In between Shinjuku and Ikebukuro on the Yamanote line lies a small station called Shin-Ōkubo. Although originally known as a “bed-town”, a cheap place to spend the night within the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, it has undergone a transformation over the past few years - the “Korean Town” of Tokyo is being re-branded as a nexus for K-pop fanatics to gather and experience the closest thing to Korea in Japan. As a result, the main street that feeds into the station is littered with Korean-themed restaurants and specialty stores that sell everything from key chains depicting famous Korean actors and actresses, to highly sought-after Korean cosmetics. However, by meandering down the narrow side streets and alleys that bifurcate the main hub, some of the historical character of Shin-Ōkubo can still be seen interspersed among the Korean fanfare. “Women of the night” from countries all across Asia call out to potential customers in broken Japanese as they lean against the entrances of garishly decorated “love hotels”. Their cigarette smoke wafts throughout the air, but the K-pop fans remain oblivious, since their concentration is focused on feeding their pop culture fix. The spread of Korean pop culture products or the Korean Wave (also known as Hanryū [韓流] in Japanese) has officially mesmerized the locals, much like it has the rest of Asia and the world.
In Japan, the Korean Wave has been represented by intermittent periods of high level fanaticism. For example, prior to the current wave, middle-aged women were swooning to the rugged good looks of Bae Yong-joon (or “Yon-sama”[ヨン様] in Japanese) in the Korean drama Winter Sonata. Conversely, now, Hanryu has expanded its reach beyond bored Japanese housewives to include a younger generation of active consumers, both male and female. Groups like Big Bang, MBLAQ, TVXQ, Girls Generation, and Kara, among others, are the hot topics on the lips of the present generation and the synthesized beats and catchy hooks of K-pop hits have captured their hearts and minds, as well as their wallets.
Much of this success can be attributed to the marketing strategies of K-pop record companies. Utilizing the tools of the digital age, the songs and televised appearances of K-pop artists (like their global peers) are being downloaded and streamed onto the computers and mobile devices of their eager fans. Simultaneously, by positioning themselves in larger markets (like Japan), profits are growing exponentially compared to what could previously be achieved in the smaller domestic market of Korea. However, these accomplishments have come with some notable costs. K-pop artists are now being put through rigorous language training and are subject to even more demanding schedules to facilitate their increased presence in international markets. Along with the increase in profits and overseas commitments, friction between artists and their companies has grown. As a result, many singers have sought to restructure their contracts after making it big in Japan, which has led to the fracturing of some established groups.
This leads to one question, what is the staying power of the K-pop machine? Insiders claim that for the industry to sustain its present growth, it needs to be perceived as a “global” product rather than the “cultural” product it is now. Although most artists could only dream of achieving the international success of PSY’s “Gangnam Style”, his fame appears to be more of a flash in the pan than an actual world-wide recognition of the Korean music industry’s quality as a whole. In addition, while territorial disputes threaten the ability of artists to promote themselves in Japan, the long-term longevity of the industry will most likely remain unaffected. This may be due to the fact that most Japanese youth see such incidents as political issues rather than nationalistic ones. In general, however, the future for Shin-Ōkubo looks bright as there seems to be no limit for the insatiable appetite for everything Korean in Japan.
This blog was written with the assistance of Hisami Matsumura