We are all familiar with the Harajuku girls. They are always dressed to the nines, cute as can be and giggling their way into a dominant Japanese man’s heart. Japanese female role models are highly submissive and image conscious. Like docile kittens, they purr and preen and quietly wait to be told what to do. This social construct is on the outs though, and Japanese girls have turned to Korea and K-Pop to find the strong minded women they want to be.
Japanese society is experiencing an interesting shift. The definitions of masculine and feminine are being revised — what was once a country that ran on strictly traditional male and female roles is evolving. The faltering economy has altered the mainstream idea of a man. Japanese men are becoming increasingly effeminate, passive and even homelier. They are less interested in sex and money; flaky, weak and far less goal-oriented. These men have been coined “herbivores” as the Japanese translation of sex is “relationship with the flesh.” With the numbers of assertive men dropping, someone has to pick up the slack. Thus, it is not surprising that Japanese women are becoming stronger, more independent and finding themselves with more lifestyle choices. They are becoming aware that entertaining and pleasing men can come second to personal goals.
Japanese culture is incredibly stubborn to change though. It is a country steeped in tradition and does not welcome even the slightest of digressions. A perfect example of this is their popular music. According to The Diplomat, in 1999 three artists rose to fame and changed the industry: Ayumi Hamasaki (“Empress of Pop”), Utada (2009 “Most Influential Artist of the Decade”) and MISIA (incredibly popular R&B singer.) Twelve years later those three are still the most popular acts in Japan, with all other pop culture players attempting to be clones of them. It is also important to mention AKB48, a 48 member girl band of singers who are super cute, quiet and make a living by acting like teenagers. AKB48 is always at the top of the charts in Japan and they are classified as a “Japanese female idol group.” It really is just that blatant.
The Atlantic describes Japan’s “bland popscape” as a “school girl style sonic time warp.” J-Pop (Japanese pop) has been the same for over a decade. Robert Michael Poole, CEO of Something Drastic International Music Promotion and Tokyo editor at CNNGo, explains that although Japan is changing culturally, there is no shot of J-Pop keeping up with the times and giving females the strong women they want to see performing, “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.” But if what IS Japanese is changing, how could the music be UN-Japanese?
Video for AKB48’s Everyday – it’s like what you would expect from a parody of Japanese pop
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Japanese female music fans have begun to seek out Korean pop (K-Pop) artists. K-Pop artists go beyond the “image is everything” J-Pop format; they are feisty, independent and strong minded. J-Pop artists are cute, submissive objects of lust designed more for Japanese males than females. K-Pop gives the girls something to look up to; it asserts the fact that it’s cool to be cute AND outspoken. Japanese girls rightfully view Korean popular culture as looking toward the future, while their country’s version is very much so in the past. Korean pop artists are also much more talented than the J-Pop musicians. The bands are often created by management teams and face rigorous auditions and seemingly endless training, both vocally and in terms of choreography. K-Pop is similar to the US in this way; the bands are powerhouses of hot dance moves and strong voices. K-Pop takes cues from Western production, borrowing Euro house beats and US style R&B. And because of this, K-Pop has a much wider appeal. J-Pop bands are concerned only with pleasing the motherland, while K-Pop wants to take over the world — and right now its music industry is second to only the US in size and monetary compensation. The Japanese also do not allow unauthorized You-Tube clips online, which goes even farther in the limitation of their exposure.
Girl’s Generation – Genie; the Western production techniques are very evident
The two most popular Korean bands in Japan are KARA (a 5 member R&B band) and Girl’s Generation (a 9 member pop group.) Last year they ranked #4 and #5 overall on the Japanese charts and made a combined $115 million. The Western techniques used in the music are revolutionary in Japan, and the image is much sexier. While Japan focuses on “cute,” Korea portrays its artists as real, living breathing adults. A fantastic example of Japanese “cuteness” comes from the edit of T-ara’s 2009 hit “Bo Peep Bo Peep.” The Korean version of the video featured a band member going to the club and hooking up with a man from the elevator to his apartment. The Japanese version featured the bandmates in cat ears play together in the least sexy way possible.
KARA – 2ME
T-Ara’s Bo Peep Bo Peep (Korean version)
T-Ara’s Bo Peep Bo Peep (Japanese version)
Korean music is definitely still a niche in Japan, it’s not like everyone has it on their iPod, but what makes K-Pop different from say US popular music is that the Koreans are close enough to maintain their presence in Japan. Lady Gaga for example may be popular in Japan, but she will only briefly stop by during a world tour. The K-Pop girls film commercials, get on the cover of magazines, guest star on Japanese SNL, and even record singles in Japanese. They are immersing themselves in the culture. And Japan is responding. Korean restaurants are popping up left and right, Korean television is increasingly popular and KARA’s notorious “butt dance” is taking over Japanese dance floors.
KARA – Mister; Western style R&B influence and THE butt dance!
Other popular K-Pop groups include 2NE1, Brown Eyed Girls and BoA. 2NE1, pronounced “twenty-one” or “to anyone,” just recently performed their first ever US show and frequently work with the avant garde American designer Jeremy Scott. Brown Eyed Girls is one of the few K-Pop groups that was actually self-formed instead of manufactured by management and is considered Korea’s only rhapsody inspired soul hybrid. BoA, or Beat of Angel, is a solo artist known as the “Queen of Korean Pop Music.” She is the only foreign artist to have two albums both sell over a million copies in Japan.
2NE1 – Lonely
BoA – I Did It for Love
The whole Korean movement is bizarre when the two countries shared history is considered. Pre-WWII Korea was a Japanese colony. The Japanese played a huge part in North Korea’s separation and isolation as they are still incredibly scarred from the colonization. Koreans used to face harsh racism and discrimination on Japanese soil, but now it’s hip to be Korean. There is deep seated controversy in this claim though. Is Korea organically popular in Japan, or are other forces at play? Fuji TV, a large national television station, has recently begun playing a large amount of Korean television. Japanese actor Sousuke Takaoka was actually fired from the show he was on for criticizing the amount of Korean content on Twitter. He tweeted, “Fuji should play what the Japanese people want to see.” After he was fired there were protests of “Hanryu” or the Korean Wave. Apparently many Japanese people do not understand why Fuji is “brainwashing” them with all of these Korea television shows. Well we dug up one article that claims to know the reason behind it all. AsianCrunch.com claims that many of Fuji TV’s stockholders are Korean and that the country has hired an advertising agency to push this Korean Movement onto the Japanese. Fuji censors Japanese nationalism in TV programs and deletes any comments made online against their Korean based programming schedule. We’ll leave it up to you, dear readers, to decide whether there is some back-handed conspiracy at hand or if Japanese people are simply tired of the same old stale pop culture. Decisions, decisions.