How Korean Pop Conquered Japan

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The more modern sound and suggestive imagery of K-Pop is challenging J-Pop on its home turf

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South Korean pops group Girls Generation performs on the stage during the K-Pop All-Star live concert in Niigata, northern Japan, on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Thousands of Japanese protestors gathered in Tokyo last month, but they weren't rallying against nuclear power, the country's revolving-door Prime Minister position, or the long-stagnant economy. Their wrath, rather, was directed at soap operas. In late July, Japanese actor Sousuke Takaoka was fired from his promotion agency after criticizing the Fuji TV network on Twitter for airing so many Korean programs that he felt "brainwashed." By August 21, a reported 6,000 people had gathered outside of Fuji TV's headquarters, carrying Japanese flags and shouting "No more Korean wave."

In Japan—a country that has prided itself on producing and exporting its own fantastical pop culture—Korean entertainment has come to gobble up massive portions of melodrama and musical market share. Not only do Korean dramas air frequently on TV, but in the past year Korean pop groups like Girls' Generation and KARA have shattered sales records and become primetime fixtures on Japanese television programs, thanks to a mish-mash of Western club-friendly and a sped-up tempo appropriate for an arcade. This boom in Korean entertainment isn't just about units moved or appearances on talk shows; Korean media, especially pop music, has exploded in the Land of the Rising Sun because the K-Pop architects have embraced everything that the Japanese music industry has shunned for years.

K-Pop groups look and act like real adults, whereas J-Pop outfits often emphasize adolescent cuteness

The Korean Wave is a global phenomenon, but its arrival in Japan can be traced back to a show about memory loss. In 2003, Japanese network NHK aired the South Korean drama Winter Sonata, centering on a music prodigy who emerges from a car crash with amnesia. The show became a surprise hit, especially among older women, prompting Winter Sonata-themed tour packages and a classical concert tour of Japan featuring music from the series. That same year, K-Pop made its first big inroads into Japan, as Korean singer BoA climbed the music charts. In BoA's wake, Korean boy bands TVXQ and Big Bang achieved similar success.

Since then, K-Pop has come to rival J-Pop in popularity. In August 2010, KARA and Girls' Generation (also known as SNSD, mostly in the Western world) crashed the Japanese charts with their singles "Mister" and "Genie" respectively. Both of those songs also had been hits in their native Korea, and, after undergoing some translation, proved just as popular in Japan. Today, both outfits have had runs at the top of the charts that have broken sales records for foreign artists in Japan, while their debut albums have all been certified as at least platinum. Girls' Generation's self-titled album even went double platinum, a first for any Korean girl group.

More significantly, Korean pop groups are becoming ingrained in this island nation's music landscape. While Western artists like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are definitely popular in Japan, they are essentially fleeting visitors, only stopping by when they have a new album to hock. They'll fly over, do some TV appearances and maybe a brief tour, then vanish. This latest crop of K-Pop artists, though, is sticking around. KARA and Girls' Generation are becoming regulars on television, whether it's to perform a single or just being lampooned by the Japanese version of Saturday Night Live. In 2011, both groups released songs exclusively for the Japanese market, sung entirely in Japanese (the members of each group have learned Japanese), which have been predictably popular. Korean groups such as 2NE1, Brown Eyed Girls, and 2PM also have followed them into Japan. The latter, a boy band, debuted their first single at No. 4 on Japan's Oricon Charts, the nation's most prominent music-ranking list.

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Part of K-Pop's success in Japan can be attributed to globe-hopping musical production. Ian Martin of The Japan Times writes that Korean acts take most of their cues from Western music, meaning a lot of European electro house (2NE1's Diplo-ish "I'm The Best") and American R&B touches (Girls' Generation's "Mr. Taxi" and KARA's "Mister") among other influences. In the case of Girls' Generation, it especially helps that most of the tracks on their Japanese debut album were sculpted by Western producers. These touches might not necessarily impress Western ears, but in Japan they ring revelatory. A common stereotype about Japan is that it's a nation stubborn to change, and in regards to J-Pop, this is completely correct. Most of the popular tracks of today could have been frozen back in the mid '90s and thawed out at any time, the combination of goofy numbers and sappy ballads remaining basically unchanged for the past two decades. Japanese music plays it safe, resulting in a bland popscape where artists have very little opportunity to expand internationally. Meanwhile, K-Pop has conquered Japan and most of Asia, and is even taking baby steps into the Western world.

Image also plays a critical role in separating the two countries' pop music. A crass way of summing it up is this: K-Pop stars out-sex their J-Pop counterparts. The members of Girls' Generation show a fair amount of skin in their music videos, while many fans were drawn to KARA by a chunk of choreography Wikipedia dubs "the butt dance." Beyond straight-up sex appeal, K-Pop groups look and act like real adults, whereas J-Pop outfits often emphasize adolescent cuteness. K-Pop unit T-ara's 2009 video for the song "Bo Peep Bo Peep" centered around a member of the girl group going to a club and hooking up with a guy in the bathroom, an elevator, and his apartment. The Japanese clip, in advance of T-ara's official Japanese debut later this month, finds the members wearing cat ears and playing un-erotically with one another: the sexuality of the original replaced with Hello-Kitty-approved cuteness. The most popular Japanese act of the moment, AKB48, is a collection of 48 singers usually wearing high-school uniforms while behaving like 15-year-old girls. It's been a tried-and-true path to pop success; Japanese singers have been donning their staple sailor suits since the '70s-a fashion shtick that's far from progressive. Girls' Generation and KARA aren't glimmering examples of feminism, but at least they look and act like grown women.

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Patrick St. Michel is a journalist living in Tokyo. He writes for The Japan Times and founded the Japanese music blog Make Believe Melodies. He has also contributed to Esquire.com, the Los Angeles Daily News, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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