Conflicting Desires

K-pop Idol Girl Group Flows in Japan in the Era of Web 2.0

Sun Jung, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore [About | Email]

Yukie Hirata, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Dokkyo University [About | Email]

Volume 12, Issue 2 (Article 8 in 2012). First published in ejcjs on 26 October 2012.


In 2010, K-pop idol girl groups were one of the highest-profile cultural phenomena in Japan. In particular, KARA and SNSD topped the Oricon charts, the most influential popular music charts in Japan. Focusing on the recent inflows of K-pop girl groups in Japan and the fandom that surrounds them, this article explores how the phenomenon signifies the changed mode of transcultural popular culture flows and consumption in the global Web 2.0 environment. In particular, it explores the various desires that intersect and often clash within these shifting transcultural dynamics by addressing three key aspects around the phenomenon. This begins with a brief historical overview of Korean popular music in Japan, identifying distinctions between the iconic example of SNSD and earlier K-pop acts such as BoA and TVXQ, in relation to the localisation strategies in their production and distribution processes. Secondly, it maps the globalisation strategies of the K-pop industry by examining two key aspects of production and promotion: the K-pop idol star-making system and the global marketing strategies. Finally, it explores the range of desires active within the K-pop girl group phenomenon in Japan, focusing particularly on the anti-Hallyu (anti-Korean Wave) movement, young female fandom and the male gaze of Japanese media.

Keywords: K-pop, Japanese fandom, SNSD, girl groups, Idol pop, anti-Hallyu.

Conflicting Desires: K-pop Girl Group Flows in Japan in the Era of Web 2.0

Korean pop cultures such as television drama series, films and popular music have gained significant recognition among popular culture consumers in Asia since the end of the 1990s; this is widely known as the Korean wave or Hallyu (Chua and Iwabuchi 2008). Beginning with the huge popularity of the television drama series Winter Sonata (2002), Korean popular culture fandom swept Japan during the middle of the first decade of the 2000s. This phenomenon has “changed a stereotypical image of Korean people and culture in Japan in an unprecedented way” (Mori 2008, p.131). More recently, Japan’s embrace of Hallyu has diversified, and the focus has moved to the realm of K-pop. In 2010, K-pop (Korean popular music) idol girl groups were one of the highest-profile cultural phenomena in Japan. 4Minute was the first to enter the Japanese market in 2010, followed by the debut of girl bands such as KARA, Brown Eyed Girls and SNSD (a.k.a. Sonyeoshidae, Shojojidai or Girls’ Generation) who have also attained great commercial success. By the end of 2010, both KARA and SNSD, in particular, ranked first and second on the 43rd Oricon Annual Ranking for newcomer sales, demonstrating the commercial impact and popularity of K-pop girl groups in Japan (Oricon 2010).

Both Japanese and South Korean (hereafter Korean) music journalists and cultural critics have observed that the growing popularity of K-pop girl groups in Japan may indicate the beginning of a second phase of Hallyu (Korean Wave), while the first phase was marked by the popularity of Korean television drama series and male stars in Japan (T. S. Jeong 2010; Jung 2011b). There are notable aspects of the way of consuming K-pop in Japan that distinguish this second phase of Hallyu from the earlier one. The most important is demographic changes in its fandom where viewers in their teens and twenties consist of the core group. These changes in demography are closely related to Japan’s changed gaze towards the ‘K’ of Korea and K-pop. This is because their gaze is different from that of the middle-aged female fans of Korean television dramas, which predominantly signifies Japan’s rather counter-coeval retrospective desires toward Korea and its people and cultures. A range of scholarly works on Hallyu have discussed that the Japanese consumption of Korean pop culture is rather based on the ways in which middle-to-old age consumers desire their ‘good, old’ days. This is best illustrated by their ways of embracing Winter Sonata, where the audience attempt to seek their traditional moral virtues, which they feel they have lost, and nostalgic sentiments through watching this drama series (i.e., Heo and Ham 2005, Mori 2008, Jung 2011a). On the other hand, the current K-pop girl group fandom largely led by younger generations is based rather on their coeval sentiments where they consider K-pop as cool and modern pop products.

Another aspect of the new way of embracing K-pop in Japan is demonstrated through how K-pop is now placed in an ambivalent third space between the domestic and the foreign within the Japanese pop music scene. At the 2011 Japan Gold Disc Awards, SNSD was awarded the New Artist of the Year Award in the Japanese music division (hougaku bumon), while KARA was awarded the New Artist of the Year in the foreign music division (yougaku bumon).1 It was a significant result considering the fact that both of the groups are from Korea: in Japan, yougaku usually refers to ‘Western’ music. BoA and TVXQ, who are overwhelmingly popular in Japan, are perceived as K-pop idols as they are from Korea, yet at the same time are treated as J-pop idols within the paradigm of Western vs. Japanese. The article “Is K-pop Japanese music (hougaku)? Or foreign music (yougaku)?” in Asahi Shinbun suggests that K-pop girl groups such as KARA and SNSD cannot be categorised as either Western or Japanese pop because they are extremely successful even when they sing in Korean (Miyamoto 2011). Miyamoto highlights that the conventional paradigm of Western vs. Japanese music is one of the ‘the vestiges of the modern worldview’ of a Japan that has been continually yearning for the West. He remarks that K-pop girl groups bring new views to change the old conventions in the Japanese music industry. He then concludes the article by expecting K-pop to change the merely Western-centric worldview of Japan. The recent popularity of K-pop already demonstrates Japan’s changing views, which were once predominantly directed towards the West while considering the rest of Asia as “inferior” and part of “Japan’s past” (Iwabuchi 2002b: 549). More and more Japanese—particularly those young generations—are beginning openly to embrace and consume Asian popular cultures. These changed consumption practices are also closely related to advanced digital media technologies, which allow people instantly to access foreign cultures and easily to become familiar with foreign languages.

The last aspect detected around the phenomenon is the changed culture industry environment both in production and consumption, empowered primarily by Web 2.0 technology. In the column “The Eyes of the Editor-in-Chief” (2 September 2010), Oricon recognised the rising popularity of K-pop girl groups such as KARA, SNSD and 4Minute, and suggested that the success of idol boy band quintet TVXQ (a.k.a. TOHOSHINKI) was the reason behind their current popularity (Oricon 2010). Along with the female singer BoA, TVXQ was crucial to the recent K-pop phenomenon in Japan. Both proved how K-pop can successfully cross cultural borders through the execution of strict localisation and hybridisation strategies. Nevertheless, the recent popularity of SNSD and KARA demonstrates how new modes of cultural flows have emerged in this Web 2.0 era. Social media have now become a critical platform for the transcultural circulation of K-pop in the Japanese pop market and elsewhere. It is significant that leading K-pop management companies like SM acknowledge the power of social media and employ it as a key tool in their global marketing strategies. All three major companies—SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment—maintain YouTube channels (in English) to promote their artists’ new music videos and concert clips targeting specifically the non-Korean global audiences. Unlike the earlier models, such as BoA and TVXQ, K-pop products today can freely cross cultural boundaries without undergoing localisation processes. The recent K-pop girl group flows in Japan thus invite a rethinking of the way cultural ‘odourlessness’ reinforces transnational flows of popular products. This illustrates Iwabuchi Koichi’s argument that mukokuseki (non-nationality) or culturally odourless aspects are the key driving force behind the success of Japanese popular cultural artefacts such as computer games and animation in the global market (2002). Up to a point, the same is also true of K-pop products whose culturally odourless and globalised features enable them to cross cultural borders with ease. Nevertheless, due primarily to advanced digital media technologies and the K-pop industry’s approaches to globalisation, Japanese consumers now embrace not only widely acceptable globalised K-pop products but also culturally specific K-pop products that are often presented in the Korean language and still hold Korean cultural odours.

Considering both the expansion and demographic shifts within their fan base and the social media-empowered marketing, the recent K-pop girl group phenomenon in Japan can be understood through the conceptual paradigm of a transcultural site where various desires meet and often clash. These are: desires of the K-pop industry, desires of the Korean media and desires of Japanese fans as well as anti-fans.2 This paper explores how these contradictory and often clashing desires that constitute the current K-pop phenomenon in Japan are closely related to the history of Japan’s gaze towards Korea and its people and culture, and how this newly emerging phenomenon indeed represents Japan’s changing gaze. Shin Hyun-Joon discusses how “in the case of Asian pop, ‘Korean’ does not completely lose its symbolic meaning in the marketing of a specific genre of music either in Asia or outside Asia” (2009, p. 517). It is therefore our intent to explore the symbolic meaning of ‘Korea’ (‘K’) in Japanese K-pop fandom and to examine how it is represented through the changing desire and consumption practices surrounding K-pop girl groups. This in turn begs the question of how the symbolic meaning of ‘K’ has changed within this changing landscape.  This question thus should be contemplated in the same line with Japan’s changed—rather coeval—gaze that we have discussed earlier in the paper.

Employing SNSD as our primary case study, this article examines three specific aspects around the phenomenon. Firstly, we provide a brief history of K-pop in Japan, identifying the differences between SNSD and earlier K-pop acts such as BoA and TVXQ in terms of the localisation strategies that govern their production and distribution processes. Secondly, we discuss the desires regarding globalisation that permeate the K-pop industry, including in particular the K-pop Idol-making system and online marketing strategies. Finally, we explore how various desires intersect online, focusing particularly on the anti-Hallyu movement, young female fandom and the male gaze of the Japanese media.

1. K-pop in Japan: Localisation and Beyond

Furuya Masayuki (2010) suggests that the term K-pop is the Korean equivalent to the term J-pop, coined in Japan to refer to Japanese popular music. The term J-pop was coined during the late1980s in the context of planning a Japanese popular music program for radio station J-wave (Ugaya 2005). Carolyn Stevens states that ‘J-pop’ has become so embedded in the East Asian consumer market that it has recently been used to describe other Asian pop cultural phenomenon, and K-pop (Korean popular music and culture) is another trend seen in both Japan and other international markets (2008, pp.16–17). According to Furuya (2010), K-pop (which now refers to Korean popular music more generally) was coined retrospectively after the initial idol boom at the end of the 1990s. K-pop does not therefore represent the entire Korean music industry, but rather refers only to the recently emerging popular phenomenon centred on idol music. Indeed, some fans outside Korea identify K-pop with idol pop music (D. Y. Lee 2011, p.38).3 K-pop does not therefore represent the entire Korean music industry, but rather refers only to the recently emerging popular phenomenon centred on idol music.

The status of Korean music in Japan pre-K-pop provides a useful background to the development of K-pop’s current popularity in Japan. Historically, Korean music in Japan was identified predominantly through Korean enka singers, a traditional Japanese music genre broadly considered ‘old-fashioned.’4 Korean artists such as Lee Seong-Ae, Kim Yeon-Ja and Cho Yong-Pil went to Japan and released enka (trot in Korean) songs during 1970s and 80s. Lee Seong-Ae’s ‘Heartrending Sorrow (Gaseum Apeuge)’ gained enormous popularity in 1977, and in the 1980s, Cho Yong-Pil attained great success as an enka singer in Japan. From 1987 to 1990, Cho was invited to perform at NHK’s Red and White New Year’s Eve Singing Contest (Kouhaku Utagassen), the most prominent music show in Japan—where he sang hit songs such as “The Woman Outside of The Window (Mado no Soto no Onna)” and “Go Back to Pusanhang (Pusan Kou e Kaere).” Music critic Kyo Nobuko notes that it was assumed in the Japanese music industry that Korean singers could not succeed in Japan without singing ‘enka’ at that time (Kyo 2002). According to Shin Hyun-Jun, folk singers from Korea also released their albums in Japan, but enka and folk songs at that time were dark and heavy, and relatively different from the recent K-pop genre (Shin 2010: 53–54). A ‘contemporary Korea’ began to gain attention among the Japanese consumers only after the end of 1980s (Hirata 2007: 38).

In the 1990s, Asian popular cultures including those from Korea began to infiltrate into Japan. POP ASIA was the first Japanese magazine containing Asian entertainment news and information and was launched in 1995, featuring Korean rock musician Seo Tae-Ji in its first issue. Japanese music label Antinos Records released Seo Tae-Ji’s self-titled album Seo Tae-Ji and Boys in 1994. Kim Geon-Mo held live concerts in Osaka (1995) and Tokyo (1996), and his music covers a vast range of genres that includes pop, soul, reggae, house, blues, electronics and slow jam. Such cases demonstrate how Western-centric cultural biases in Japan were gradually changing, and Korean popular music other than enka slowly was gaining local recognition. The gradual growth of K-pop in Japan was accelerated with BoA’s debut in 2001, followed by TVXQ’s in 2005. SM (Korea) and Avex (Japan) have promoted both BoA and TVXQ. SM marketing director Kim Eun-Ah has stated that SM has employed “strict localisation strategies” for the marketing promotions for BoA and TVXQ in Japan. (H. J. Jeong 2009; Y. H. Kim 2010). Making her Japanese debut in 2001, fourteen-year-old BoA speaks fluent Japanese, and the cultural ambiguity of her name made it difficult for many Japanese consumers readily to identify her as Korean. Before her debut, BoA learned both Japanese and English under SM’s total management system. Many of her songs such as Kiseki (“Miracle”) and “Shine We Are!” were used in Japanese television commercials and gained wide popularity. Due to SM’s carefully planned localisation strategy, BoA achieved a unique status in Japan as a top J-pop singer from Korea.

While differing in many ways, TVXQ in addition to BoA also provide a useful point of comparison to the later SNSD phenomenon. The strongest driving force behind TVXQ’s Japanese success was also the localisation aspects to their marketing strategy (J. Y. Han 2011, p.96, p.101), particularly in regard to how their debut framed them as a new J-pop act. They sang in Japanese, collaborated with Japanese producers and composers, and identified their success in terms of other J-pop artists. For example, when they held a live concert at the iconic Tokyo Dome in 2009, group member Xiah Junsu said, ‘At last, the Tokyo Dome… It’s been five years since our debut… We are very happy!’ (Yamakawa 2010, p.190). BoA and TVXQ were therefore promoted and consumed as J-pop products via careful and strategic localisation processes. They both intentionally deleted nationalistic attributes and turned into mukokuseki (‘non-nationalistic’) products, typifying the removal of cultural ‘odour,’ as suggested by Iwabuchi Koichi (2002).5 Due possibly to these synthetic, ‘odourless’ attributes, K-pop products like BoA and TVXQ easily cross national borders and are embraced by pop consumers in Japan as well as other countries in Asia.

In contrast, contemporary K-pop girl groups such as SNSD appear to reject these localisation processes, demonstrating a distinct cultural odour once taboo for K-pop acts wishing to cross national borders. One of the most visible differences is language. Unlike BoA and TVXQ, most SNSD members cannot speak Japanese. While it is true that SNSD learned other languages (including Japanese) during their traineeship for the purpose of targeting the widest possible audiences, their level of usage and ability is significantly lower than that of the earlier acts. Instead of collaborating with Japanese composers and producing new Japanese songs, SNSD mostly released translated versions of their existing Korean songs that had already gained local popularity, such as “Genie” and “Gee.” They also spend significantly less time promoting their music in the offline Japanese marketplace. While they have released a number of albums in Japan, they have spent no more than a few days in the country for promotion. Instead, they utilise online media such as YouTube and Nico Nico Douga (a popular video sharing website in Japan). According to the CEO of SM Entertainment Kim Young-Min, SNSD was strategically introduced through the Internet, before their debut in Japan, to attract the local media (quoted in Nikkei Entertainment 2011a). As such, it is evident that K-pop girl groups employ new promotion approaches different from their predecessors. Even without localisation, it appears that they have successfully crossed into the Japanese market, and the key driving force that enables this transcultural border crossing is advanced digital media.

2. K-pop Marketing Strategies in the Era of Globalisation and Web 2.0

In this section, we discuss the desire for globalisation active within the K-pop industry by focusing on the two key aspects in K-pop production and promotion: the K-pop idol-making system and global marketing strategies in the Web 2.0 environment. Firstly, we look at the interrelations between the J-pop aidoru- and K-pop idol-making systems. Idol pop music and/or culture in Korea is generally considered to have begun with the launch of H.O.T. in 1996 (D. Y. Lee 2006, p. 205; Cha and Choi 2011, p. 118). H.O.T. was a five-member idol boy group discovered and trained by SM Entertainment. They gained immediate popularity with their debut, primarily among teenagers in Korea (1996) and China (1997). Lee Dong-Yeon states, “the birth of idol pop music brought big changes to the production methods of entertainment industries, the circulation and marketing structures of music industries, fandom and the style of consumer culture” (2006, p. 205). At the centre of such phenomena lies the growing influence of what are known as yeonye gihoeksa (entertainment planning and management companies). SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment were established in 1995 and 1996 respectively, followed by JYP Entertainment in 1997. These entertainment companies carefully design and produce idol groups based on the strategic ‘idol-making system,’ which is influenced by Japan’s aidoru system. (Cha and Choi 2011, p. 119).

In Japan, aidoru (a Japanese pronunciation of ‘idol’) culture began in the 1970s. The term connotes certain characteristics of idols specific to Japan’s local entertainment industry. One of the key characteristics is that aidoru refers to those who sing and act simultaneously, while in Japan those who sing only are called “artists” (Cha and Choi 2011, p. 113). The J-pop industry reached “the era of idols” in the 1980s (Nakamori 2007, p. 52). According to Ota Shoichi, the biggest attraction of aidoru is purity, which is represented by showing the “process” of growing up, rather than the result (2011, p. 22). In short, the notion of the aidoru in the J-pop scene concerns narratives surrounding imperfections, immaturity and the struggle of growing up in the hard idol-making training. The classic case of the aidoru system is Johnny’s Jr. system. Johnny’s Jr. is a part of Johnny’s Jimusho, and the term refers to those male trainees who have not yet officially debuted. In the East Asian pop music industry context, Johnny’s Jr. is considered to be the origin of the idol training system. Many top male groups (i.e., SMAP, Kinki Kids, V6, Arashi and KAT-TUN) in the Japanese pop scene today went through this system.

Since its launch, SM Entertainment in particular has keenly adapted to the Japanese entertainment industry’s idol star-making system. It has created many idol girl and boy groups that have provided a benchmark for J-pop idol group success. H.O.T was modelled on the legendary J-pop boy group SMAP from Johnny’s Jimusho, and the group launched the “golden era” of K-pop export. The recent success of K-pop acts in Japan exemplifies the typical idol-making strategies of Korean entertainment companies which is mainly driven by capitalist desires. They do this firstly by adopting globally popular cultural elements from Japan and the US, then repackaging and manufacturing culturally hybridised products. Finally, they resell these repackaged products overseas, sometimes even back to its point of origin (Jung 2011a, p. 78).

Adopting and developing the original J-pop idol training technique, the Korean entertainment industry has created a more efficient and systematic idol management paradigm. Known as the “K-pop traineeship,” every major entertainment company educates their trainees in a specially designed curriculum, in which the trainees go through continuous practice and testing during a long training period (Cha and Choi 2011, p.113, p. 138). SM Entertainment developed its own system, which is often called the “incubating system” (Shin and Kanno 2010). Some entertainment companies wield strict control over their artists: idols are prohibited from drinking, associating with the opposite sex and spending time in certain places without permission (Yamakawa 2010). The trainees learn foreign languages such as Japanese and Chinese and sing in these languages to appeal more directly to local consumers (Jung 2011a, p. 168). These entertainment companies also strategically include foreign members (or native English speakers) in their idol groups in order to target the “global” markets (ibid.). As a product, SNSD embodies the success of these strict idol-making strategies. Most members were trained for between five and seven years before making their public debut. Two members are native English speakers, while another speaks fluent Japanese. During their lengthy training period, they learnt not only singing, but to be multi-skilled entertainers. By the time they debuted in the public arena in 2007, SNSD had thus been specifically designed to appeal to a wide range of pop consumers within and beyond Korea.

SM constructed a range of images for SNSD to attract the widest possible range of pop consumers. For instance, their debut single “Into the New World” emphasised innocent teenagers and their dreams, which are exemplified through their schoolgirl uniform-like costumes. In their 2009 hit “Gee” performance, wearing colourful skinny jeans and cute accessories, SNSD represented playful and bubbly teenage girls who are fluttered about their first love. When they released “Tell Me Your Wish” (or “Genie”) only a few months later, these nine girls performed the so-called “leg dance” in navy uniform-like costumes that consisted of tight short pants and high-heeled shoes. At this time, SNSD’s image shifted away from the innocence of girlhood towards a more sexy, adult-woman one. In the following year, they performed “Run Devil Run” in tight black pants highlighting mature and tough female sexuality. SM carefully designed and created new images of SNSD for each of their albums, intended to resonate well with different desires of various audience groups.

The online marketing strategies of the K-pop industry, which target the global audience, also warrant critical attention. As mentioned earlier, digital media technologies—social media in particular—lie at the centre of these global marketing strategies. Most major entertainment companies hold YouTube channels actively to promote their artists’ new albums and music videos. For special events, they upload videos of their idol stars sending greetings to fans and promoting their events in different languages, including Japanese. Kim Young-Min states that SM planned and prepared their overseas business strategies during 2008 and 2009 by utilising Internet technologies (quoted in Nikkei Entertainment 2011a). In their analysis of SNSD’s concerts in Taiwan, the Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo examines SM’s relationship with social media and notes that by allowing cameras at the concerts, SM may have intentionally encouraged fans to film and upload videos online on websites like YouTube as free promotion with the capacity for a global reach (H. J. Jeong 2010). Such online social media-driven pop circulation practices enabled the unexpected success of SNSD in Japan in 2010, which was demonstrated nowhere more clearly than when the 22,000 fans who attended their first Tokyo showcase without any local promotion sang along in Korean. SNSD’s Japanese showcase indicates the power of social media in the realm of transnational cultural flows. According to the “2010 Music Media Usage Report,” 56.7% of the participants indicate that they use YouTube to enjoy their music (The Recording Industry Association of Japan 2011). As such, social media like YouTube have become the most sought after music consumption and distribution channel in the Japanese pop market.

It is also important to note how each major K-pop entertainment company such as SM, YG and JYP employs branding strategies efficiently to sell products in overseas markets. For example, SM entertainment presents “SMTOWN Live,” which is a joint concert of their own artists, while YG presents “YG Family,” and JYP presents “JYP Nation.” SMTOWN Live Tokyo was held in January (National Yoyogi Stadium) and September (Tokyo Dome) 2011, attracting an audience of thousands of locals. In the case of the Tokyo Dome concert (2-4 September), a total of 150,000 people attended. The Japanese artist and producer, Komuro Tetsuya stated that “one of the characteristics of JYP Entertainment artists I found is the ways in which they actually form a nation led by their leader JYP (Nikkei Entertainment 2011b).”

Such desires to be globalised are not only found in the entertainment companies’ marketing strategies, but are also detected in the way Korean local media describe the current K-pop phenomenon in Japan in a blindly celebratory manner. Regarding the K-pop phenomenon in Japan, some Korean newspapers and magazines have focused on its “industrial benefits,” “cultural dominance’ and “global market expansion,” and have predominantly emphasized its capitalist benefits. Notably, these media articulate imperialist attitudes while describing the success of K-pop, and frequently use such phrases as “K-pop conquering the Japanese market” and “K-pop more popular than J-pop in the global market.” It is thus evident how these globalisation desires, which permeate the K-pop industry, are closely intertwined with Korea’s somewhat nationalistic and imperialistic desires to be the new centre within the regional cultural industry context. The K-pop girl group phenomenon in Japan is the site where these complex desires keenly mingle in a form of the transnational pop culture flow.

3. Conflicting Desires: Anti-Hallyu Movements, Young Female Fandom and the Male Gaze

As well as entertainment companies, fans also utilise YouTube to promote their stars by recreating and circulating user-generated K-pop content such as cover dance clips and fan-cam (fan camera) concert clips. Due to practical attributes such as a quick and easy set-up, simple functions, immediate social networking and instant distribution, Facebook has now become the most popular channel to circulate and share K-pop content among fans (Jung 2011b). Twitter enables fans closely to observe the daily routines of their idols, updated in real time, thus encouraging a strong sense of connectedness to the stars (ibid.). Nevertheless, it is not always a positive and affirmative response that K-pop receives in the Japanese Internet space. There are still antagonistic views towards Korea and Korean popular cultures online, typified by the ongoing anti-Hallyu (Ken-Kanryu) movement.

On 21 August 2011, there was a protest against Fuji TV (that broadcasts a range of Korean television drama series) in which over 6,000 citizens participated (Seo 2011). The existing anti-Hallyu movement, active mostly online, has expanded to offline protests triggered primarily by a Twitter comment of Takaoka Sousuke, a male Japanese actor. It read, “I don’t really watch channel 8 (Fuji TV) anymore. It sometimes makes me wonder if it’s a Korean channel. Japanese people want traditional Japanese programs.” Later he added, “It feels like Korean programs brainwash you, and it really makes me feel sick. Broadcasters need to realise its negative effect.” Shortly after this, anti-Hallyu fans and activists gathered together online and offline to boycott Fuji TV as well as Korean pop cultural products more generally. Mori Yoshitaka (2011) considers this anti-Hallyu phenomenon as a combination of matsuri (festival) and flash mob: participants enjoy matsuri-like politico-cultural movements in an online forum space, while they collectively perform such a protest in the offline space like a flash mob performance. He then added that there was “Taigi (or justice)” behind the participants’ behaviours, based on “nationalism in which they are wiling to punish any anti-Japanese attitude” (Mori 2011, p. 32). To summarise, they see all practices relevant to consumption and distribution of Korean popular culture as anti-Japanese. This anti-Hallyu movement demonstrates that K-pop is not mere entertainment, but signifies Korea’s potential threat to Japan’s entertainment industry (and its broader economic wellbeing more generally). We may confidently suggest that the actor who posted the controversial Twitter comment may have felt threatened by Korean actors coming to Japan and taking his potential job.

On 30 November 2011, popular comedian Tamura Atsushi of the duo “London Boots” also posted a Twitter comment apparently asking for K-pop artists to be banned from Kohaku Uta Gassen, the annual music show on New Year’s Eve, broadcast on NHK. His post reads, “at least for Kohaku I would like to see Japanese artists only.” It was quickly retweeted and broadly circulated online, and the responses were clearly divided into supporters and critics. Some pro-Tamura (anti-K-pop) comments address how even the national broadcast system NHK has been invaded by K-pop. Kohaku has been considered one of the nation’s favourite entertainment programs since its launch in 1951, and being included in the show is said to be a great honour for an artist. In 2011, three K-pop groups—TVXQ, SNSD and KARA—were invited. It appears that at the centre of the pro-Tamura view is a strong nationalistic sentiment where supporters do not want K-pop artists to intrude on such a uniquely Japanese cultural event. This is because for many Japanese people, it is a “historical program with Japan’s spirit” (Baik 2011). In this sense, the recent anti-Hallyu movement is in part based upon the desires of Japanese nationalists to maintain the purity of their history and spirit. Considering the above anti-Hallyu movement cases triggered by the two Twitter controversies, it is evident how the Internet—and social media in particular—is often the site where Japan’s nationalistic desires clash with the inflows of K-pop.  

The Internet is also a site for the fans who attempt to represent their sexualised desires by emulating their chosen idols. Young Japanese female fans in their teens and twenties in particular desire, consume and mimic the images of K-pop girl groups online. As discussed in the earlier section, K-pop girl groups present variedly constructed images including strong female images less visible in the Japanese aidoru pop scene, and many young Japanese female fans see them as role models. As widely reported, these fans find K-pop girl groups are kakkoii (“cool”) and sexy, whereas J-pop girl groups are mainly kawaii (“cute”) (Y. S. Jeon 2011; H. S. Kim 2010). In particular, SNSD’s Japanese fan base is young females, unlike the existing aidoru girl group fandom, which has predominantly a male fan base. At the first showcase of SNSD in Tokyo, “eighty percent of the audience members were females in their teens and twenties” (Takase quoted in H. K. Lee 2010), and there were a number of female fans who cosplayed (costume play) SNSD. Some mimicked SNSD’s innocent teenage girl-like images from “Gee” and “Oh!,” while others replicated their cool, sexy and more empowered images from “Genie” and “Run Devil Run.” It appears that the fans demonstrate their yearning to exhibit a range of female sexualities via mimicking (cosplaying) SNSD.

This mimicry becomes more explicit in the dance-covering phenomenon. Covering dance is one of the most common collaborative fan activities worldwide. It is no longer a surprise to find K-pop dance cover clips created by Japanese fans on YouTube attracting a few million hits.6 It is significant to note how K-pop girl groups are embraced by younger generations due primarily to their dynamic singing and dance routines. For many, K-pop girl groups have “great dancing abilities and powerful voices” (Hanryukenkyukai 2010, p.27), attributes which attract many young fans to cover them. On video sharing websites like YouTube and Niko Niko Douga, groups of both male and female teenagers (particularly from high school dance clubs or university societies) upload and share their K-pop girl group cover dance videos.7 In the case of female fans, it appears, they desire K-pop girl groups’ well-crafted female sexualities by mimicking their dance moves, fashion and hairstyles. On the other hand, male cover groups show their desire to transgress sexual boundaries through cross-dressing and mimicking feminised dance moves and gestures. It can be argued that their cover dance practices epitomise the ways in which fans attempt to deconstruct normative gender representations. In the realm of K-pop cover dance in Japanese fandom, various sexualised desires and yearnings intersect.

While it is still true that there are more and more young female fans in K-pop scene in Japan, the Japanese media portrayal of SNSD and other K-pop girl groups often demonstrates Japan’s dominant male gaze. For example, the focus of the camera is aimed explicitly at the SNSD members’ legs when they perform “Genie,” objectifying their bodies through its attention to their tight short pants and red high-heeled shoes. So fetishised are SNSD by the Japanese media that they are even referred to as the “beautiful legs group.” KARA, however, have a primarily male fan base in their twenties and thirties, and the objectification of their members via the dominant male gaze is even more explicit. KARA’s hypersexualised so-called “hip-dance” (oshiri dance) has gained enormous popularity in Japan due to videos uploaded on various video sharing websites even before their official debut. The Japanese media (and entertainment news programs in particular) have often highlighted the sexualised nature of the fetishised popular hip-swinging dance by KARA in their “Mister” performance. Additionally, fans have created a range of video clips that they have posted online, cataloguing the range of KARA’s differing hip-swinging movements.

As discussed earlier, it is the K-pop indutry’s capitalist desire behind sexualised marketing strategies that dominates and motivates the construction of the male gaze. It is significant here that “to gaze implies more than to look at—it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze” (Schroeder 1998, p. 208). Just as the Japanese media’s representation of K-pop girl groups pivots around a sexually dominant male gaze, so too does it reflect Japan’s broader desire to reaffirm its superiority over Korea more generally, while specifically wielding its fetishised male desires over Korean women more specifically. In Japan, various desires manifest around the K-pop girl group phenomenon, incorporating elements as diverse as nationalism, same-sex yearning and a heterosexual, dominant male gaze. While at times these desires may clash, as demonstrated here they can also intersect and negotiate with each other in often surprising ways.


In the past, K-pop idols like TVXQ and BoA have entered the Japanese market based on localisation process that modify their works to suit the specific tastes of Japanese audiences. SNSD, however, appear to not have been localised in this same way in order to appeal to Japanese consumers. This is in large part due to the industry’s globalization marketing strategies and advancement of social media technologies. In 2010, Time magazine reported that “[f]or many artists in Korea’s booming music industry, social media like YouTube and Twitter have become crucial tools to reach audiences in formerly hard-to-access markets like the U.S. and Europe” (Yoon 2010). The recent popularity of SNSD and KARA demonstrates how the new modes of cultural flow have emerged in this Web 2.0 era. Due mainly to advanced media technologies, Japanese consumers now easily embrace K-pop artists who sing in Korean and hold a Korean cultural odour (i.e., non- or less-localised forms). SNSD’s Japanese showcase in 2010 solidly indicates the power of digital media in the realm of transnational cultural flow where the audiences were already familiar with SNSD’s hit repertoire (in the original language) thanks to video sharing websites such as YouTube.

Another notable aspect is the way SNSD promotes “difference,” as is evident from the way they distinguish themselves from the existing J-pop aidoru. It is not localisation but differentiation that the next K-pop generation might have to focus on to cross cultural borders. Simultaneously, however, K-pop is not totally different from J-pop as observed from the transculturalisation and hybridisation processes through adopting and appropriating the J-pop idol production system. K-pop therefore lies in an ambiguous space where it can be received both as hougaku and yougaku music in the Japanese music industry. In this sense, the K-pop phenomenon opens up a new era where Japanese audiences openly embrace a once-marginalised Asian popular culture that is neither hougaku nor yougaku (Western music). The recent popularity of K-pop in Japan therefore indicates Japan’s changed gaze towards Korea as well as the changed mode of cultural flow empowered by digitalisation and transculturalisation.

In this article, we have explored three key elements that underlie how newly emerging cultural flows function using the recent popularity of K-pop girl groups in Japan as our primary case study. Firstly, unlike earlier K-pop acts, such as BoA and TVXQ, SNSD did not undergo localisation processes such as mastering the Japanese language. The driving force behind this shift in marketing strategies is advanced digital media technology, particularly social media through which the original pop content with a certain national odour can now freely cross national borders. Secondly, we have discussed the globalisation strategies in both K-pop production and promotion that include the K-pop Idol-making system and global marketing strategies. Predominantly driven by the capitalist logic of globalisation, the K-pop industry crafts global pop products under the strict K-pop traineeship program, and promotes its products in the global market employing the newly emerging social media channels. Finally, we have explored the ways various desires intersect and clash around K-pop flows in Japan. It is significant to note how such desires enhance the flow of certain pop products, holding either positive or negative connotations.

In late October 2011, the Japanese weekly publication, Shukan Bunshun, published a photograph of Princess Kako, the seventeen-year-old granddaughter of Japanese emperor Akihito, covering SNSD’s “Oh!” It soon made headlines online, and provoked debate in many online forums: while some celebrated the fact that it made her a normal teenager with normal desires, others questioned why she had chosen a K-pop band (rather than, say, a J-pop one). This incident clearly demonstrates the range of desires examined in this article. Firstly, Princess Kako may herself seek to express her teenage-girl sexuality by mimicking SNSD’s carefully crafted combination of sweet yet provocative schoolgirl image. Secondly, the nationalistic desires of many Japanese people opposed to her covering K-pop expose their intrinsic belief that the K-pop phenomenon is a threat to Japanese culture more broadly. Finally, the Japanese tabloid media captured this very image, thus voyeuristically dominating the body of a dancing seventeen-year-old girl. As such, various sexualised, fetishised and nationalistic desires intersect in today’s K-pop flows in Japan. It appears the capitalist desires of both the K-pop industry and Japan’s entertainment industry as a whole are at the core of this conflicting paradigm of cultural flow and desire.

In 2004, one female Hallyu fan commented on the popularity of Korean television dramas in Japan, noting that “after Bae Yong-Joon, Japan has changed. Even this extremely masculine society (Japan) cannot resist Yonsama (Bae Yong-Joon).8 That is because there are too many fans… Most of all, Yonsama is a cultural product which creates [an] enormous amount of economic profits. That is why all men keep quiet and are happy to be a servant of capitalism even though they hate him” (Murata 2005, pp.164-165). While made in 2004 during the first phase of Hallyu, this point remains true today. Indeed, in this second phase of Hallyu—led by the K-pop phenomenon—digital media technology and Neoliberal globalisation reinforce this point even more forcefully. Faithful to capitalist logic, the K-pop industry will keep producing and exporting globalised pop products while the Japanese entertainment industry will purchase them and the media will promote them as long as there are profits. All are happy servers of capitalism despite the racist nationalism of some Japanese online elements and the nationalism of some Korean media reports.

Notes on the Usage of the Korean Language

1. We use ‘Korea’ to refer to South Korea or the Republic of Korea.

2. This article uses the ‘Revised Romanisation of Korean.’

3. The names of some Korean authors and stars, such as Shin Hyun-Joon, have been predominantly romanised using the previous McCune-Reischauer Romanisation system in English-language works. In such cases, this article keeps the conventional romanisation of their names.

4. In romanising Korean and Japanese names, this article uses the original convention of placing the surname before the given name.

5. Unless otherwise stated, all translations from Korean and Japanese to English are our own.


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[1] The Japan Gold Disc Awards, which is held by the Recording Industry Association of Japan, is awarded to artists and songs that have contributed to the recording industry in a year. The award was first given in 1987. The Japan Gold Disc Award 2011 was awarded to artists and songs that contributed from the 1st of January to the 31st of October 2010.

[2] There has been anti-fandom in Japan against Hallyu. A good example is the Japanese manga entitled “Disgusting Hallyu (Ken-Kanryu).” It was controversial as it depicted SNSD and KARA as serving old men with drinks and sexual favours. The cartoonist argued that it is the norm in Korea for girl groups to offer sexual services to men in power and that the Korean government has been investing millions of dollars to manipulate the whole “Hallyu” phenomenon in Japan.

[3] Before BoA and TVXQ, Korean pop music stars like Jo Yong-Pil and Gye Eun-Sook gained significant recognition in the Japanese pop music market from the 1980s to the mid 1990s. However, we will not consider them as the first generation of ‘K-pop.’ This is because the term ‘K-pop’ predominantly refers to Korean popular music since the late 1990s as part of Hallyu.

[4] The roots of the word enka (演歌) date back to the Meiji period in Japan. Enka was used as a substitute for speech (enzetsu, 演説) for criticising politics at that time (Mitsutomi 1987: 14-15). Toshiro Mitsutomi mentioned that two composers such as Masao Koga and Shinpei Nakayama established today’s style of enka in the 1930s, and their songs were also popular in colonial Korea through the record companies in Korea established by Japanese (Mitsutomi 1987: 53, 70). Enka tends to represent someone’s private emotion, and some of the most frequently used words in enka are: ‘cry (naku),’ ‘flower (hana),’ ‘you (anata),’ ‘heart or emotion (kokoro),’ ‘separation (wakare),’ ‘think (omou),’ ‘tears (namida),’ ‘you (omae),’ ‘I (watashi)’ and ‘dream (yume)’(Mitsutomi 1987: 67).  

[5] Nevertheless, there are significant differences in the approaches to localisation between BoA and TVXQ. When TVXQ made their debut in Japan, many local consumers were aware that they were a Korean pop band as they were already popular in Korea. Additionally, their Japanese was not fluent when they first rose to prominence in Japan. Although they are carefully localised under SM’s strict marketing regime, they are not entirely mukokuseki products like BoA.

[6] For example, one of the videos of a cover group FNSD achieved over 4 million hits:

[8] Bae Yong-Joon is one of the male lead actors in Winter Sonata.

About the Authors

Sun Jung is a research fellow at Asia Research Institute in National University of Singapore. She has published broadly on South Korean popular cultures and transcultural media flows, including the recent monograph Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy and K-pop Idols (HKUP 2011).

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Yukie Hirata is an associate professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Dokkyo University in Japan. Her research interests include media flow between Korea and Japan, media audience studies and tourism in the age of globalization.

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