Last week, Korean pop group Twice made its “official” debut in Japan, featuring the release of a Japanese-language best-of compilation and a showcase at Tokyo Gymnasium on July 2. In between, the members appeared on the popular weekly TV show “Music Station” and posed in front of Tokyo Tower, which displayed the name of one of their most popular songs on its display.
Japanese media has primarily focused on the fact three of Twice’s members are Japanese. That’s fine, and almost certainly what the group’s label wanted when assembling the outfit. Yet absent from nearly all reports on Twice is musical context. Coverage treats the group like a viral phenomenon with a dash of patriotism stirred in.
Korean musical groups have been trying to break into the Japanese market since the late 1990s, but without much fanfare until the mid-2000s when artists such as BoA and TVXQ made inroads. K-pop really got popular in 2010, when girl groups Kara and Girls’ Generation hit the airwaves with catchy and confident tunes.
K-pop’s rise, however, also generated friction thanks to Japan and Korea’s strained history. Hallyu, or the “Korean wave,” angered some Japanese, leading to protests against Fuji TV for airing too many Korean dramas, and celebrities such as Matsuko Deluxe speaking out against K-pop. Gradually, Korean entertainers vanished from Japanese TV, highlighted by national broadcaster NHK’s decisions to not feature any K-pop during the yearend “Kohaku Uta Gassen” show in 2013 (after two years of sizeable representation), and an announcement in 2015 that it would no longer air Korean dramas. Whereas Psy’s 2012 “Gangnam Style” was K-pop’s crowning moment, it was ignored in Japan, with many netizens accusing Koreans of juicing its massive popularity via computer programs.
Despite being absent from TV, K-pop thrived in Japan, evidenced by strong sales and packed crowds for events such as KCon, which Twice played in 2016. But Japanese media tie Twice’s popularity in Japan to its “TT pose,” a gesture in which you place your index fingers under your eyes to make it look like you are crying (visual representation: T_T). This look went viral on Japanese social media in late 2016, but fans already knew about Twice well before because a strong K-pop community exists here.
At its worst, coverage of Twice has taken on a nationalistic tone. NHK News ran a feature about the group several weeks back, centered on how it is mending relations between the two countries. The hosts go over a brief history of Korea-Japan relations in the new century — the 2002 World Cup, the popularity of the drama “Winter Sonata,” along with arguments over Takeshima and the “comfort women.” Missing? Any pop culture from the years 2005 to 2016, when K-pop was at its peak in Japan.
This revisionism ignores all the goodwill K-pop has inspired in younger Japanese listeners, who are more likely the group’s main demographic. Rather, the Japanese members are shown as soft power superhumans, helping Japan’s image in Korea. And there’s truth within that claim. But all the work done the other way shouldn’t be ignored, either.