Thousands of K-pop fans flocked to a major concert by top South Korean music stars in Japan earlier this month, with organizers and fans alike calling it a “bridge” between two nations locked in what appears to be a never-ending diplomatic squabble.
The K-pop juggernaut has steamrolled its way around the world, with South Korean music, TV and movies making a big splash even in countries with few ties to Seoul.
But the country’s offerings are particularly loved in Japan, whose own culture has long been a hit with South Koreans, despite historical animosities and territorial disputes.
That mutual love was on display in Yokohama on April 3 as a slate of acts including Supernova, teenage girl band sensation Crayon Pop and crooning boy band 2PM performed for screaming Japanese fans, including young girls and some middle-aged men.
Kurumi Hagi, a 17-year-old fan of 2PM, was among the crowd of 9,600 packed into the concert, organized by popular South Korean music television show “M Countdown.”
“When I feel tired, I just need to see them to feel lively again,” Hagi said. “Their performance gives me energy.”
Another huge fan of the six-boy band is Hagi’s mother, who landed a backstage pass, while Kan Yokoyama, 40, can’t get enough of the group Girl’s Day.
“I am totally hooked by Girl’s Day,” he said. “I met them at one recent fan meeting, and (band member) Hyeri showed me how to dance. She was so sweet, and I’ve been (a) huge fan of her ever since.”
The event was held as relations between Tokyo and Seoul are at their worst in years, mired in emotive disputes linked to Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule, particularly Japan’s use of Korean “comfort women” as sex slaves in wartime brothels.
In an illustration of sensitivities, South Korea’s national publicly funded broadcaster KBS earlier this month banned Crayon Pop’s latest song because of a Japanese word in its lyrics.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month held his first summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye — an occasion in The Hague hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration is increasingly frustrated by the incessant sniping between America’s two major Asian allies.
Park stood stone-faced at a press conference where Abe tried his hand at speaking Korean, and one-on-one talks appear to be a long way off.
An ongoing dispute over islets in the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea, as well as Abe’s tendency to flirt with historical revisionism have also aggravated tensions. Demonstrations by Japanese far-right nationalists against Koreans living in the country are yet another distraction.
But the concert’s organizer said South Korea’s spreading of so-called soft power through music and pop culture could help bring the sides together.
“Since we are a cultural industry company, we believe we can do something small that government won’t and can’t do,” said Shin Hyung-kwan, executive producer of CJ E&M’s music channel Mnet. “So, in that respect, when there is political tension . . . we believe cultural exchanges can shorten the distance between the two nations.”