There seems to have been a spike in the excitement in Japan surrounding Korean cultural exports, especially Korean pop music (or K-pop), something I mentioned in December when it was brought to my attention by a colleague based in South Korea. In fact, Japan’s interest in Korean pop culture (K-pop in particular) already looks like reaching new heights in 2011.
Just last week, for instance, I came across two different episodes from two different popular Japanese evening programmes that were focusing on modern South Korean culture. One was devoted to showing how much more regimented the lives of Korean boy band members are compared with their Japanese counterparts.
This growing popularity is interesting considering the phenomenon was once dismissed by many as simply ‘media hype without substance or a cultural fad, destined to fade away soon,’ back in the late 1990s.
Meanwhile, a Korean friend based in South Korea got in touch with me over the weekend, noting the sharp revival in popularity in Japan was akin to a ‘2nd generation Korean Wave,’ although she expressed some concern about the way she feels the Japanese media is reporting on the new boom—presenting Korean pop music ‘in a way that furthers the agenda of giant Korean management companies.’
Indeed, this is something that has always cast something of a shadow over the whole Korean Wave phenomenon in general—since the government and music industry heads realized the huge economic potential in their cultural exports, exploitation has often run amok at the cost of the hard-working celebrities within the industry. ‘Slave’ contracts, physical and mental abuse and other rights violations are just some of the examples that have been raised by local and international media over the years. As recently as last month, Asia One News reported on the ‘long hours and sexual abuse…that budding artists face in the Korean entertainment industry.’
In light of this, there may indeed be something troubling in Japan’s rather fawning portrayals of Korean pop stars—hosts marvelled, for example, at how the precocious young idols had no fixed morning schedule, and simply jumped out of bed at any hour without complaint when their management called them into the studio to practice. Does such casual reporting, without examining the darker implications, perpetuate the Korean pop industry’s tendency to pursue a profit-over-all path?
Back in July 2002, TIME magazine actually published two reports on the Korean pop industry that examined the emerging ‘unsavoury side’ of the ‘glamorous K-pop’ world that at the time included big-time scandal, bribery and exploitation.
It’s clearly something that has dogged the industry for years now. But one can only hope that with this new boom, a new generation of singers and performers will see some changes and the industry can learn to appreciate and nurture the ambition and creative energies of the stars, without whom a Korean wave would definitely be much more like a trickle.