South Korean pop singers and groups will not be part of the yearend NHK music show, “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” this year. When NHK announced its 50 performers for the singing extravaganza broadcast every New Year’s Eve, Korean performers were conspicuously absent.

Fans and commentators claimed that the diplomatic conflict over the Takeshima Islands played a part in the decision. However, NHK said in a press release that the selection of artists for the 62nd annual program was based on artistic activities and the support they receive from the general public, not on politics.

Korean pop groups — K-pop for short — have appeared consistently for several years in the singing contest. Last year, K-pop groups, such as Girls’ Generation, KARA and TVXQ, received extremely high viewership ratings. Outside of Japan, K-pop, like J-pop, continues to garner fans from around the world. The Korean rapper Psy has just become the most watched video artist on YouTube, with more than 900 million views worldwide for his video “Gangnam Style.”

From the beginning, bringing in K-pop groups to the New Year’s Eve program was an act of soft diplomacy — something NHK should strive to continue. Entertainment is one important function of music, but in this age of internationalized consumer markets, music also plays political and social roles. The inclusion of Korean singers not only marked recognition of their popularity in Japan, but also reflected a positive gesture toward a neighbor that, despite past conflicts and current disagreements, still shares many similar cultural attitudes, not to mention musical taste.

The New Year’s Eve singing contest has long been one way to celebrate the New Year, but the contest also was a measure of popular taste. The restriction of performers to only Japanese artists is hardly indicative of what Japanese listen to the rest of the year.

Japan’s music industry provides all types of music in a variety of mediums to consumers, who are fairly broad and diverse in their tastes, especially after easier access to music on the Internet. The pan-Asian world of popular music is a vast cultural space for exchange and cross-cultural communication. Artists often sing in different languages and appeal to people from very different cultural backgrounds.

More than many other cultural forms, popular music has an uncanny ability to reach across borders, transcend differences and share universal emotions and situations.

It might be some time before NHK again invites performers from another country to its program, although hopefully this won’t be the case. In the meantime, the appealing power of pop music, no matter where the artists come from, will continue winning the hearts of fans throughout Asia and the world.

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