Let’s talk about… K-pop!

Alternate title: The post that Rebecca’s been working on for too long and is finally going to just PUBLISH whether it’s done or not.

Aaah, K-pop. Everyone’s new favorite kind of music. All of the cool kids are now following Kara’s butts, and K-pop groups have garnered high profile fans such as Maeda Atsuko, Takahashi Ai, and the entire Japanese schoolgirl population. Suddenly, everyone and their mother adores K-pop. Wonder Girls are performing in the US, and Kara has gone from a slightly angsty 4-girl R&B group to being certified platinum in Japan and… whatever you’d call URAKARA.


I can’t say that I mind. K-pop is like J-pop’s louder, sexier, attention-grabbing younger sister. For years she’s been the bratty kid who threw sand at you at the beach. But suddenly she went away to summer camp and returned a woman, having gone through puberty and gained a slammin’ body, ready to outshine her older sister at all costs.

Did I just say “outshine?” I did. Everywhere that J-pop is failing in recent years, K-pop is succeeding.

J-pop has never really grown up. True, there’s Koda Kumi tossing her lady parts around left and right, but the overwhelming focus of J-pop is on youthfulness. Part of that is of course because of Japan’s preoccupation with youth and cuteness. Nearly everything about Japanese culture reflects that love of adorability. Look at some of Japan’s most famous, most successfully exported characters:



The Japanese creations were entirely fabricated with a cute and non-threatening image in mind. They have round features, lack expressive limbs and faces, and  their overall appearance is benignly non-human. They convey no real emotions. It is the viewer who projects his or her own emotions onto the character. Their harmless cuteness allows them to appeal directly to the cute-obsessed culture that Japan has cultivated.

In a similar manner, Japan’s pop scene* generally revolves around wide-eyed teens who project cute, non-threatening images. They are hard-working, always pretty, and occasionally talented. They generally cultivate a simple, non-assertive persona which the public can project onto, and in that way they are most different from their K-pop counterparts: K-pop’s artists tend to be more in your face, less outwardly concerned with whether they can appeal or not. For the most part, the gamble of being so aggressive has payed off: The public loves K-pop’s firm, fierce personalities.

Where was I going with this? Ah yes, the degree to which kawaii culture is enmeshed in Japan’s pop psyche. Above, I mentioned Japan’s collective Peter Pan syndrome, the obsession with youth. Though I implied that youth obsession was one of Japan’s failings, I didn’t mean to say that it is entirely so. Japan’s love of youth is enchanting. It brings those who immerse themselves in Japanese pop culture into a world that is always bright, cheerful, overflowing with the energy of childhood. You can hear that exhilarating childishness in songs like Berryz Koubou’s Yuujou Junjou OH Seishun and AKB48’s Ponytail to Shushu. The beauty of J-pop and kawaii culture is that it so brilliantly captures what is most wonderful about youth: its abundant energy, its innocence, and its ephemeral nature.

So then what of K-pop? What room does J-pop’s overwhelming youthfulness leave for K-pop’s glib sultriness? Well… plenty. Youth and innocence are wonderful, but who doesn’t get exhausted after playing with children all day? The sag in the J-pop music industry that began a few years back is indication enough of a market exhausted by all that cutesy youthful joy. K-pop happened to be just what tired-out listeners needed. The sound was a refreshing change from J-pop- not only more mature, but in an entirely new language! But it also retained some familiarity. SNSD’s songs have an undeniably “kawaii” side, as do many of KARA’s. Groups like 2NE1, T-ara and F(x) straddle the border between cute and mature well, with Brown Eyed Girls standing with their 9-inch stilettos planted firmly on the adult side of the field.

The nature of the K-pop/J-pop relationship then is this: A rivalry, but one with mutual benefits… much like the relationships between real sisters. When J-pop fans want a break from constant brightness and noise of kawaii culture, they can use K-pop as a breather (I suppose the opposite could also be true, though as a fan primarily of J-pop I cannot say for sure). And when they want to go back to the familiar and the innocent, J-pop is there with open arms.

*Please understand that I am speaking from the perspective of an Idol fan. I am aware of the wide variety of musicians that don’t fit in with the cute, youthful image. But the most widely known, well-loved artists (AKB48, Johnny’s artists, etc) do fit this description.


11 Responses to Let’s talk about… K-pop!

  1. Nygan says:

    I switched slowly to the K-pop side of the asian music since I heard “Gee” in 2009.

    The more mature girls were the main appeal to me,along with the tune of the songs being a fresh wave to my ears.

    Now I have a hard time coming back to J-Idols songs, even the Dream Musume album I just got give me a taste of “not enough” when I hear it and if Abe Natsumi cannot bring me back to j-pop, I guess nobody will ever be able to :p

    • Rebecca says:

      “Gee” seems to be the gateway drug for a lot of newer K-pop fans. It’s just SO addictive.

      For me, the music is almost secondary to my love of Idols (it has to be now that Sayumi is my favorite member of MM 😛 ). So even when the music disappoints me, my love of the specific girls or their groups is enough to sustain my interest.

      Speaking as a HUGE J-pop fan… Don’t give up! Keep giving it another chance!

  2. […] Let’s talk about… K-pop! – Aoi♥Usagi […]

  3. I really like your post, I’m pretty much the opposite being a K-pop fan first and then finding J-pop (or rather becoming more invested in it later in 2009)! It does work both ways though, since I definitely consider J-pop a good break from K-pop 🙂 , but they are both really awesome genres so I like both 🙂

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks for the comment! It’s so fun being a fan of both genres, isn’t it? I love it when some K-pop sass comes on my Ipod. They’re never my favorite songs, but they break up long stretches of K-pop nicely without being too jarringly different.

  4. magatsu says:

    I have a mild interest in SNSD, which is about as far as my interest in kpop goes. Mainly cause the more “adult” oriented music is what i wanted to get away from when i became an idol fan. They fact that it was such a departure from the music i had heard most of my life and different way of doing things. Kpop doesn’t feel that different from american pop music to me, which is why it appeals to me in the same way, meaning i’ll like the occasion song, but for the most part i don’t pay attention

    • Rebecca says:

      😛 I’ve always liked the more “adult” songs that idol groups come out with- songs with heavy themes like “Keibetsu Shiteita Aijou” or songs with a strong sound like “Shabondama.” Sooooooo… I suppose I was never looking for an escape from American music.

  5. Henkka says:

    Magatsu’s line “Kpop doesn’t feel that different from american pop music to me, which is why it appeals to me in the same way, meaning i’ll like the occasion song, but for the most part i don’t pay attention” … is exactly how I feel on the matter as well.

    • Rebecca says:

      Hmm. I felt similarly when I first began learning about K-pop, and in a way, that’s still how I feel. But the kind of American music that the popular Korean music tends to correspond to is so much less… appealing. The music has similarities, but the package it comes with (fashion, personalities, work ethic, etc) were different enough for me to give K-pop a chance, and I’ve grown to like it.

  6. Muse says:

    I’m going to have say that I disagree with most of the points you make in your post.
    You said that “everywhere that J-pop is failing in recent years, K-pop is succeeding” but failed to follow up with any examples of how Jpop has “failed.” Your post also seems to pertain more specifically to J-idol and K-idol groups as opposed to the Jpop and Kpop industries as a whole.

    By your logic, the introduction of K-idols to the Jpop should’ve caused a decline in the popularity of J-idols as fans abandoned them for K-idols, but that hasn’t happened. On the contrary, Japan, like Korea, is currently experiencing an idol boom.

    I think the current “Korean wave” will come to pass much like the old one when Boa was popular. Likewise goes for the Japanese idol boom, AKB will come to pass as did Momusu.

    I’m not entirely sure what market you’re specifically referring to in your post. I interpreted it as the Japanese market, but if you meant the international market as a whole, then my opinion would be very different.

    Anyway, I do hope you write more about the subject. Jpop/Kpop (or J-idol/K-idol rather) comparisons are always fun to read 🙂

    • Rebecca says:

      Thank you so much for the in-depth reply!
      You may have missed the note at the bottom, so I’ll just copy it here: “*Please understand that I am speaking from the perspective of an Idol fan. I am aware of the wide variety of musicians that don’t fit in with the cute, youthful image. But the most widely known, well-loved artists (AKB48, Johnny’s artists, etc) do fit this description.”
      So yes, I was writing this post about Idols. I write almost all of my posts about Idols. This is largely an idol blog.

      I do feel that I made a point to express a weakness of J-pop (in its obsession with youthfulness in comparison with K-pop’s more “mature” image). However, on re-reading, I can see that the idea wasn’t expressed as explicitly as it could have been. In part I assumed that readers would come to that conclusion themselves, and in part it was just oversight. In the future I’ll try to be more clear (though it’s not my style to hit people over the head with my ideas. 🙂 )

      Not at all. If you care to re-read my last paragraph, you’ll see that I came to the conclusion that the relationship between K-pop and J-pop is “A rivalry, but one with mutual benefits.” The differences in their styles allow them to play off of one another well.

      I agree with the idea that these things will pass- they always do… unless it’s a Johnny’s group 😉

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