Last week, the Fuji TV newsmagazine “Mr. Sunday” looked at Korean pop’s success in Japan from two angles. Taking a street-level perspective, the show’s host, Seiji Miyane, hung out in Tokyo’s Okubo district, which has become “the new Harajuku” because young Japanese women flock there to rub up against Korean culture. Miyane interviewed a group called KINO (K-pop IN Okubo), made up of young Korean men who learned Japanese and then came to Japan on their own to become stars. They don’t have a management deal yet, but given the enthusiasm of the female fans who pack their small-venue shows, it’s only a matter of time.
For a loftier perspective, Miyane attended rehearsals for the 21-member boy band A-Peace, the main attraction at a new theater in Ebisu offering K-pop all the time. If this sounds like a rip-off of Exile or the AKB48 formula, then you’re probably new to the discussion. The Japanese pop faithful like to point out how much K-pop owes its senpai (senior), in terms of its business model, without mentioning how much further K-pop has taken it. Whether or not A-Peace’s routines are more accomplished than those of any comparable J-pop group (they are) is less important than the fact that the members’ average height is 185cm. How tall is SMAP’s Takuya Kimura?
K-pop is out to conquer the world, whereas J-pop has never even applied for a passport. The popularity that Japanese music enjoys elsewhere in Asia, including Korea, has been achieved passively. Korean talent agencies are aggressive. The kind of economic power they aim for can’t be achieved only in Korea. They have to expand outward, and the first country they target is Japan.
Such ambition is the theme of the TV Tokyo show “Urakara” (Fri., 12:12 a.m.), starring the most popular female K-pop group, Kara. “Urakara” is a drama series outlining Kara’s attempt to become one of the biggest pop groups in the world. The five members play themselves as established pop stars who live together in the same house. The ongoing plot premise is that the president of their production company is traveling the world to “understand” the international pop music scene and has left a robot proxy to take care of the quintet while he’s gone. The first three episodes take place in Korea, where the girls are preparing for their conquest of Japan by studying Japanese. They are even saddled with a clueless Japanese manager, a former idol herself who is played by famous voice actress Mari Hamada.
In each episode, the robot “President #2” gives a “mission” to one of the girls to make a particular Japanese man fall in love with her. In the opening episode it was a visiting Japanese politician, in the second a golfer, and in the third a pasta chef. Though the ostensible reason for this romantic subterfuge is to undermine the emotional stability of the object of attention, usually so as to give some advantage to a counterpart Korean male, the girls never follow through completely on their heartbreaker assignments. The implied value of these lessons in love is not the satisfaction of bending some poor sap’s will, but a more thorough understanding of the kind of cultural differences that will help them take on the Japanese market.
In real life, Kara have already accomplished that — their debut album is the biggest-selling CD by a foreign female act since the last Destiny’s Child record — and without any help from Japanese males. In Japan, K-pop — whether it be performed by tall, hard-bodied boys with identically chiseled cheekbones or girls who can shake their booties as provocatively as Beyonce’s backup dancers — overwhelmingly appeals to teenage girls and young women. Males seem to prefer the less sexually threatening lasses of AKB48. The idea in “Urakara” of the members working their way into the hearts of Japanese men seems to be little more than a convenient and marginally titillating plot device.
Kara’s actual situation has proved to be much more dramatic than the program. On Jan. 19, four members announced that they wanted out of their contracts, with one of the rebels, Goo Hara, changing her mind the next day. The three remaining malcontents accused their agency, DSP Entertainment, of forcing work on them. K-pop management deals are notoriously Draconian: 10-year-plus contracts demanding total obedience, often in return for little pay.
It has since been reported that the women’s parents may be behind the mutiny. In the fall of 2009, three members of Tohoshinki, arguably the most widely adored K-pop group so far, quit the band with similar complaints about management accompanied by similar gossip about parental interference. In both cases, the groups had already made their mark on Japan, which brings up the question of timing. When K-pop artists quit their agencies, theoretically they’re finished in show business. The three Tohoshinki members have managed to stay in the game as a new pop entity, JYJ, mainly thanks to their management in Japan. Whether the three Kara members can pull off the same stunt remains to be seen, but for the time being the quintet remain a unit in order to fulfill their Japanese obligations, which include the remaining nine episodes of “Urakara” and an advertising campaign for the beauty clinic TBC.
In her column in Aera magazine, show biz writer Yoshiko Matsumoto points out that idols who break their contracts are blacklisted in Korea because talent agencies spend tons of money grooming them for stardom and the media are in thrall to these agencies. The same thing is true in Japan, except that Japanese stars would never think of hooking up with management in another country. Talent agencies are their real families. For all we know, the parents of SMAP’s members and all the other Johnny’s Jimusho acts sold them to the company at birth, given how little is known about their backgrounds.
That’s the real cultural difference between Japanese and Korean idols: J-pop artists know who their daddies are.
After receiving very emotional messages from fans of JYJ, I have changed a sentence in the column that originally described the three members of Tohoshinki as “traitors,” a word that deeply offended these fans. I apologize for any pain this word may have caused. I believe most readers understood my ironic use of the word, which was not intended to insult JYJ. It was used in regard to the trio’s relationship to their former talent agency, in the sense that they “betrayed” their management by leaving their contract, or so the management claimed initially.
Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.