How K-pop Triumphed Over J-pop: A Swaggy Story of Underdog Ambition

Less than a dozen years ago, Japanese pop music—J-Pop—dominated Asia. Today, K-pop—the South Korean product recently made famous in America by Psy’s viral “Gangnam Style” video—is poised for world domination, with Asia already in its pocket. A Korean producer, m-flo’s Taku Takahashi, cuttingly summarized the flipping of the script when he recently tweeted, “fuck JPOP 2012.” Just how did J-pop crater, and K-pop purloin its destiny as the world’s most cosmopolitan music?


Japan was (and remains) the second biggest music market in the world, with an enormously pervasive pop culture in general. Think of anime (which would often use J-pop for a show’s opening or closing themes). But what was more important than its built-in audience was J-pop’s ambition. Fueled by such success stories as singer Hikaru Utada (pictured below), who at age 16 wrote and recorded the biggest selling album in Japanese history, and producer Tetsuya Komuro, whose golden touch generated a steady stream chart-topping singles for Namie Amuro, TRF, Globe and others, in the ‘90s Japanese music companies began to expand into Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Nowhere, though, was their impact greater than in South Korea, where Japanese music had been banned for years. That restriction was lifted in late 1999, and within months Japanese acts ruled the Korean charts.


But K-pop has since conquered Japan: Kara, 2PM, T-ara, Beast and (of course) Girls’ Generation (pictured below) own the Oricon charts. And they’ve essentially done it by making a better version of J-pop. (Kara’s “Go Go Summer” is, for example, probably the best single Japanese legends Speed never made.) Where the J-Poppers work in a style easily reproduced at the karaoke bar, the K-pop approach is virtuosic and polished, with sharper, almost militaristic choreography.

That disciplined sound and showmanship is made possible by an equally orderly approach to the creation of the music and its groups. Psy’s blockbuster video has inspired countless stories in the American media, tending to cite his success and mention multi-member girl groups like Kara (pictured below), T-ara and Girls’ Generation and elaborately coiffed boy bands such as Big Bang and Super Junior. And they all marvel at K-pop’s almost industrial approach to turning out stars and songs. (Aspiring singers spending months or even years as “trainees” for the country’s mighty major labels.)


To J-pop fans, the Korean system should seem very … familiar. In fact, when you think about just how much the Korean industry owes to the Japanese model, you have to wonder where Tokyo went wrong.

While Korean boy bands in particular owe a debt to Johnny’s Jimusho, the legendary Tokyo-based talent company that launched Japanese boy groups like SMAP, Arashi and Sexy Zone, the fact is that K-pop acts like Big Bang, Super Junior and Beast have more swagger—more soul, even—than the J-pop competition.

But K-pop doesn’t dominate simply because it sounds better. J-pop failed in other ways.

Blinkered perhaps by the age-old Japanese belief that Westerners can never truly grasp Japanese culture, the major Japanese labels have traditionally made little effort to to market J-pop on this side of the Pacific—reigning in their ambition just where it might have served them best.

Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue o Muite Aruko”—retitled for Anglophones as “Sukiyaki”—was an early exception, topping the charts in 1963. But then Beatlemania happened, Sakamoto (pictured below) went back to Japan, and there wasn’t another trans-Pacific crossover attempt until the mid-’70s, when the duo Pink Lady signed with Mike Curb and released a made-for-America album that produced a single Top 40 hit, the disco-tinged “Kiss In the Dark.” Both Mie and Kei learned enough English to co-host a memorably campy variety show, Pink Lady and Jeff, but the essence of what made them big in Japan got lost in translation.

Seiko Matsuda, who forged the template for the modern idol singer, was the next to try. In the ’80s, she was the biggest pop star in Japan, and after her label, Sony, bought CBS Records, Matsuda turned to America. Rechristened “Seiko,” she recorded an American-style album and even cut a duet with New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg. But the single never broke the U.S. Top 40. (Matsuda’s American adventure wasn’t a complete failure, though—press coverage of her efforts rekindled interest in her at home.)

It was a telling lesson. Because the Japanese market was so large and lucrative, spending months on the road in the hope of breaking the America seemed too big a gamble for J-pop stars, particularly given that regular appearances on Japanese TV was a prerequisite for a place on the charts.

What happened instead was a sort of inverse reaction, as punk and underground acts such as Shonen Knife (pictured below), Boredoms and Takako Minekawa ended up with Stateside record deals. Given the small number of albums these groups sold at home, success on the American indie circuit was a considerable plus, and in the case of Shibuya-kei pioneers Pizzicato Five, actually led to a boost in Japanese sales. By 1995, things were so topsy-turvy that Super Junky Monkey, a noisy post-punk quartet from Osaka, were better known in the U.S. than Namie Amuro and Super Monkeys, whose perky dance singles then dominated the Japanese charts (and popularized the club-style “eurobeat” that later became a K-pop staple).

Of course, Amuro and the J-pop stars of the ’90s didn’t have YouTube to help spread the word globally; only those Americans fanatic enough to seek out import singles and videos had any idea of the music’s charm.

Unbelievably enough, that’s still true today. It’s easy to see videos of all the big K-pop hits online, and fans can as easily buy the tracks—or even full albums—through U.S. iTunes. J-pop, by contrast, remains needlessly difficult to access outside of Japan.

Maybe the most telling case is Japanese star Utada. Born to a successful producer and celebrated enka singer (enka being a traditional song form often described as “Japanese blues”), she virtually grew up in the studio. Moreover, that studio was, for most of her youth, in New York, a circumstance that not only gave her a fluidity in English most J-pop singers lacked but offered a far more global perspective. After moving back to Japan in 1997, Utada released her debut album, the R&B-inflected First Love, and immediately became a sensation. In addition to her record-breaking debut, her next two albums sold more than three million copies each, and in 2004 she signed with Island Def Jam and began work on an American album.

Her entry into the U.S. market had essentially no J-pop overtones at all; Exodus, recorded with producer Timbaland, was a straight-up R&B/dance effort, and peaked at 160 on the Billboard charts. Five years later, she released its follow up, This Is the One, with L.A. Reid producing. This time, she drew more on the tremulous balladry that marked her J-pop output, and had better success, climbing to 69. But she faced market resistance as a Japanese woman in an intensely African-American market, and played less than a dozen live dates in the U.S. In 2010, she went on indefinite hiatus.

Compare that to the K-pop group Wonder Girls. Formed in 2007, the quartet parlayed the success of a Korean hit, “Nobody,” into an opening slot on a Jonas Brothers tour in 2009. By the end of the tour, “Nobody” was at No. 76 in the U.S., making them the first K-pop act to crack the Billboard Hot 100.

Since then, they recorded an English language album; toured the US and Canada with fellow K-poppers 2PM; released a made-for-TV movie called “Wonder Girls”; and followed their U.S. debut with an EP called Wonder Party. A few months later, they released a new single, “Like Money,” featuring ubiquitous R&B cameo singer Akon.

They haven’t broken through like Psy, but they haven’t stopped trying, either. And unlike Utada, there’s been no hint of letting up, much less hiatus. Now, why do you think K-pop keeps pulling ahead?






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