Cool Japan vs. Hallyu: The long, loud road to soft power


Like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu before them, Perfume is all set to make their North American debut this fall on a tour that includes stops in Los Angeles and New York, as well as an international release of last year’s album LEVEL3, which will include two bonus remixes. The Internet has been predictably awash in both pleasant surprise and utter horror — worries FilmiGirl, “Their songs are tied up in their intricate visual choreography but I’m afraid that part won’t be clear to the Western arts types trying to write about them.” While South Korea has had a fruitful K-culture export strategy, Japan has been less successful, for several reasons I’ve gone over before in this blog, and that others have reiterated across the Internet. But the one point it always comes back to is that Japan lacks effort because they simply do not care. Japan still holds the distinction of being the second largest music market in the world with physical sales of CDs still trumping digital by leaps and bounds. At least for the time being, Japan’s business strategy works for the music entertainment industry in their favor.

Yet we still see the occasional group or singer attempt an American, or international, crossover. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has toured the US and released an international version of Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, globe-trotting on her brand of Harajuku fashion and artistic, sometimes off-the-wall visuals. But crossovers have gone all the way back since Hikaru Utada, Mai Kuraki, Pizzicato Five, Seiko Matsuda, Pink Lady, and so on. Despite these artists sharing Western styles of music and performance, rather than Japan’s abundance of idols and idol pop, rarely has anyone been able to attain a palpable sense of popularity, perhaps one of the reasons that crossovers tend to stay local, with Asian artists focused on growing a fan base in other East Asian countries like China and Singapore.

Japan, and, especially, Korea have attempted to rectify their low cultural influence outside of Asia with initiatives like Cool Japan and what is known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. Both of these tactics are similar, with government funding initiatives to pump up soft power: food, television, cinema, music, and electronics are only some of the positives the countries want associated with themselves, banking on the idea that foreigners will eventually form positive opinions of their country through this coercion, rather than force (hence the term “soft power”). Japan is investing $500 million in a 20-year plan, most likely in response to Korea’s enormous gain in the international pop culture wars — while Japan used to be Asia’s predominant taste maker, Korea has caught up in a phenomenally short amount of time.

koreancoolappIn The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, Euny Hong outlines the reasons Japan’s reign has come to an end:

“First of all, Japanese pop culture, like the Japanese archipelago itself, is too isolated from the rest of the world to have remained a sustainable global influence. […] Others, like pop culture critic Lee Moon-won, point out that Japan is a big enough consumer market as it is (the population is 100 million) and is less dependent than Korea is on foreign exports. For many Japanese companies, it’s not worth the huge risk of a very, very costly overseas marketing campaign.” (200-201)

In addition, she cites that “many of Japan’s video games are for the Japanese market only,” the Japanese are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), the presence of online distribution channels like YouTube and the use of subtitles which Japanese companies refuse to take advantage of, and the practice of grooming potential stars much differently than their Korean counterparts (201-202). Korean agencies churn out K-pop stars in a factory system, training idols from a very young age in dancing, singing, and media presence, and sending them out into the world as polished and professional as most audiences would expect. On the other hand, Japanese idols start out at a young age to purposely appear green: their real marketing push is to debut somewhat untalented so they can hone their skills in the public eye, giving the audience a sisterly or brotherly pull to support them. This creates a sort of emotional (and financial) bond unique to J-pop idols. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese idols are valuable less for their singing or dancing skills, than their ability to effortlessly float across media platforms, such as dramas, variety shows, and advertising.

W. David Marx writes in “The Jimusho System: Understanding the Production Logic of the Japanese Entertainment Industry“: “In pursuit of profit, they [agencies] maximize entertainers’ incomes through a wide variety of activities, most deeply focused on product sponsorship. […] Idols are products of their jimusho, [agency] and the jimusho work to create idols who have the greatest economic potential (37).” This “economic” potential is difficult to parlay into an overseas net value where the same advertising tie-ins would be highly difficult to obtain, and artists would, instead, have to rely solely on their music and performances. In that case, it would be a Sisyphean task to attempt to cross over hugely successful groups like SMAP, Arashi, or AKB48. Furthermore, it makes little sense from a business standpoint to drop what is already such a lucrative endeavor that needs no explanation at home, to a country such as the United States, that would require footnotes at every step (see my post Japanese Pop Culture and Intertextuality to get a sense of what we’re dealing with here).

Furthermore, celebrity endorsements work differently in Japan anyway. Jason G. Karlin writes in “Through a Looking Glass Darkly: Television Advertising, Idols, and the Making of Fan Audiences” that

“[u]nlike celebrities in the US, Japanese [talents] do not endorse products. Instead, image characters lend their star image to the brand, but without implying any direct endorsement or testimonial. The Japanese celebrity is not making any claims or representations for the product. Indeed, in most commercials, the celebrity never even mentions the name of the product.” (74-75)

To sum up again, we’re looking at a culture that is financially stable in its own system that, at least for the time being, works in their favor. To move outside Japan, Japanese companies would be losing control of large amounts of income and the enormous influence they yield over broadcast networks and other companies by providing stars that earn those companies revenue in return.

On the other hand, K-pop idols are much more willing to play the long-game and adapt to their Western counterparts in both business practice and image. This is especially easy when K-pop is already so familiar and hip to an international audience that recognizes its references immediately without needing to Google eight separate pieces of background information to get an idea of what’s going on with the sounds or visuals. Perhaps this is why Perfume in particular have been chosen as the next torchbearers: their sound is largely irreverent of current J-pop trends, capable of being enjoyed in as basic a vacuum as you can get when it comes to J-pop. They are also not idols in the traditional sense, yet they do bring a sense of something wholly unique and Japanese, that Yasutaka Nakata sound that is so difficult to replicate and so chillingly important in a music market that sounds more and more homogenous. While they don’t have Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s fashion cred, they do have a uniform look and appeal that remains classic, and a forward-looking visual aesthetic that can be as breathtaking as it is innovative. They are, in short, one of the best musical groups Japan currently has to offer and continuing to send them off into the world is the only way to keep the party going when domestic sales start to flutter.

hellokiappIt’s also a way to promote Japanese pop culture without using the words many already associate with Japan: anime, cute, kawaii, Hello Kitty, etc. While none of those things are inherently bad unto themselves, Japan already has a PR campaign focused on nurturing kawaii. In “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines” Christine Yano lists everything from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs using the robot kitty Doraemon as its mascot, to Hello Kitty for its tourism, to using three young women, Misako Aoki, Yu Kimura, and Shizuka Fujioka, to model Lolita, Harajuku, and schoolgirls-in-uniform fashion at Japanese global events to showcase how “Japanese cute – including its tease of youth and femininity — has become part of official policy in creating a new face that beckons the overseas customer (685).” While there is something of a tongue-in-cheek way that these fashions and messages are worn by consumers (the “wink” in the article’s title), it’s still a wonder to see three girls like Perfume promote something other than a stereotype: indeed, the girls are hard-working and talented and feminine and strong and they don’t have to wear a maid uniform to get your attention or represent their country. Progress.

Regardless, none of this points to absolute success, where success is defined by the acceptance of a widespread Western audience: for example, while the Japanese lyrics are part of the appeal, it may be difficult for a broader audience to accept the authenticity. In fact, historically we have nothing to predict this will catapult Perfume into global stardom, rather than do the same thing groups like Girls’ Generation have done: bring happiness and delight to a small niche audience, maybe open a few new eyes and ears to something new and different (in this case, recruiting English speaking members is a plus when you plan on conducting interviews and making audiences more comfortable with English-language albums). Maybe get the ball rolling for more, mostly insignificant, collaborations, or spark the hope that a person or persons of Asian background can become celebrities outside their respective countries. At best, get “Gangnam Style” out of their heads. This is why fans that fear the group will change, or that they’ll lose something fragile and precious, as if they own trends or people and would rather hold them back to the detriment of their overall success, probably don’t have much to worry about.

femmappAs for where J-pop is going, it is indeed interesting to watch the music market evolve with the influence of K-pop. I’ve written before how groups like Fairies are borrowing some of the look and style of K-pop groups. Earlier, I quoted Euny Hong stating J-pop groups are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), but this also seems to be changing with groups like FAKY and GENERATIONS from EXILE TRIBE. Both groups are under the record label avex trax and include non-Japanese members that were born outside the country or are of mixed background. It’s worth noting that avex trax might be one of the few labels that can attempt to experiment with the market: as one of the most successful independent record labels in Japan, they have the reputation and the funds to put things like hyper-experimental (and oh my god amazing) “mannequins” FEMM out into the world. All of these are responses to the K-pop model of music, a mutation in the J-pop virus that churns out uber-pop boy and girl bands for the sake of banking on present trends rather than taking a chance on the future, or rather, creating one. However, this is still not the typical practice of Japanese record companies.

Japan needs to remember that as it leads the world in music sales, it also has the responsibility to remain as diverse as it always has, to support not only its huge corporations but its budding indie labels and future taste makers, to utilize social media and not fear the big, bad, icky feeling of not being able to dictate how their audience will buy, share, view, or consume their products at all times. Because of the lose of control of their performers, over segments of the industry as a whole, and the extra revenue generated from crossover platforms, exporting Japanese culture would need to transcend the bottom line for the ideals of national pride and a genuine desire to share culture across borders rather than to niche audiences like fans of anime or Harajuku fashionistas. Perhaps “the ultimate question of whether “Cool Japan” can really pose a challenge to Hallyu lies in whether people even want the Japanese brand of cool when Korean cool seems to be working so well already,” writes sophie at Beyond Hallyu. Nonetheless, whether or not Cool Japan has the potential to catch up with or surpass the Hallyu wave depends on all of this, in addition to how willing the country will be to let go of business-as-usual and dare to try new things – or decide it’s worth it in the first place.


8 thoughts on “Cool Japan vs. Hallyu: The long, loud road to soft power

  1. Derek Vasconi September 22, 2014 / 11:31 pm

    I basically agree with everything written here, as it’s spot on in a million ways, but there is one HUGELY GLARING OMISSION that needs discussed when you talk about Japan leading the world in music sales. I think it should be noted that AKB48 is highly responsible for CD sales being so enormous in Japan and thus catapaulting Japan far above other countries with non-digital sales. I am surprised this wasn’t mentioned, being that it’s probably the ONLY reason Japan leads the world in music sales that aren’t digital. When you look at the fact that almost every single put out by AKB for the past few years has reached the million mark, their albums explode past the million mark easily, and all their cds come with incentives like handshake tickets, thus prompting people to buy 100 copies of a cd and throw away 99 of them, can you really honestly say Japan leads the music market in sales? They don’t. I mean, sure, units sold they do, but I think it’s kind of stacking the deck, don’t you, when a fan buys 100 or more copies of an AKB single just for the handshake tickets and then throws away all those extra cds or tries to sell them on secondary market platforms. I feel if anything, Japan has some extraordinarily gifted marketers that know how to make Japanese people spend their yen on music products for everything perhaps BUT the music they are buying. I would even go so far as to say that AKI-P is the SOLE reason Japan leads the world in cd sales, as his method of getting wota to buy everything they put out because of the incentives is so enticing that now I see people in America even doing it, though few and far between, but that’s saying something for a country that, as you put it, is so isolated from the rest of the world in terms of their crossover market appeal. I guess that leaves me with one thought: Can you imagine what would happen if AKB opened up a sister group in America and… it actually worked?
    On a completely unrelated note, I can’t wait to see Perfume in LA and NY! All I have to say is that IT’S ABOUT TIME LOL.

  2. Michael Do October 10, 2014 / 4:57 am

    I’m not even sure if Cool Japan can rival Hallyu. There has been times that Cool Japan has failed so many times. I find Japan making a lot of mistakes like not exporting J-dramas to Latin America (when K-dramas and Taiwanese dramas are picking up super-popularity in that area):

    Taiwanese dramas are also picking up popularity in Latin America too thanks to K-dramas:

    So why isn’t Japan taking advantage of this? I also want to note that this year we started to get J-dramas (only quite a few from Fuji TV on streaming sites like Crunchyroll and Dramafever. DF also got it’s first Taiga drama from NHK). Why aren’t more J-dramas being exported to take advantage of K-dramas popularity?? I mean Taiwan (so did Mainland China) did this.

    Also about Japan’s music, I got some bad news, their music sales has been declining for the last few years:

    Japan can’t keep this strategy forever, it’ll hurt the market more if Japan isn’t targeting globally, that’s why South Korea’s music market had seen huge sales for the last 3 years:

    So that’s why South Korea’s music market is gaining more profit then Japan. I’m afraid Japan may go from #2 to #4 on music market, I hope it won’t be the case but I could be right. South Korea now just became the 10th largest market, I predict it could become #8 given K-pop popularity is at an all time high. Also it doesn’t help that Japan’s institutional xenophobia (which is ingrained in their society) is hampering Cool Japan and Japan’s globalization:

    So I have doubt if Cool Japan can rival Hallyu on a global scale, I mean if you make a popularity contest and have AKB48 go up against Girls Generation/SNSD, then GG/SNSD would win no matter what!!! If you put X Japan against CNBlue, CNBlue would win no matter what, the K-pop fanbases is bigger then anime/manga/J-pop fanbase combined.

    Also Cool Japan’s rival is not only South Korea, Taiwan has similar ambition to match against South Korea, Taiwan has laid out plans to replicate their own Hallyu wave that can rival South Korea:

    If I have to put my bet who could rival South Korea, it wouldn’t be Japan, Taiwan is capable of rivaling South Korea in the future.

  3. Burmenst November 24, 2014 / 10:09 pm

    Japanese pop culture is well intergrated in many Europeans and American countries and it has been so since at least the year 2000. Not only anime and manga but also Visual Kei and all expressions of Lolita, etc.

    Korean wave is having its time now, but it won’t last for ever because Kpop lacks what Japanese pop culture has, that is, self-expression, non-conformism, individuality.

  4. ifmartin November 29, 2014 / 9:46 pm

    One of the other problems Japan has is that most of its talent agencies don’t have the brand recognition of their Korean counterparts. SM or YG can put on a big package show in, say, Kuala Lumpur and then sell the broadcast rights to a local TV station. A Japanese agency like Amuse, which is pushing Perfume and One OK Rock hard overseas, doesn’t have the pulling power or “family” identity to pull off a similar deal so they’re necessarily forced to take more of an outsider’s approach to entering overseas markets. Artistically that’s an approach I feel much more comfortable with anyway, but from a business point of view the Korean companies have a stronger brand and can use that to throw their weight around in negotiating bigger deals and better visibility for their acts.

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