Culture Wars: Can “Cool Japan” compete with the Korean Wave?

15 years in the making and after billions of dollars of government spending (or a hell of a lot more in won) I think we can safely say now that investing in soft power has paid off for the South Korean government. For the first time ever, the Bank of Korea recorded a surplus in cultural exports for 2012, and the Hallyu industry is showing no sign of slowing down with a further $300 million having been allocated to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to promote Hallyu for 2013. In fact, Hallyu is busting records left and right – tourism to the ROK was at a record high, Samsung estimated a record $10 billion profit for the latest quarter and Korea’s cosmetics exports surged 30.3% from 2011 to 2012.

One country that is no longer feeling the Hallyu craze though is neighbour and long time rival Japan. Despite being home to hugely popular acts such as Tohoshinki (DBSK), SHINee and Shōjo Jidai (SNSD), SM Entertainment recorded a 70% drop in sales during the first quarter of 2013 in Japan. While this is partly due to a drop in the strength of the Japanese yen, tensions between the two countries have never fully recovered since political disputes over the Dokdo/Takeshima island chain flared up again in 2012. Japan’s Fuji TV channel has completely stopped airing K-Dramas since mid-2012 and K-Drama DVD sales have dropped significantly. While there are still many devoted Hallyu fans in Japan, it appears as if Hallyu has lost its magic for the general public. Even my Japanese mother, who exceeded her baggage allowance carting thousands of K-Drama DVDs back from Japan, has seemed to have lost her passion for dreamy Korean men…

Ten years ago middle-aged Japanese women kicked off the Korean wave with the breakthrough success of K-Drama "Winter Sonata." Now it seems as though they've had enough

Japan has traditionally been a huge importer of Hallyu culture: In 2004 middle-aged Japanese women helped kick off the Korean wave with the breakthrough success of K-Drama “Winter Sonata.”

The recent drop in Hallyu related imports however is not just an anti-Hallyu backlash as many are claiming it to be but is also part of an initiative to get Japanese people interested in producing their own cultural content again. The Japanese government has recently decided to push forward with their own version of Hallyu, dubbed “Cool Japan” to boost the nation’s troubled economy and to re-invigorate the shrinking youth workforce. Now with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on the horizon, Japan is looking to fight its way back onto the global stage again after being crippled by competition from its Asian neighbours. In June the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry approved a $500 million “Japan Brand Fund” to invest in the growth of smaller creative industries promoting Japanese “cool” across Southeast Asia, Europe and America.

AKB48's infamous senbatsu election boosted CD sales each year

AKB48’s infamous senbatsu election boosted CD sales  as devoted fans bought multiple singles to vote for their favourite member

Does Japan have what it takes to stamp out the Korean wave though? Is Japan even “cool” anymore? My experience of Japan “cool” in the past few years has been mostly through J-pop and while I love Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (a lot) every time I try to look for more J-pop music on YouTube I have to deal with “this video has been removed for copyright reasons,” one and a half-minute “short version” PVs,  and, at best, 480p quality videos. Why does J-pop fail so hard at making it easy for us? Well one of the obvious reasons is that the J-pop industry has a much stricter hold on copyright laws and because of that people tend to buy music and music videos much more than in the United States or South Korea. So while K-pop was spreading to Gen Y kids all around the globe through YouTube these last few years, Japan was getting by with a very lucrative but insular idol industry dominated by devoted otaku collectors. It sucks for us but that is why Japan is looking to overtake the US as the biggest music market in the world.

Are non-Japanese people really going to pay for J-pop though when they can listen to K-pop as much as they want to for free? It’s not even just a matter of asking for us to pay, free music has become a part of the culture of the K-pop i-fandom, it’s part of how we are able to easily learn about Korean popular culture, how we share our love of K-pop with friends – basically it helps us become a part of Korean pop culture when we don’t get to hear the latest song first on the radio in our home countries. Fans are also important intermediaries between South Korean entertainment agencies and their international fanbases. If you have ever read a completely misworded but kind of endearing English press release from LOEN Entertainment, YG or SM then you know why fans aren’t really waiting on them to release information in English. The fact that fans can translate, edit and upload videos with their favourite Korean stars is what makes being a Hallyu fan so fast-moving, fun and accessible. Lax copyright laws are what makes the K-pop fandom what it is and I think is a huge reason for its success across the globe. If Japan really wants to attract foreign fans, will they be willing to give up some control to these new fans?

Come to South Korea... We have beautiful people and delicious food.

Discover Korea… Look at all our beautiful people.

Japan... something different...

Cool Japan… something a little different…

If Japan is seriously willing to break through its isolationist industry (or be broken through, because we’re pretty nifty at getting things for free anyway)  then I guess things can change and we may even expect more HD videos in the near future. I think 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. Whenever I interview Hallyu fans on K-pop I always get the same response. They love K-pop because Korean idols are really really good-looking, relatable, hard-working and disciplined. I would add that there is also a level of conservatism in Korean popular culture that makes idols approachable and of course, fantastically ‘perfect’. J-pop is a little bit more dysfunctional. As W. David Marx explains on Neojaponisme, after Japan’s economy crashed in the late 90s the Japanese consumer market was fragmented into niche markets, the two largest being otaku fanboys and gyaru fashionistas. This means that J-pop groups don’t even have to try to appeal to the general public because no one is going to buy their CDs so they can afford to be a lot more specific, personal and weird. So we have something like Idol is Dead from “post-idol” group BiS coming from one of the biggest record labels in Japan, Avex Trax.

I have a soft spot for the Japanese entertainment industry because even though it is problematic at best at least its imperfections and quirks are on the table for everyone to see. J-pop idols are not perfectly beautiful, they are pretty but not usually gorgeous, have crooked teeth and terrible voices. While the former face of AKB48 Atsuko Maeda is being carried home drunk with her derrière exposed to the world and new leader Rino Sashira can reply to the attention she gets from haters with, “I just think of it as me getting more money for doing nothing,” K-pop fans are up in arms about Goo Hara pushing a water bottle across a table. Are we really so precious that we can’t handle a healthy dose of reality anymore? Where are the cool, badass young people who aren’t always happy, make mistakes, and say what they want to in K-pop?

Perhaps I’m being presumptuous to think that these things that I consider as cool matter at all. In the end, Hallyu’s biggest fans are the rising middle classes of Asia – Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Philippines, Vietnam etc. Japan is also looking to capitalise on this growing Pan-Asian consumer market. My question is, what are people in these countries really looking for in East Asian cool – Korean perfection or Japanese dysfunction? Are people looking for stability or release? Which country is on the vanguard of the supposed “Asian” century? As Choi JungBong argues, these countries…

…have been in search of a viable model for development, one that harmonises market economy with sociocultural life consistent with time-honoured codes and values. It is a known fact that the American or European models of modernity do not represent compelling paradigms to much of East and South Asia. Likewise, the Japanese model of development and social organisation has received only a half-hearted endorsement by these societies, due largely to the nation’s unremitting attempt to “exit” Asia in favour of Euro-American modernity. It is amid this vacuum that Korea surfaces as a reassuring and intimate model worthy of imitation.

In light of what Choi is saying here, the Western ideas of “cool” that I value in Japanese pop culture are not going to be drawing people in. I think people want to feel beautiful, powerful and desired while at the same time drawing from the stability of a traditional, conservative society and Hallyu culture is giving people that more than Japan ever could right now. The danger of Hallyu thriving off this cultural “vacuum” though is that too much of Korean culture can restrict the development of the domestic cultures that it exports to. If South Korea isn’t careful about respecting the cultures that it exports to,  just like Japan, those countries might start to fight back.

So what are your views on Cool Japan competing against the Korean Wave? Do you think it’s possible, or is the wave currently just too strong to battle against? Leave your comments below.