The pop culture industries of Japan and South Korea have been linked for decades, and regardless of what direction either go in, one will always come up in relation to the other wherever they go next. So after Jane Fonda took a pregnant pause and announced that “Parasite” had become the first non-English-language film ever to win the “Best Picture” Oscar at the Academy Awards on Feb. 10, it was inevitable that Japan would come under scrutiny in the wake of director Bong Joon-ho and company’s history-making triumph.
Many of the beats that proliferated online about how South Korea has outpaced Japan in terms of soft power touched on familiar themes. K-pop and Korean cinema have enjoyed critical and commercial success while the Japanese equivalents have been more niche, at best. Korea seems cooler than Japan. Even within Japanese borders, Korean songs and products have become massive hits.
There’s truth to these talking points, along with plenty of distortions — Japan remains cool on a pop culture level with exports such as anime and video games having massive influence, to point to just one. Yet what gets completely glossed over in these discussions is the conversation art in both countries has with one another. Works from both sides influence one’s from the other, while entire industry structures and innovative ideas have been gleaned from one another.
More recently — like, this past week — an increased amount of Japan-Korean pop collaborations have appeared, showing new developments in pop exchange between the two countries. There’s nothing parasitic about it, as both sides gain from this exchange and show what could be possible in the future.
Fans of J-pop and K-pop have been waiting for the debut song from JO1 for months. That 11-member outfit came together on Produce 101 Japan, a spin-off of the popular (now tainted) talent competition Produce 101. Part of the appeal of that program was seeing if a male pop group could emerge in a market long monopolized by only a handful of companies, some of which are very aggressive in keeping new names down. “INFINITY” doesn’t completely answer that question, but it offers a promising start. The clip for the single has become one of the week’s biggest trending hits in Japan, and helps establish JO1 with their own look and sound separate enough from other contemporary J-pop acts without leaching too hard from the K-pop units that helped usher in their existence.
It’s that last point that’s especially important. JO1 and the entire Produce 101 Japan run could have just milked the brand name of the Korean series, resulting in a WANNA TOO instead of anything original. Instead, “INFINITY” shows that this new unit simply emerged from a K-pop-born shell, but will take on its own shape. This is collaboration, a Korean TV show franchise helping to birth something that will exist primarily in the Japanese market.
That’s a new proposition, especially compared to another pop unit emerging from the world of Produce. IZ*ONE released their new album BLOOM*IZ earlier this week as well, and that group — which combines Korean performers with Japanese members hailing from the AKB48 universe — topped it off with the busy and blissful video/song combo for “Fiesta.” The full-length broke a record for most copies sold in one day for a girl group.
The success of BLOOM*IZ commercially (and critically — this one’s a top-notch release in either country it reps) shows how much can be gained from interacting with both countries rather than shutting a group off from one side. IZ*ONE aren’t the first to do this (see TWICE leading the way), and they won’t be the last. JYP Entertainment launched a new reality show called Nizi Project on Hulu Japan recently, one where the South Korean music company heads to Japan (and Hawaii) to put together a new group that can do something similar to what TWICE or IZ*ONE have accomplished. Like all reality shows, it has clunky moments — lots of shots of JYP founder J.Y. Park walking in slow motion next to the beach, a convoluted pendent system to determine who moves on — but once again the central idea of creating something new shared between Japan and Korea is key.
All of this collaboration offers a better way forward for both sides, far more so than continued talk of competition boiling down to creative industries trying to woo Western audiences. Efforts like the above create new ideas (and some real pop bangers) benefiting everyone.