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K-pop and Korean-Japanese Relations

November 27, 2011

Korean pop music is, above all else, expertly marketed.  Korean pop culture is extremely popular in the rest of East Asia and Southeast Asia right now.  And in Korea, the omnipresence of the most popular Kpop groups in advertising means that I went from knowing nothing about K-pop to being able to name six of the nine members of Girls’ Generation off the top of my head (Sooyoung, Jessica, Sunny, Taehyon, Yuri, Seohyun), just from seeing their pictures in advertisements all over Seoul.  The people who run this show (SM Entertainment) know how to make money.

seeing sooyoung everywhere isn't too terrible

sooyoung sweetly wants you to buy some sweet banana milk

I think that the key to making Kpop make a little bit more sense to a Western consumer is learning where it comes from.  Since Korea’s pop culture developed relatively late, Koreans borrowed ideas from their two biggest cultural influences: Japan and the United States.  Sometimes a K-pop song is clearly operating in the Japanese mode or the American mode.  See if you can guess which of these videos was influenced by Japan’s pop culture, and which was influenced by US pop culture.  It shouldn’t be too difficult.

The 2NE1 video is obviously in the American hip-hop pop brag rap genre.  I would like the song a lot more if it didn’t have the annoying “oh my god” part in it, because that synth line is pretty fun.

The Super Junior video is very “aegyo,” Korean for affected cuteness.  In K-pop, male and female stars often behave like children, using baby talk and overemoting.  It seems really strange to me for adults to behave this way, but they do.  Aegyo is definitely used in the behavior of real Koreans too.  One of my students made the same crying motion that the Super Junior member makes at 1:54 in the video the other day when I told her we had a vocabulary test.

Korea’s obsession with cuteness comes directly from Japan.  It was a specifically Japanese phenomenon, but Koreans absorbed it.   Korea’s cultural and political relationship with Japan is extremely complex, to say the least.  Since Korea was a Japanese colony in the early 20th Century, lots of Japanese culture was forced on Koreans. Koreans were forced to change their Korean names to Japanese names, and far worse, Korean women were used as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers.  Understandably, many more conservative Koreans hold a long standing grudge against Japan, and want Korean culture to be free of Japanese influence.  Perhaps, most symbolic of the ongoing cultural and political competition for dominance between the two countries is the ongoing Dokdo/Takeshima controversy.  A Korean has also told me that it is very upsetting that the rest of the world refers to the water between Japan and Korea as “The Sea of Japan” when Koreans call it “The East Sea.”  I thought about pointing out that it was only the East Sea from the reference point of Korea, and that neither term was neutral, but I wisely refrained.

So there’s a lot of conflict and animosity between the more conservative members of both nations.  Despite all of this, it is obvious that modern Japan has influenced modern Korean culture and pop culture.  And, from a Western perspective, it’s obvious that Japan was more culturally dominant in the late 20th century.  Which one is more familiar to you, Western reader: sushi or kimbap? manga or manhwa? Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) or….the Koreans who animate the Simpsons?

However, I think that the massive success of K-pop and of Korean pop culture in the rest of Asia are currently subverting Japan’s cultural dominance, especially since Japan is one of the major places where Korean pop culture is regarded as cool.  In the last few years, many Kpop bands have started to record Japanese versions of their songs, and they frequently top the Japanese charts.  Japanese tourists come to Korea to see where their favorite Korean TV shows were filmed.  In the past five years the power dynamic of the cultural flow between Japan and Korea has begun to reverse.

It’s not that Korean pop culture has shed it’s Japanese and American influences.  K-pop creators are just using those influences to create pop culture that  currently has more appeal than the Japanese and American pop cultures that it was derived from.  At least in East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Which means that it doesn’t seem unlikely that in the relatively near future, Korean culture may be as familiar as Japanese culture to the average Westerner.  아싸!

Girls' Generation is taking over the world


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