Japan as well. "For a long time, the growth potential of foreign male groups has been extremely limited in Japan, where artists from Johnny & Associates have become the norm, mainly on terrestrial TV. However, in the 2010s, K-pop, which used YouTube and other Internet media, opened the Japanese market, and Japan's popular music which was enjoying the Galapagos environment is facing global competition at once," said Japanese entertainment writer and reporter Soichiro Matsutani.

"According to our research, there are more than 30 Japanese celebrities who debuted as K-pop artists as of September last year, and they are practicing 10 to 100 times more in South Korea than in Japan," said Matsutani. "A lot of young people are just trying to carve out their future in South Korea, but it's nothing more than a talent drain in the Japanese entertainment industry."

The case of Japanese singer Sakura Miyawaki, who signed an exclusive contract with Hybe, a South Korean entertainment powerhouse established by BTS creator Bang Si-hyuk, clearly shows the recent trend. Miyawaki is a former first-generation member of Japan's idol girl group HKT48 and a former member of Japanese-South Korean girl group IZ*One after finishing second in survival reality television show Produce 48 in 2018.

As K-pop's influence grows in all directions in culture, self-reflection is growing on Japan's idol culture. There was once a self-examination that mentioned the need for system maintenance following the death of Mary Yasuko Fujishima, honorary chairperson of Japan's major talent agency Johnny & Associates.

While K-pop is changing the shape of Japan's stubborn music industry, the South Korean music culture has also brought fresh winds to Japanese fan communities. Fans are no longer embarrassed to express themselves. They now proudly say that they support South Korean artists and eagerly create K-pop-related content that would attract and nurture more K-pop fan younglings.

Hiroko Sasa, an assistant professor of Japanese studies at Cyber Hankuk University of Foreign Studies [Photograph by Yoo Dae-gil]

Hiroko Sasa, an assistant professor of Japanese studies at Cyber Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said that watching a late-night music show sparked her interest in K-pop. The show called "Asia N Beat", which aired on Fuji Television in 1994, was a refreshing shock when she was a high school student at the time.

Through the music show that introduced songs from various Asian countries, Sasa first became interested in K-Pop. Listening to Seo Taiji and the Boys' "Dreaming of Balhae" and songs of K-pop duo Deux had a strange attraction. Their music was somewhat different from the Japanese music she has listened to. The vibe of K-pop was exotic and novel. The rap and dance performance offered a refreshing sensation that had not yet been witnessed in Japanese pop culture at the time.

"Maybe if I hadn't watched that show, I wouldn't be in South Korea now," Sasa recalled.

Because she was a teenager when she fell in love with Korean music, Sasa's interest in South Korea also grew. While taking a short-term language program during her freshman year of college, her fondness and curiosity towards Korea's popular music got bigger to bring a huge impact on her lifetime choice.

After a month in Korea, Sasa's life slowly began to change its direction. Her one-month-long experience in the neighboring country was something that she had never experienced. All the people she met were kind and they treated Sasa and other Japanese people with an excessive amount of curiosity.

Although Sasa learned history in school, she did not learn in detail about Japan's 1910~1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula. Most Koreans she met asked her about her opinions on their tumultuous history and Korea-Japan relations such as "What do you think of Japan's colonization of Korea in the past?" She couldn't answer properly because she was embarrassed.

She was shocked by the fact that the same question was asked by so many people. She started to question why Koreans treated her this way and the self-questioning process fed her burgeoning curiosity about this emerging economic and cultural powerhouse.

After returning to Japan, Sasa was intrigued by a small advertisement in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun that led her to return to Korea. The ad was about a program titled "The Korea-Japan Joint East Asia Peace Workshop." The schedule and timing of the event in South Korea were perfect. She applied for the program because the questions that remained during her one-month stay at South Korea's Soongsil University did not leave her mind.

The peace workshop was a program that dealt with historical conflicts and reconciliation between South Korea and Japan, including the issue of forced labor in Japan. Young people from both countries participated. And after that summer, Sasa's life has completely changed.

"When I revisited South Korea in the 2000s after graduating from college, the country had changed a bit. Koreans didn't bluntly ask questions about the relationship between Japan and South Korea. Was it because it was after South Korea opened its cultural borders to Japanese culture in the late 1990s? People told me more stories about Korean culture than about historical conflicts."

Sasa visited South Korea because she truly wanted to study the Korean language. When one loves a particular country's music, the passion and interest in the language follow. She began learning the Korean language after returning. While teaching Japanese and being a member of an amateur band, her time spent in South Korea gradually increased from one to two years. Eventually, now, it has been almost 20 years. Sasa, who started her journey and life in South Korea through her passion for music, sparked by a late-night program, is now an assistant professor at Cyber Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

Not long ago, a short paper was published on how K-pop affects the language of certain Japanese communities. The Korean language naturally smeared into the language of Japanese K-pop fans and formed another language system.

"For example, we now use the word pronounced as 'pen (ペン)' to describe fans, instead of using the pronunciation 'huan (ファン)' which we used for many years to describe groups of fans that follow specific stars," Sasa said, adding that the Japanese word pen (ペン) is similar to that of Korean "pan (팬)," the English word spoken in Korean style.

Sasa also said that other K-pop fan-related words used in Japan, such as "sasen (サセン)," the Japanese pronunciation for Korean word Sasaeng used to describe overly intrusive fans, chikkemu (チッケム)," the Japanese pronunciation for Korean word Jikcam meaning fan-made film clips, and "penmi (ペンミ)" meaning fan meeting, are used without translation, reflecting the convergence of South Korean and Japanese cultures.

"I don't know," Sasa frankly revealed her thoughts about whether the increasing number of Japanese K-pop fans could bring a positive effect to the relationship between South Korea and Japan, referring to a dispute that has locked South Korea and Japan in a stalemate.

For almost 80 years, South Korea has demanded that Japan  acknowledge and compensate forced labor and war crimes that took place during Japan's colonial rule. About eight million Koreans were forced to work and some 200,000 women were sent as sex slaves to brothels at the frontline camps of Japan's Imperial Army in Southeast Asia. 

Sasa said that it is because many young Japanese K-pop fans like South Korean music but they have no interest in the political relationship between South Korea and Japan. She added that the awareness of history among Japanese fans has not changed much, despite the fact that K-pop is rapidly gaining popularity among young generations.

There were spontaneous spikes in the popularity of Korean entertainment content but the craze did not significantly affect public opinions on bilateral relations. Sometimes, far-right Japanese activists rolled out a hatred campaign against Koreans and expressed severe hostility towards K-pop fans.

Sasa described herself as a huge K-pop fan. Her interest has moved away from Seo Taiji and Boys, but she still thinks Korean music is attractive. Another unique character of K-pop that captivates Sasa is its strong fandom. "In Japan, people get a little cautious when someone else likes my favorite celebrity. But it is different in Korea. Koreans encourage each other, share information, and passionately cooperate to raise fandom. These features are also clearly reflected on Twitter. K-pop fans altogether share strong feelings of solidarity."

As Sasa became a K-pop fan, she gained more followers. Sometimes she translates and uploads content that is difficult for Japanese to access, and she also shares broadcast schedules. It is a free favor involving a small effort that helps "raise the younglings," just like most other fans do, in their own individual ways.

Sasa said that she became very happy after she committed herself to fan activities. The biggest feature of K-pop artists is that they frequently communicate with fans. There are some commercial activities by artists who always look for points where fans can participate in. Sasa believes that not regulating fans from profit-making activities also played a major role in the popularization of K-pop.

"In Japan, idol agencies thoroughly manage photos and videos. The so-called 're-selling' culture, in which fans take pictures, make and sell goods, is also hard to imagine in Japan," Sasa said, pointing out that various videos distributed on YouTube and social media help fans to consume songs and artist-related content.

"South Korean artists seemed as if they were already prepared for the global network where culture is distributed," Sasa said. The music culture definitely has musical attraction but the free distribution of content and the close-up interaction between artists and fans boosted the unique culture's attraction.

[The original article was written in Korean by Aju Business Daily reporter Yoon Eun-sook]

[This article was sponsored by the Korea Press Foundation]
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