Music

Trade spat sees K-pop caught in the middle

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

The Japanese debut performance of Korean pop group Stray Kids planned for next month should be an unquestionably good thing. The fledgling male outfit has been gaining steam since emerging in 2017, with its nine members having already played shows in Southeast Asia, Australia, the United States and Europe.

Fans of Stray Kids, however, are less than enthusiastic about the group’s upcoming trip to Japan.

“Please understand that Stray Kids promoting in Japan will hurt them,” Twitter user @woojlixy wrote following the news of the upcoming showcase. “The political tensions between (South Korea) and (Japan) have been building for years and have recently gotten much worse.”

Many more expressed similar reservations about the show, using multiple hashtags that ended up trending on South Korean Twitter that urged them to reconsider. The fear expressed by supporters online was that they’d “be looked down upon or labeled as the ‘group that betrayed its country.'”

K-pop has become a soft power juggernaut for South Korea, and the nation’s music industry has achieved massive success in Japan over the past two decades. Recent political tension between the two countries, however, has sparked concern on one side that this exchange could be in jeopardy.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency speculated on the fate of a series of high-profile K-pop shows and releases coming to Japan later this year, while others worried that Tokyo could sanction South Korean entertainment in the same way China did several years ago.

While it remains to be seen whether the Japanese government makes any moves, Japanese fans are probably not going to turn on an industry that has produced some of the most popular contemporary pop stars going.

“We had to go through many Japan-South Korea disputes in the past, but K-pop grew as one of the most popular music genres in Japan,” says music writer Takuo Matsumoto. “It took a long time for K-pop to become popular, so I don’t think it will suddenly become unpopular here.”

The influx of South Korean pop culture into Japan has always been met with unease caused by government disputes and the troubled history between the two nations. On the Japanese side, the boom in K-pop over this decade has brought about multiple controversies, ranging from right-wing netizens protesting against TV stations allowing K-pop performances to last year’s more widely covered flap over a member of BTS wearing a shirt celebrating Korean independence from Japan, complete with images of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945.

Matsumoto says the whole shirt incident, however, only underlined how popular K-pop has become worldwide, to the point where people with no interest in the music get riled up by the actions of its performers. It’s also important to recall the context of the shirt incident, as it played out shortly after a South Korean court ruling ordering a Japanese company to pay compensation for wartime labor during Japan’s colonial rule earlier in the 20th century.

That’s a reminder that these disputes between the Japanese and South Korean governments are frequent, and that this same scenario has played out over and over again throughout the past 10 years. Yet K-pop remains an economic force in Japan, even as this latest dip in relations carries on — the group Twice recently posted strong sales of its newest single, while BTS became the first overseas male act to be awarded the Recording Industry Association of Japan’s “Million” certification.

“The majority of K-pop fans are teenagers. They like South Korean pop culture but don’t care about South Korean politics or the economy,” Matsumoto says, adding that while plenty of young fans likely understand and care about the relationship between the two countries, pop fandom has the power to withstand geopolitical tension.

“I believe, not only the K-pop fans but most Japanese people think South Korean politics and economics are different to their pop culture,” Matsumoto says.

K-pop companies, meanwhile, feel the same way.

“Japan is a serious market for K-pop and agencies probably don’t want to make a fuss about it,” Mimyo, a Seoul-based K-pop critic and founder of the site Idology, says. “Apart from that, Korean market issues seem to be more hazardous than the Japanese market. And I guess that many agencies will agree.”

The current dispute has resulted in a boycott of Japanese products in South Korea, including multiple Japanese movie releases being postponed. It has spurred cities to cut exchange programs and airlines to halt flights on certain routes between the two nations, while popular South Korean YouTubers are purchasing plane tickets to Osaka only to tear them up on camera.

This nationalist sentiment has seeped over to K-pop and forced some changes (or at least discussion of changes). The Mnet Asian Music Awards, an annual K-pop awards gala, is reconsidering using a Japanese venue for part of the ceremony due to worsening ties, while Korean artist Yoon Jong-shin announced he’d be postponing a city-pop-flavored song he made featuring Miyu Takeuchi, a former member of Japanese idol-pop group AKB48.

“I feel that fans are being more cautious about getting blamed by the general public,” Mimyo says, adding that many people who don’t follow K-pop closely are likely to get angry over an artist promoting in Japan, or even throw blame on Japanese members of K-pop groups, as is the case with Twice’s Mina Myoui, who recently pulled out of the outfit’s world tour due to anxiety that is rumored to have been caused by anti-Japan sentiment directed at her from social media (a phenomenon that has even impacted South Korean food YouTubers, one of which was recently criticized by commentators for eating Japanese rice cakes on camera).

In this context, the concern over the Stray Kids gig makes more sense.

“The same thing happened about Exo’s concerts in Japan, if I remember right,” Mimyo says, referring to a similar hashtag-generated call for the male group to cancel a Japan show in order to protect its image at home.

“I believe some fans are worried about their favorite artists being put in an awkward situation whether it be in South Korea or Japan, as they can be quite protective in general,” Yim Hyun-su, a Korea Herald reporter who covers K-pop, says, though he also believes the industry at large hasn’t made any major changes as to how it approaches the Japanese market.

“I don’t remember any public discussion on how bad K-pop artists are to perform in Japan,” says Mimyo. “But it is a possibility that anybody could feel coming if a few steps go wrong in the near future, because South Korea-Japan relations are always a minefield for this industry, as observed quite often.”

The familiarity of this situation offers the most hope that things can go back to normal sometime soon when it comes to music. For now, no major shows or releases have been postponed in Japan (although Matsumoto says one speaking event he was scheduled to talk about K-pop at was canceled), and Japanese artists such as Sekai No Owari are still scheduled to play South Korea in coming weeks and months.

“The current generation of K-pop fans in Japan is not overly influenced by political issues,” Mimyo says. “But if the situation continues and sees some random trolls pop up — because K-pop culture is related to internet culture — there are possibilities that things can go seriously wrong.”

Matsumoto agrees, adding that, “The media keep reporting about how much worse the relationship between the countries (is) and how people criticize each other online, but most people look at what is happening more calmly in both countries I think. Though if this lasts a long time, I’m afraid it could start having more impact.”