Korea and J-Pop: Correcting the Record

Over the past couple of months with the debut of groups like NiziU and JO1 there has been a rise of what I would call “popularity alarmism”. This is a feeling that is very real on both sides of the strait with K-pop fans becoming alarmed by the number of non-Koreans in K-pop, and J-pop fans lamenting over the supposed lack of popularity that J-pop suffers in Korea.

South China Morning Post article on the debut of NiziU
Unseen Japan also weighed in on this issue

This is honestly a topic that I’ve both really wanted to address, but also have completely been disgusted by the current coverage, the above included. This frustration is due to multiple fronts.

  1. Most of the coverage seems to assume that much of the censorship was only on one side, like the Unseen Japan or South China Morning Post article, thereby completely missing the primary rationale behind the birth of groups like JO1 and the various seasons of Produce 101 Japan. The way that the birth of these groups has been covered – both within Korean language press and overseas – has completely erased the impact of Japanese anti-Korean racism on the reception to all-Korean groups in the past, right down to completely ignoring the extremely controversial decision to erase all K-pop groups from terrestrial television from 2012 onward. It was only due to a heavy marketing campaign selling TWICE as a Japanese group that they even got on Kouhaku, and yet this effort was not even worth a mention to anyone of note either in Korea or overseas. The equivalent for more Western-centric readers would be to try and explain why Elvis Presley made it with not a single mention of anti-black racism in the United States. Such coverage is not simply incomplete, it borders on racism apologia.
  2. Much of the coverage of Korean reception to Japanese cultural products feeds into the stereotype that Korea is rabidly anti-Japan, one which is absolutely divorced from reality. Given how coverage tends to be internationally and the racist attitude of certain famous online Korean American personalities the stereotype of Korea being incredibly anti-Japan is very alive and real. In fact this tends to color the opinion of everyone from However, this could not be further from the case. While it is true that Koreans are sensitive to any mention of the colonial period, it would be incredibly wrong to say that Japanese entertainment is hated in Korea. Year to date, the movie that has earned the most money per screen and the second highest total gross domestically in Korea is none other than Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train. While the 1990s were special given the explosion after the fall of the dictatorship and the freedom to listen to things freely, it would be wrong to call J-pop anything other than an established segment of the Korean entertainment market now, as the rapid expansion of Animate Korea in particular can attest to.

So yes, this is an incredibly difficult article to write about. Between the wholesale erasure of the post-2002 rise in anti-Korean racism in Japan (and subsequent retreat within the most recent few years) as well as the incredibly strong stereotype of Korea as rejecting anything remotely Japanese, there seems to be no desire to understand the actual situation today.

In fact, while it is true that the dominance of X Japan and Namie Amuro were absolutely unique in their popularity during the 1990s, one could be forgiven for thinking Japanese acts as being more popular as of late in Korea.

More acts (such as SEKAI NO OWARI and Aqours) have started adding South Korea as a stop on their tours despite the fact that many Korean fans simply opt to go to Japan (a round trip ticket averages between $150 to 200 USD, and is an hour flight between the two capitals).

So why no NiziU, you might ask. Well, most listeners would opt to go directly for something that they wouldn’t be able to find in Korea – something a quick three second check with the current Gaon Chart would be able to confirm.

So the popularity of Japanese entertainment in Korea? Not something I would worry about, probably ever. Perhaps I’ll start worrying if all the Animate Korea shops shut down and major acts stop touring in Korea entirely. Until then, I’ll be enjoying my weeb karaoke with my cousins in the country and discussing the merits of J-pop with Korean friends as per usual.