J-pop was the 'blueprint' for K-pop, so why does it seem to be lagging behind its South Korean counterpart?
The South Korean and the Japanese pop music industries can easily go head-to-head where critical acclaim and sales are concerned. Yet when it comes to international popularity and recognition, something seems amiss: K-pop has gotten popular enough that it is now classified as a genre in and of itself, while the mere mention of J-pop confuses many new fans. Why is it that J-pop, the industry many regard as being the blueprint upon which early K-pop was based, lacks the same international pull and virality that K-pop seems to have mastered?
The contemporary pop music industry has its roots in the 1950s. Originally used interchangeably with "popular music", in reference to popular youth-oriented styles like rock and roll, pop has come to be defined as its own genre over time, beginning with a shift in the '60s towards commercial music that focused on shorter length songs filled with catchy hooks, verse-chorus structures and dance-inducing rhythms and tempos. Popular music in Korea, however, dates back to 1885 when an American missionary, Henry Appenzeller, began teaching American and British folk songs with Korean lyrics called "changga" at local schools. While under Japanese rule in the early 1900s, the popularity of changga songs grew as they became a tool for Koreans to express their pain through music. In the 1920s, while popular Japanese music or "Kayōkyoku" was still in its early stages, Japanese composer Masao Koga blended traditional Korean music with earlier American Gospel music that was introduced to the region in the 1870s, birthing the earliest form of what would come to be known as Enka in Japan and Trot in Korea. While all these early styles indicated some level of influence from Western music, however, they still remained relatively traditional in their sound.
Following Korean liberation from Japan and the separation of the country into its Northern and Southern regions in 1945, Western influence in South Korean grew. Entertainers like Nat King Cole, Marilyn Monroe and Louis Armstrong held shows in South Korea for the US troops stationed there, allowing for the dissemination of American media, including the emerging pop genre, in the country. In the 1960s, South Korea, still impoverished following the war, saw an increase in musicians performing for US troops as a way to make money, which allowed for greater influence from genres like country music, blues, jazz, rock and roll all blended with traditional styles. By the time Beatlemania hit South Korea, they had their first wave of rock bands, starting with Add4 in 1962. And paralleling this shift, Japanese pop was birthed with the rise of J-rock bands like Happy End who fused the emerging popular rock styles with traditional Japanese music in the late '60s and early '70s. By the late '70s, crossover fusion acts like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Southern All Stars had taken over.
As these events were unfolding, a young African-American songwriter, Berry Gordy, founded the Motown Records Corporation in 1959 in Detroit, pioneering the idea an artiste's success could be charted if they treated their career the way workers treated products at an assembly line. As Gordy put it, "Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown, go through a process, and come out another door, a star." What resulted from this idea was the Motown Quality Control system: producers submitted products for a vote, and in survival-of-the-fittest style, the best ones would make the cut to be sung by artistes, including the Miracles, Temptations, Four Tops, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Jackson 5, all selected through an equally rigorous and ruthless process. Gordy had essentially developed a hit-making factory. And it was this model that would go on to inspire the creation of Johnny & Associates, a Japanese talent agency founded by Johnny Kitagawa in 1962 that originated the East Asian model that trains idols early and debuts and promotes them via rigorous schedules and viral content. But it wasn't until six years later that this model was finally perfected, with the boy band Four Leaves being its first major success. By the late '80s, Johnny's would be one of the most successful agencies and one of the few that managed to replicate Gordy's system.
In the early '90s, South Korea was seeing its own shifts, particularly with regards to censorship laws. One of the groups at the forefront of this was Seo Taiji and the Boys who in their short career from 1992 to 1996, managed to revolutionize the South Korean music industry by infusing rap, English lyrics and social commentary with Korean pop music, resulting in the formation of the modern "K-pop sound". Seo Taiji's own studio additionally allowed genres like heavy metal to bypass heavy censorship, which in turn allowed the modern K-pop genre to form and eventually flourish. Member Yang Hyun-suk went on to form YG Entertainment in 1996, only a year after singer Lee Soo-man founded SM Entertainment, and both labels drew inspiration from Johnny's model. Recording artiste and producer Park Jin-young formed JYP Entertainment in 1997, completing the "Big Three".
But as K-pop's worldwide popularity grew, J-pop's seemingly waned. In the early years of both industries, finding popularity in Japan was how South Korean idols found success. SM frequently "re-debuted" their successful idols in Japan, something that put a significant strain on them seeing as it essentially forced them to start from scratch again. Most memorably, TVXQ broke down in tears while performing the single 'Proud' at their 2007 'Five in the Black' concert, a moment many saw as a culmination of their struggle at one of the high points of their success in Japan. But despite its toll on artistes, this early model worked. Most early K-pop fans were first introduced to idols like TVXQ, BoA, Super Junior, and more via their Japanese music. Yet only a decade later, K-pop idols were becoming household names worldwide while J-pop artistes remained relatively unknown.
This can largely be attributed, however, to the Japanese music industry's own disinterest in global stardom. While K-pop honed its model and perfected the art of virality, J-pop's focus has remained on the Japanese market. And there's really no reason for them not to, seeing as international fame does not necessarily translate to monetary success. J-pop remains one of the most lucrative industries in the world, with the Japanese industry pulling in an estimated 2-3 billion dollars annually. Most recently, boy band, Arashi beat out acts like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and BTS to win World’s Best-Selling Album Of 2019. At the height of J-pop's international success, Japanese girl groups like AKB48 were reported to be pulling in more than the South Korean music industry combined. This success prompted the Japanese entertainment industry to replicate the model of bringing together a group of young girls with the girl-next-door concept, something tailor-made for Japanese audiences, and the same model was later replicated with K-pop groups like Girls Generation. AKB48 included, as the name suggests, 48 members, including breakout stars like Miyawaki Sakura who is now a member of K-pop group IZ*ONE.
The popularity of this concept, however, soon overshadowed the rest of J-pop, which happened to be an extremely diverse genre despite it earning the reputation of being one that duplicates its own content, is resistant to change and inhibits its own growth by refusing to allow anything foreign into its ranks. From multilingual, biracial acts like Golden Half in the '70s and Olivia Lufkin in the mid-'90s to ethnically diverse contemporary acts like Banana Lemon and CrazyBoy, from groups with stellar choreography like J-Soul Brothers and E-Girls to vocally gifted artistes like RIRI and rappers like AKLO, J-pop has all the ingredients to be as internationally recognized than K-pop. Early idol groups like Arashi, KAT-TUN, News, and more, as well as old-school Japanese variety shows, also proved that the industry had what it took to create viral hit-makers. Sub-genres like J-rock also remain some of the most popular in the world, with acts like Baby Metal helping birth new genres and breathe new life into the existing rock industry. Additionally, artistes like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu have significantly influenced Western music and fashion, with everyone from Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry to Lady Gaga and beyond drawing inspiration from the styles she pioneered.
But for all its success J-pop is, for the most part, created by the Japanese market, for the Japanese market. And it appears they intend to keep it that way, so much so that if you happen to be an international fan of the industry, you're a welcome guest, but you are expected to be one who recognizes this is not an industry that has any interest in catering to you.