K-beat knocking on Japan doors

Korean popular music stars cultivating local following

by Yasuki Matsumoto

Within moments of taking the stage of the Pasha Club in the downtown Tokyo district of Nishi-Azabu, Drunken Tiger, a hip-hop duo from South Korea, had the trendy club-goers dancing frantically to its beat-heavy sound.

The band, whose Tokyo gig took place in November, is part of the K-pop scene, “K” standing for Korean.

Drunken Tiger and numerous other pop acts from South Korea are enjoying growing popularity in Japan. The trend coincides with recently heightened interest among the Japanese in their neighbor across the Sea of Japan, as the two countries prepare to cohost the 2002 World Cup soccer championship.

Although South Korean pop stars are generally absent from Japanese television and newspapers, recent concerts in Japan have underscored the fact that K-pop has managed to cultivate a small but solid following here.

Kim Gung Mo, one South Korea’s top singers, performs in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward during his October tour.

Kim Gung Mo, one of South Korea’s top singers, attracted enthusiastic audiences during his tour in Japan — Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo — in October. In his own country, his third album released in 1995 sold 2.8 million copies, a record for South Korean pop music.

“We are planning more overseas shows, including Japan,” Kim said. “The name of the game is to become familiar with a variety of local fans. It doesn’t matter whether our performances draw a large audience.”

His vocal style blends exuberance with touches of sentimentality, while his dancing and stage performance holds audiences spellbound.

Kim’s shows during the October tour were opened by the rock band Jaurim. After enjoying better-than-expected success here, Jaurim is planning a second tour in Japan and the release of a new album on the Japanese market next year.

Kim and Jaurim, in addition to rock bands Crying Nut, Deli Spice and Hwang Sin Hae Band, performed at the “In The City 2000 Tokyo” music trade show in October. Veteran balladeer Lee Moon Sae and female group Baby V.O.X. have also held their own concerts in Tokyo.

More recently, an open air concert featuring Korean and Japanese musicians took place this month in Tokyo as part of “Korea Super Expo 2000.” Among the participating artists from South Korea were female vocalist Uhm Jung Hwa, dance music group Tae Sa Ja, hip-hop duo Joosac, veteran female singer Kye Eun Suk, Baby V.O.X., Jaurim and rock trio Y2K, made up of a Japanese guitarist and bassist and a South Korean vocalist.

K-pop is currently dominated by beat-driven dance acts. Still, hip-hop and R&B enjoy respectable levels of popularity, while ballads maintain a solid following. Yet regardless of their musical category, the acts are often characterized by unmistakable and effectively executed South Korean flavors.

Until now, Japanese record companies have released very little K-pop. But that trend appears ready to change. In response to growing demand, Avex, a leading record company in Japan, will start selling the latest offerings from South Korea in cooperation with South Korea’s SM Entertainment.

Avex’s roster includes Namie Amuro and Ayumi Hamazaki, while SM Entertainment is best known as the record and management company for popular dance music groups like H.O.T. and S.E.S.

Masaru Kuwata, a 36-year-old public notary, has been hooked on K-pop since he went on holiday to South Korea in 1988. He returned home with cassette tapes by female singer Lee Son Hee and pop group Sobang Cha as souvenirs.

“I prefer K-pop because there are so many songs that make me want to sing,” he said. “I have had to go to South Korea to buy CDs nearly every year, because the imported CDs have been difficult to find, even in big cities like Tokyo, until recently.”

Tomoko Uehara, 30, was introduced to K-pop through a South Korean friend about three years ago when she was a student in the United States. Before then, her taste in music was decidedly American-oriented. “Mostly I had been listening to black music. I never liked Japanese pop,” she said.

One of her friends, Akiko Someya, 29, is a recent convert.

Someya has been to South Korea several times and is impressed with the country and the people. Her deep interest in South Korean pop culture developed after she saw the South Korean movie “Shuri,” which became a box-office hit in Japan this year.

The movie made her realize that South Korea could do great things in the field of pop culture.

“South Korean pop is happy and delightful. That’s the appeal for me,” Someya said.

Some K-pop fans are former followers of Hong Kong pop stars, according to Masayuki Abe, owner of Asyl, an Asian music cafe in Koenji, western Tokyo.

“In Japan, Hong Kong stars have long been popular and some people began to think there are too many fans now. If you want to enjoy a pioneer’s pleasure, you can look at Korean idols because they are less known to ordinary Japanese,” Abe said.

As more and more Japanese listen to K-pop, the demand for information grows. A satellite television channel called m-net, which specializes in South Korean promotion videos, concerts and interviews, started trial broadcasting in Japan in June. The channel has about 2.5 million subscribers in South Korea.

The number of subscribers in Japan, however, is between 2,000 and 3,000, not large enough to be profitable.

“(The subscribers) are all die-hard fans of Korean music,” said Masaaki Mori, president of m-net Japan. “We have to multiply the subscribers by creating more homemade programs that will reflect Japanese viewers’ interests directly.”

Mori plans to produce K-pop concerts in Japan twice a year to promote the service.

The quarterly magazine Hot Chilli Paper is another important source of information for Japanese-speaking fans of South Korean pop culture. The first issue was published late last year, prior to the Japanese release of “Shuri”.

“I thought the time was ripe,” said Song Shin Young, the Korean-Japanese editor in chief of the magazine. “I’ve been checking out South Korean pop culture for some time and, until the mid-1990s, I didn’t want to present it to Japanese people because the quality was not very good. Now, things are totally different.”

” ‘Shuri’ opened the door. Movies came first and the next big thing will be South Korean pop music,” Song said. Hot Chilli Paper contains a CD-ROM featuring promotion videos of current hit songs and trailers of upcoming movies. “If you see and listen to it, you’ll understand what I mean,” he said.