This journalist visited a dance academy in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on the night of August 12. Some 20 teenage girls were sweating and training in a small room of 33 m². The girls were practicing the choreographies of NiziU, a nine-membered girl group that has recently debuted in Japan.
All nine members are Japanese, but their agency is JYP Entertainment, one of the biggest entertainment groups in Korea. NiziU’s dance, fashion, and business style are all rooted in K-Pop. Another Japanese idol group “JO1,” who debuted in March this year, also belongs to a Korean agency called CJ ENM. Members of JO1 are well known for their perfectly synchronized group dance.
Localized K-Pop is sweeping across Japan. In the past, the so-called Korean Wave spread through dramas featuring Korean actors and singers, but now Japan is witnessing a trend where Japanese performers are promoting Korean culture to other Japanese people. Here, Korea plays the role of brains introducing the system and the best practices of K-Pop.
A heated debate is going on whether NiziU and JO1 are K-Pop performers or J-Pop singers. Gaining currency is a stance that despite the fact that both groups are active in Japan and sing in Japanese, they are K-Pop groups since the “source technologies” behind the groups are Korean. Experts say that such controversy over their identity reflects a shift in the perspective towards K-Pop phenomenon.
In the 2000s when Boa and TVXQ were active in Japan, K-Pop was treated as a “foreign delicacy” as it was perceived to be “exotic” and “rare.” Indeed, many of this journalist’s acquaintances in Japan had a view that K-Pop only achieved a temporary success thanks to its rarity and uniqueness. Things have changed, however. An increasing number of Japanese who want to learn Korea’s source technologies show that K-Pop is no more a passing trend, but it is here to stay.
Perception of Japan’s public sector has also changed. “Many young employees are studying Korean. They think Korean is “cool” and “hip,” said an official from the Japanese Foreign Ministry. An official close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also praised BTS, saying it is truly remarkable that they have topped the Billboard Charts not with an English album, but a Korean one.
The ever-worsening relations between Seoul and Tokyo are stuck in a stalemate, after having been much frayed with Japan’s export ban on semi-conductor materials into Korea and the issues over the reparations for victims of forced labor. Even under such dire circumstances, K-Pop is deeply permeating Japanese society, and perhaps, it could help narrow the gap between the two countries. After all, “culture” might serve as the invaluable tool to break the rigidly frozen relationship with Japan that politics couldn’t even begin to thaw.