Brief Thoughts on the History of the Korean Wave in Japan

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Idol Park, a K-pop store in the heart of Tokyo’s “Koreatown” in Shin-Okubo

As I am currently drafting an article that explores how we can understand the political relationships between Japan and both South and North Korea via the Korean Wave as part of a project partially funded by the South Korean government, I thought I would share a very brief run-down of the history of the Korean Wave in Japan.

This history is based on the skeleton framework I developed for the more comprehensive history I will write in my article.

Pre-history 

South Korean entertainers had been active in postwar Japan’s entertainment industries well before the advent of what would now be known as “K-pop”.” One particularly pertinent example is Cho Yong-Pil, a famous rock musician who developed a following within Japan. Likewise, numerous Korean trot singers found fertile ground in Japanese enka circles during the 1980s and 1990s.

1st Wave: 2004 and Winter Sonata

Scholars often position the 2004 broadcast of the drama Winter Sonata as the beginning of the Korean Wave in Japan. Starring the charismatic Bae Yong-Joon, Winter Sonata became a sensation in Japan due to the emotionality of its story that contrasted significantly with the idol-dominated “trendy dramas” popular at this time. Bae – who fans soon dubbed Yon-sama – developed a legion of devoted fans and was famously mobbed during his first visit to Japan. Soon, middle-aged women known as “Korean Wave Aunties” became avid consumers of Korean dramas, often travelling to South Korea to visit the shooting locations of their favourite series.

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Bae Yong-Joon of Winter Sonata fame

Backlash 1: “Hating the Korean Wave”

As the popularity of the Korean Wave sky-rocketed on the back of Korean drama fandom, conservative author/creator Yamano Sharin released a manga entitled Hating the Korean Wave that sought to “debunk” historical “misunderstandings” of Korea-Japanese relations. Originally shared online, but becoming a best-seller after it was finally released in paperback, Yamano’s comic contained discussions of so-called comfort women (military sex slaves), territorial disputes (such as the Dokdo/Tsushima dispute) and the “national character” of Koreans. The comic took an avowedly revisionist and xenophobic tone, calling for a halt to the Korean Wave in Japan. You can learn more about it here.

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2nd Wave: Boa, TVXQ and the rise of K-pop music fandom in Japan

Despite the rising conservative backlash against the Korean Wave, the popularity of Korean media continued to grow in Japan in the second half of the 2000s. The so-called “second Korean Wave” came to Japan on the back of K-pop, Korean idol music that had been modelled after the idol music of Japan but refined to include a renewed focus on visual performance. Soon, K-pop artists such as BoA and TVXQ were dominating Japan’s Oricon music chart, reaching such a high level of mainstream appeal that they were invited to perform on NHK’s prestigious year-end song contest, the Kohaku Uta Gassen. During this second wave, K-pop became increasingly embedded within not only Japanese women’s culture, but also the music industry itself. In fact, this expansion was facilitated by formal relationships between SM Entertainment and AVEX Trax, the two largest music production companies within South Korea and Japan respectively.

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Incidentally, this Japanese album of BoA’s was the first “K-pop” album I ever bought

Backlash 2: Anti-Korean protests and governmental “Koreaphobia”

By 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck Japan and ed to a remarkably conservative shift within Japanese social and political culture, K-pop had arguably become somewhat mainstream in Japan. But due to the continued positioning of Korea as a “problem” within the discourse of Japan’s right-wing, soon K-pop disappeared from the Japanese airwaves. Korean acts were noticeably barred from participating at the Kohaku Song Contest (coincidentally at the same time as the government of conservative PM Abe Shinzo was sworn in and took control of the national broadcaster) and a high profile protest was staged at Fuji Television calling for a reduction of Korean drama content on the station (to which the station quietly acquiesced). From 2012 to roughly 2016, instances of anti-Korean hate-speech in Japan grew, forcing K-pop fans to mostly practice their fandom online. That being said, K-pop fandom didn’t go away and concerts continued to be regularly staged in Japan, which was a priority market for K-pop. But when discussing this period with fans in Japan, I am often told it represented a “dark age” when K-pop fandom could be viewed as “traitorous” even among level headed music fans.

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An anti-Korean protest in Japan where the Korean wave is likened to “mind-control”

3rd Wave: Resurgence, K-Beauty and ambivalence

Around 2016, the Korean Wave once again became increasingly visible in Japan and Korean acts such as BIG BANG, BTS and Twice (which includes two Japanese members) soon began dominating the Oricon chart. Korean food and music became trendy – particularly among young women and gay men –  with young Japanese people developing into active participants within the wider explosion in interest for all things Korean that many suggest was triggered by BTS and their passionate global fans. This renewed fandom for Korean popular culture led to the revitalisation of Shin-Okubo, Tokyo’s Koreatown, which soon became a popular spot for young people to gather on weekends. Japanese interest in the Korean cosmetic and fashion industry has likewise sky-rocketed, with Japanese street fashion now beginning to respond to K-beauty (spear-headed by Korean-Japanese beauty influencers such as Kondo Yohdi).

During a recent visit to Tokyo in January 2020, I was surprised to see advertisements for TXT’s Japanese debut plastered across the city, including prominent signage in Harajuku, Ikebukuro and Shibuya. The domination of these important entertainment districts by a K-pop band suggests that the Korean Wave may be becoming mainstream yet again.

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Members of TXT promoting in Harajuku in January 2020 (the day after I left!)

But this third wave has also emerged at a time when Japan-Korean relations are at an all-time low due to an ongoing economic blockade and I can’t help but view this renewed popularity with some trepidation. As the above brief discussion makes clear, the history of the Korean Wave in Japan is one of a cycle of booms and busts. Fundamentally, there is an ambivalence here where a certain attraction exists, but conservative elements always counter this with fears and hatred. Within the article I am writing, it is the paradox revealed by this simultaneous attraction and fear of Korea in Japan that I wish to explore.

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