This year hasn’t been a particularly warm one for the relationship between Japan and South Korea. Ongoing tension stemming from Japan’s colonization of its neighbor up to the end of World War II — and efforts to complicate what happened during this period — have bubbled up once again, affecting everything from music to tourism.
But this week’s “2018 FNS Music Festival” year-end bonanza on Fuji TV reminded us that pop can help create bridges between the two countries. The program featured the Japanese TV debut of Izone (stylized as IZ*ONE and pronounced “eyes one”), a 12-member group featuring nine Korean performers and three Japanese singers coming from the AKB48 universe. This mix has generated some controversy in both nations, but scored record sales in South Korea and strong interest in Japan well before properly debuting there.
Izone came about because of a talent competition show that aired in Korea over the summer. “Produce 48” found the popular “Produce 101” series teaming up with J-pop idol establishment AKB48 to create a new group selected by viewers. It initially seemed like it would be another set of geopolitical pratfalls. From the start, Korean netizens slammed TV station MNET for working with AKB48.
And so it carried on: only those in Korea could vote; netizens dug up (extremely tame) dirt on Japanese members; Korean participants wore badges and used phone cases supporting “comfort women”; AKB48 couldn’t keep up with the dancing and singing skills of their Korean counterparts. Add to that predictable voting controversies, and the situation for Izone’s debut looked dicey — even before some called for the group to be banned from South Korean TV.
On Oct. 29, Izone released its debut EP in South Korea, setting a record for the most units moved in 24 hours. The video for the song “La Vie en Rose” performed just as well, with more than 34 million views at the time of writing.
And now the spotlight shifts to Japan, with the Fuji TV performance serving as the first step. Signs point to Izone doing well — the “Color*Iz” EP topped the Oricon charts the week it came out, despite not being the outfit’s proper Japanese debut. It helps that they have the AKB machine behind them in Japan, but they also appeal to listeners outside the usual J-pop idol demographic, as they also pull in younger people who gravitate to K-pop.
Just as importantly, Izone reminds us of the good pop can do for Japan and South Korea. While the history of entertainment between the two nations has been choppy, music and pop culture have also helped improve each country’s image of the other.
There will always be 2channers organizing protests of TV shows hosting K-pop acts, and Korean netizens threatening to throw acid on groups promoting too much in Japan. But there are plenty of people in the middle happy to hear what’s coming out musically from either side.
With the group set to release its Japanese debut full-length album in February, Izone will be an interesting one to keep an eye on.