‘K-pop’ girl idols striking gold in Japan

Savvy Net blitz fueling success throughout Asia

by May Masangkay

Kyodo News

Thanks to the Internet and an already established fascination with South Korea’s boy bands, young Japanese girls and women are shifting in droves to the latest pop idol sensation — the country’s girl groups.

Rio Nagasaki, a 15-year-old junior high school student, is among a growing number of fans smitten by South Korean pop music — “K-pop” — performed by artists in her own age group.

“I learned about Kara a year ago before their debut via the Net,” she said, referring to the five-member ensemble that is so far the most visible K-pop girl group in Japan.

“They are very cute and dance well, and I like the fact that they are not that familiar with the Japanese language,” said Nagasaki after making a purchase at one of the stores selling K-pop goods in Tokyo’s Okubo district, which has become a focal point for K-pop fans.

Barely a minute’s walk from JR Shin-Okubo Station are several shops selling K-pop paraphernalia, including notebooks, mugs and accessories.

“Customers have grown threefold now from last year, and almost 100 percent of our customers are female,” said Lee Keun Hang of Hanryu Hyakatten (Korean Department Store).

“Female fans in their 30s and above are already customers because of their love for South Korean dramas and boy bands, but recently I’m seeing more and more teenagers and those in their 20s coming here,” Lee said, noting that for avid fans, visiting the Okubo district is like experiencing a “little South Korea.”

Masayuki Furuya, a radio DJ, journalist, TV celebrity and expert on Korean pop culture, says the boom in K-pop girl groups stems from two factors — the captured fan base of popular South Korean boy bands and the accessibility of information via the Internet, especially YouTube.

“What happened was when fans of boy bands such as TVXQ and BigBang were searching the Internet in 2009, there was so much information about K-pop girl groups, which were becoming increasingly popular, and as they learned more about K-pop they discovered the charm of these girl groups,” Furuya said.

Illustrating his point, two women in their 20s shopping for memorabilia for a particular group said they were fans of TVXQ, popularly known in Japan as Tohoshinki, and this had “extended” to their fascination with the nine-member Girls’ Generation.

Furuya also pointed to the crucial role of YouTube, where the artists’ official music videos and songs have been made accessible for promotion, a far cry from the situation several years ago.

Realizing the potential of this industry, the South Korean government has thrown its full support behind K-pop artists and Korean TV drama actors, and now their celebrities and the products they endorse are well-known in China, Vietnam and Thailand, according to a report in June by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which noted the tough competition Japan now faces from South Korea in terms of capturing the Asian pop culture market.

According to Furuya, one reason Japanese girls are attracted to female K-pop idols is a current lack of homegrown idols, unlike in the 1990s with the likes of pop sensation Namie Amuro. Another is that the K-pop variety can sing and dance well, and they perform songs with catchy lyrics that can be sung easily in karaoke sessions.

According to the Korea Creative Content Agency Japan Office, exports of broadcasting content from South Korea in 2009 amounted to $183.59 million, up 1.9 percent from 2008. The main market is Asia, with Japan accounting for more than 60 percent.

Exports of music alone, based on the agency’s latest figures, were worth $16.50 million in fiscal 2008, of which the Japanese market accounted for 68 percent. The agency predicts the fiscal 2009 figures will be higher due to the surge of K-pop girl groups around that time.

Since last summer, Kara and Girls’ Generation have made forays into the Japanese market. Their singles have ranked in Japan’s Oricon music charts, concerts have been jam-packed, and they are being featured in fashion magazines and on TV.

While some of the members can speak Japanese, some fans say they prefer to listen to them sing in their native tongue.

Miho Matsumoto, a 31-year-old resident of Shizuoka Prefecture, said she prefers to listen to the Girls’ Generation’s original version of “Gee,” their debut single in Japan.

“Korean songs have melodies that are not in Japanese songs, and when they sing it there’s already so much emotion in it, so I prefer them singing in Korean,” said Matsumoto, whose love of K-pop and all things Korean has made her take up studying the language.

Cha Yu Jin, one of the managers of KoreaPlaza, which has a vast collection of original and Japanese versions of K-pop songs, said the Korean-language versions are extremely strong sellers.

But whether this phenomenon will spread to the whole of Japan remains to be seen.

“In terms of music sales, the K-pop girl groups and boy bands are doing well, but on the other hand their popularity is more concentrated . . . in Tokyo and other big cities, and this has yet to gather steam in rural areas,” Furuya said.