Amid the homebound anxiety of the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Japan seemed to take solace in one sonic solution: the NiziU hit, “Make You Happy.”

The omnipresent song soundtracked a few of the better firsts for some of us in Tokyo: our first outdoors walk in warmer weather, our first socially distant drinking party at Yoyogi Park, or the first time we tried out TikTok by taking part in the cardio-friendly “Make You Happy” dance challenge.

It was a year of firsts for the nine members of NiziU, too. Since forming out of “Nizi Project,” a reality TV competition that aired in the first half of 2020, the group has topped the Oricon charts (most recently for “Take a Picture / Poppin’ Shakin’”), scored its first “exclusive desserts” at Lawson convenience stores and made its debut on Japan’s end-of-year music extravaganza “Kohaku Uta Gassen.”

“Every day is like a first experience,” NiziU member Maya Katsumura tells The Japan Times via email, adding that, despite such uncharted territory, “everyone supports each other more and more, which strengthens our teamwork.”

An email interview with nine pop stars at once is definitely a first for me, necessary not just because of the pandemic but also the packed schedule of a modern-day Japanese music group. NiziU’s members — Katsumura, Mako Yamaguchi, Ayaka Arai, Riku Oe, Rima Nakabayashi, Rio Hanabashi, Miihi Suzuno, Mayuka Ogou and Nina Hillman — each take turns dishing on the new experiences they’ve had. For example, at one point Yamaguchi reflects on how she learned to pose for magazine shoots and coordinate her clothes, then Arai mentions that she continues to surprise herself in her effort to improve her singing pitch. And, of course, they all agree that, since this is their first real taste of fame, their best memories often involve meeting fans, many of whom are a part of an official fanclub called WithU.

It’s all earnest but familiar territory for any emerging J-pop act. What makes the group stand out from its peers, though, is the company behind it. NiziU is part of JYP Entertainment Corp., one of South Korea’s largest music conglomerates, and it’s behind big-time groups like Twice, Itzy and Stray Kids. NiziU is part of a strategy dubbed “K-pop 3.0,” which aims for “globalization by localization.”

The strategy isn’t unique to JYP, either. Japanese boy band JO1 was formed from a TV show put on by the Korean entertainment company CJ ENM. JO1 (pronounced Jay-Oh-One) brings an unmistakable K-pop aesthetic and sound to everything it does, while HYBE Labels — the new moniker adopted by Big Hit Entertainment, who is behind the most successful Asian pop group of all time, BTS — is also working on various acts “who will start in Japan and go on to perform on the world stage.”

After establishing K-pop as Asia’s dominant musical force, South Korean companies are increasingly looking to establish a greater foothold in the highly lucrative Japanese market.

“Due to its relatively small market, South Korea and its business sector in general has traditionally been very export-oriented, and the music industry is no exception,” says Chang Dong-woo, a writer for South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency who previously covered the culture beat and has written about this expansion overseas. “While the export component of K-pop has mostly been around Korean acts releasing albums overseas and touring, larger agencies with deep pockets have taken shots at establishing new acts outside of Korea in recent years.”

NiziU reflected this development from the get-go. “Nizi Project” began airing on Hulu Japan in January of last year, with JYP’s YouTube channel sharing it internationally. Following a talent survival show template that is common in South Korea, the program saw hundreds of hopefuls attempt to debut in a new Japanese group.

“‘Nizi Project’ was a life-changing moment for me,” Katsumura says. “There were many times I lost confidence, but the goal to ‘debut’ kept me going.”

The winners — including existing trainees at JYP — formed NiziU and now reflect on how surreal the life-changing moment was.

“My head went blank for a moment and I couldn’t believe it,” Hillman recalls. “But after that, I just felt relief all through my body.”

JYP’s push proved a hit immediately. NiziU’s pre-debut single “Make You Happy” became one of last year’s defining J-pop hits, powered by a glee that was uncharacteristic of the mood in 2020. Then, there was that “jump-rope dance,” a clever bit of playground-inspired choreography that was perfectly suited to the short-form video platform TikTok (a space NiziU continues to thrive in — “Take a Picture” adds samples of cameras snapping, an audio cue for TikTokers to play off of). These factors helped result in a huge breakthrough for the group and, by the start of 2021, the biggest complaint being lobbed at them was that they were on TV a little too much.

South Korean labels have wanted to debut their performers in other countries for decades, and saw massive triumphs in BoA and TVXQ here in Japan.

“K-pop agencies hiring and producing local talents in overseas markets using the K-pop formula is a natural evolution from such collective industry aspirations, of hoping to compete in larger overseas markets,” Chang says.

In 2017, JYP scored a major hit with the debut of Twice, a nine-member multicultural pop group. One key to its success was that three of its members were Japanese. K-pop 3.0 thinking goes, “if just a few members can make a group popular, what happens when the entire group is Japanese?” We’re finding out with NiziU.

However, all this success raises the question of what is behind K-pop’s latest perfectly choreographed moves into Japan. Are South Korean svengalis merely dabbling in J-pop? Or are they attempting to assert dominance in the world’s second-largest music market by doing what Japanese labels have struggled to do — make their artists well-known names overseas?

“NiziU and JO1 aren’t household names in Korea,” Chang says. “NiziU gets coverage, but it’s almost all based on JYP press releases on the group’s Oricon chart feats in Japan. Coverage on the two groups from the Korean media has largely centered around how the K-pop industry manages to stay influential in Japan even in the face of tense diplomatic relations between the two nations.”

It’s still uncertain whether JYP intends on a major push for NiziU outside of Japan, but the members are beginning to get stars in their eyes when it comes to international fame. Hillman hopes to one day meet NiziU’s growing fandoms in other countries, and Nakabayashi also discusses international moves before adding, “but for now I hope we mature at our own pace.”

“I want us to be a group that is loved by everyone,” Hanabashi says, summing up the email thread. If NiziU can charm an entire country in the middle of a pandemic, maybe world domination isn’t such a lofty goal.

For more information on NiziU, check out niziu.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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