Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Idols in South Korea and Japan

A reality TV contest for pop music contestants from South Korea and Japan has an undertone of national competition, too.

South Korea’s Crayon Pop (Photo: Chosunilbo JNS via Getty)
South Korea’s Crayon Pop (Photo: Chosunilbo JNS via Getty)

The music industries in Japan and South Korea are entwining. K-pop idols can successfully sell albums in Japan, and Japanese singers can join K-pop groups. However, in a reflection of national rivalries, there will always be friction between the two competing industries.

K-pop has enjoyed a boom in global popularity and, given this success, it was hardly surprising to hear accusations of imitation groups. A Japanese boy band named Ballistik Boyz, which hasn’t even debuted yet, was recently criticised for being too similar to Korean boy band BTS.

Competition between the Japanese and Korean music industries has come to a literal stand off on a television reality show.

The bands’ names resemble one another, as BTS can be short for Bangtan Boys. Both groups have four singers and three rappers, and the vibrant colours of the Ballistik Boyz’s clothes are reminiscent of the costumes in “DNA”, a well-received music video by BTS. The complaints were based on Ballistik Boyz’s promotional material. Yet defenders of the group argue that their concept is not based on BTS, but on Doberman Infinity, a Japanese hip-hop group active since 2000.

This isn’t the first time that fans from J-pop and K-pop circles have accused bands of copying one another. In 2013, Korean group Crayon Pop was accused of imitating Japanese group Momoiro Clover Z just as their popularity was peaking. These imitation claims spring up when bands become successful. Fans notice similarities between groups and lash out to protect their favourite band’s image, causing friction between fandoms.

This competition between the Japanese and Korean music industries has come to a literal stand off on South Korean television channel Mnet during the reality show Produce 48.

The show features 96 contestants, with 57 girls from various Korean entertainment companies and 39 girls from Japanese group AKB48 – a group based in the Akihabara area of Tokyo that was first established in 2005 and now has more than 130 members. As the show progresses and the girls strengthen their talents, the audience votes for their favourites, until a final 12 contestants remain. These winners become a girl group. It’s an exciting development to the Produce format, as the franchise has typically only involved contestants with the same nationality as the host country.

Members of Japanese girl group AKB48 at a fans meeting in November 2017 in Shanghai, China (Photo: VCG via Getty Images)

It is impossible not to notice the differences between the two idol cultures. The Japanese contestants, who enjoyed success during their time at AKB48, are staggered when they see the performance skills of the Korean competitors. “It felt like we got to watch pro dancers for free,” said Yamada Noe, one of the Japanese competitors.

The training processes for AKB48 members and Korean idols are vastly different. AKB48 has an emphasis on developing accessible relationships with their fans. They were marketed as “idols you can meet”. As such, the idols don’t need years of singing or dancing training before they make their debut. Instead, they may have a only few weeks of training, and then continue to develop their skills. The public can cheer them on and watch them grow. As Asai Yuka, another of the Japanese competitors, put it: “It’s important for us to make our fans happy above all else.”

The experience is vastly different for Korean trainees, who undergo years of vocal and dance training sessions just for a chance to debut. It is equally as important for Korean idols to look good as to sound good.

Modern K-pop started in the 1990s, when a group named Seo Taiji and Boys infused American hip-hop with Korean culture on a televised talent show. This birth on TV is significant. As this music style became popular and entertainment companies emerged, TV was used to help showcase idol talent. Good looks, fun outfits, striking dance performances, and interesting sets all helped idol groups gain popularity. This emphasis on appearance and the need to create interesting music videos became particularly important with the internet, as YouTube helped export K-pop to other countries.

It is no surprise then that on a show such as Produce 48, the Korean and Japanese contestants start off with different skill levels.

When watching Produce 48, it’s hard not to remember the tense political history between the two countries. Japan colonised Korea from 1910 to 1945, and even in the contemporary era the two governments are unable to reconcile some of this history.

One prominent and ongoing controversy is the issue of Korean “comfort women”, taken during the Second World War to serve as the Japanese army’s sexual slaves. Despite a 2015 agreement in which Japan agreed to fund services for survivors, South Korean President Moon Jae-in this year called for a new apology, and in July decided to set aside a South Korean budget for the survivors and freeze the money from Japan.

The two nations also have territorial disputes over a group of islands known as Dokdo in South Korea, and Takeshima in Japan. South Korea angered Japan during the Winter Olympics for featuring the islands on their unification flag, and Japan annoyed South Korea for calling the islands Japanese territory in its high-school curriculum. Last week, Tokyo protested the presence of South Korean survey ships near the islands.

This vexed history makes it easy to view Produce 48 as a competition between Japan and Korea, rather than as a competition to be a part of a joint idol group. Tension is building in the lead-up to the final episode. There is no nationality cap on the final 12 contestants, and only people in Korea can vote. The result of this reality TV contest could very well influence the relationship between the two music industries – and perhaps reflect on wider national ties, too.

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