There’s been a big jump in the popularity of the already much-followed Korean pop music (or K-pop) in Japan over the past year—a trend that’s being attributed to ‘cooler,’ more talented (thanks to a more vigorous training regiment) and more individualistic Korean female pop groups, especially compared to their Japanese counterparts.
I recently spoke to Robert Michael Poole, CEO of Something Drastic International Music Promotion and Tokyo editor at CNNGo, about this phenomenon. Poole follows K-pop closely and has interviewed some of the country’s biggest acts, including 4Minute, 2NE1 and Brown Eyed Girls, and has also worked with Big Bang.
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Attending K-pop shows in Japan, I’ve noticed that the majority of the audiences are young girls, not boys. This can be seen as a pop culture reflection of actual social trends. In Japan during the last few years, men have become increasingly homely, effeminate and passive, including the so-called herbivores, and they also have much less interest in sex. Women, on the other hand, are getting stronger and are feeling more independent.
So, Korean girl groups appeal to increasingly independent young women in Japan as role models, while local acts aren’t cutting it anymore?
Yes. The Japanese pop market has typically been all about cuteness, presenting boys with the ideal submissive girl to treat like a doll rather than lust over. But for the girls, they’ve represented the role model that they’re supposed to be.
So the Korean boom of girl groups has coincided with the aforementioned social malaise. The K-pop groups are the tonic that the girls in Japan need—new role models that show it’s cool and attractive to be strong-minded. Japanese girls, and I’m still generalizing here, see the K-pop groups as looking to the future, and J-pop groups as being old Japan, dated. They want to be like the K-pop group image put before them, and the confidence they see in those images is what they aspire to.
Will the Japanese music industry follow the K-pop example and start catering more to their young female consumers?
The J-pop industry couldn’t create a K-pop style group, because Japanese girls being that edgy would be seen as wholly un-Japanese. It’s likely a J-pop group of that type would be sidelined.
It seems girl groups in Japan have actually become increasingly cuter, younger and presented as servants (maids being the ultimate example), with the likes of AKB48 and their many copycats. These appeal to the guys in Japan as their dream partner. As for the K-pop groups, I think because they are non-Japanese, it’s subconsciously OK for Japanese guys in general not to like them and feel good about that, since they are considered outsiders.
Many suggest that another reason K-pop is rising in popularity in Japan is because Korean pop stars are simply more talented. Are they?
Yes. Musically, the K-pop groups are light years ahead, the groups are far better trained and choreographed and they take their cues straight from the US, while J-pop is still stuck in the late 1990s musically, regurgitating the same sounds.
The K-pop group girls are put through tough auditions. I’ve seen the audition tapes of some of the biggest bands around, and there’s no doubt some have real talent. In J-pop, image and cuteness is taken into account far above actual ability, and even when there are amazing vocalists (such as Alan), they are shoe-horned into the regular cute, pretty J-pop girl image. Some of the K-pop groups were even self-formed (Brown-Eyed Girls), then signed, as opposed to manufactured. That’s not to say that much of the music they release is created by them as original product—it’s still pop after all.
So should the Japanese music industry be afraid?
I'd say so. It’s a wake up call. In 1999 J-pop woke up from a slumber of dance dirge when several new female acts appeared simultaneously and freshened things up—Ayumi Hamasaki, Utada and MISIA in particular. But 12 years later, those are still the big acts around, and there’s been no further step forwards musically in the mainstream pop world. The only other acts that have made it big have been clones of those three. Think Kumi Koda/ ICONIQ, or the treadmill of Johnny’s boy bands. Even the popular group EXILE has toned down their R&B in favour of placid convenience store-friendly pop. The K-pop boom is a warning that J-pop is outdated…and has been for a long time.
You've met and interviewed both Korean and Japanese mega star pop groups. What are some things you noticed as different about the two?
Very little, in fact. The face of the K-pop groups is that they’re independent, feisty and forthright. But this is largely marketing and smokescreens in my opinion. The music is much better than what J-pop is doing, and girls of K-pop probably enjoy their work more than the J-pop singers, but all of the K-poppers that I’ve met and spoken to are either the same nervous, submissive and young girls super-controlled by their management, or just regular Korean girls with little to say. So personality wise, there’s no difference.
The only difference might be in expressed ambitions, in the sense that the Korean girls always talk about conquering Asia or the US, but Japanese acts never say that, and usually say they want to please their fans in Japan only. They are afraid to take a risk. But personality wise, they are largely just young girls with little to say, under the thumb of the management that pays their salary. Some of them are also Korean Christians too, so their real lives are not nearly as raunchy and wild as their public image might suggest.