From Plastic Toys to Plastic Boys: The Rise of K-Pop and K-Cool

What is the ‘K-Wave’?

SHINee is one of the most popular Korean boy groups. But what is it that makes them so appealing?

While Japan has often been thought of as an Asian cultural superpower — with its trendy fashion, tech-savvy devices, and irresistible anime — another Asian wave of culture is steadily encroaching upon Japan’s established ‘coolness’: the Korean wave. Also called hallyu, the Korean wave is a term used to describe the tsunami of South Korean entertainment and culture that began flooding Asia starting from the 1990s, and now recently into Western parts of the world. The Korean wave includes Korean TV dramas, films, and pop music, which is known across the globe as ‘K-Pop.’ These cultural products have become staples in Asian markets formerly dominated by Japan and Hong Kong.

The Korean government has promoted hallyu, using it as a form of soft power, a term American political scientist Joseph Nye calls the ability for a country to attract rather than coerce another country as a means of persuasion. The Korean Foundation was established in 1991, a cultural tool that was formed much more recently than The Japan Foundation in 1972. In addition to the Foundation, the Korean government has also created the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, as well as the Presidential Council on National Branding, which aims to promote Korea’s global image, to right its misconceptions about Korea, its culture, products, and people, and to raise respect to support Korean business and nationals abroad.

Famous American artist MC Hammer poses with PSY at the American Music Awards.

Though the Korean government has taken extraordinary measures to encourage its students to travel abroad, this article aims to focus on K-pop and its effectiveness in the West. Korean pop music is a blend not just of Western and traditional, but of new and old. The music features catchy urban beats, easy dance moves, and lyric hooks that are often sung in English. Neither the boys’ nor girl groups’ lyrics or music videos generally refer to overt sex, drinking, or clubbing — which are usually the most popular themes in Western music. From PSY’s kooky horse gestures to Girl’s Generation’s sleek and slender legs, how exactly did the K-Wave become so big in such a small amount of time? Part of the answer lies within Japan’s globalizing methods.



J-Cool’s Globalizing Methods

K-Pop’s sudden craze in the West isn’t anything new. Koichi Iwabuchi’s Recentering Globalization capitalizes on the decentering of Western influence and the dispersion of non-Western influences that are progressively gaining more global influence — specifically Japanese ‘J-Cool’ since the burst of the bubble economy. This transnational model highlights ideas that culture is not limited to a national framework, does not flow in only one direction, and transnational cultural flows do not displace a nation’s established boundaries, thoughts, or feelings. In the case of Japan, Iwabuchi argues that Japan has little to no cultural presence in the goods it exports to other nations. Japanese products, he claims, are ‘culturally odorless’ (mukokuseki), as they do not contain many traces of Japanese cultural features within them and instead these features are erased or softened.

Iwabuchi’s theories of transculturation and odorlessness can be exemplified through Japanese music companies and the ways in which they dominated the Asian music industry. In the early 1990s, Japanese music industry aimed less to promote its Japanese musicians in the East and Southeast Asian markets; rather, the industry sought out indigenous pop stars who could then be sold to pan-Asian markets with Japanese pop production knowledge. In other words, the Japanese music industries took a back-stage role, and did not overtly promote its own Japanese artists across Asia. Instead of a Japanese band or musician, a non-Japanese artist was found and promoted across pan-Asian countries who could connect more to other Asian nations than Japan itself.

A CD cover for Shanghai Performance Doll.

An example of this can be seen through spin-off groups of popular J-Pop groups in Japan, where the spin-off group members were non-Japanese. A group called “Shanghai Performance Doll,” for example, was a secondary group to Japan’s J-Pop girl group “Tokyo Performance Doll.” Shanghai’s mandarin-speaking group was immensely popular in China, while Japan had its own original Japanese group.

In all, Japan has established itself as a cultural superpower not only in Asia, but also in the West. Using its capital, its management know-how, and its marketing strategies, Japan had taken a dominant marketing role rather than the stage role in the music industry. By using indigenous Asians as their stars, Japan’s cultural presence seemed almost ‘odorless’ and invisible. However, while Japan sits on a formidable reserve of soft power, Korea’s music industries have built off of Japan’s methods, and have now perfected the process.


How K-Pop has Perfected Japan’s Methods

Jessica was born and raised in California, and eventually recruited to be part of Girl’s Generation.

While Japan had searched for non-Japanese stars, Korea is different in that it specifically scouts for singers of Korean origin. This, in effect, makes K-Pop far from being deemed culturally odorless. Three music agencies dominate the K-pop industry: S.M. Entertainment is the largest, followed by J.Y.P. Entertainment and Y.G. Entertainment. The agencies act as manager, agent, and promoter, controlling every aspect of an idol’s career: record sales, concerts, publishing, endorsements, and TV appearances. The agencies recruit twelve to nineteen year olds from around the world, through both open auditions and a network of scouts – though contestants who are of Korean origin and can speak Native English or Chinese are highly prized and preferred. In addition to singing and dancing, the idols study acting and three main languages: Japanese, Chinese, and English. Though on average, only one in ten trainees make it all the way to a debut.

Lee Soo-man, S.M. Entertainment’s founder, is known as K-pop’s constructor. Lee retired as the agency’s C.E.O. in 2010, but he still takes a hand in forming the trainees into idol groups, including S.M.’s newest one, EXO. The group consists of twelve boys, where six are Korean members who make up “EXO-K,” and the other six is a mixture of ethnically Chinese members or Korean boys who can speak Chinese that make up “EXO-M.” The two subgroups release songs at the same time in their respective countries and languages, and promote them simultaneously, thereby achieving “perfect localization,” as Lee calls it. An example of this can be seen in EXO-K and EXO-M’s release of their first single, ‘Mama,’ which attempts to sell the groups as boys who are gifted with supernatural abilities. In reference to promoting EXO-M, a group that is not all ethnically Korean, Lee adds:

 “It may be a Chinese artist or a Chinese company, but what matters in the end is the fact that it was made by [Korea’s] cultural technology. S.M. Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology. But cultural technology is much more exquisite and complex than information technology.” — Lee Soo-man

S.M. Entertainment and other Korean music industries draw from Japan’s technique of creating spin-off groups containing members who are not of their national origin. They establish the Japanese idea of working behind the scenes when it comes to controlling the marketing and exporting techniques of the non-Korean group. However, while the idols sing in Japanese and Chinese, the sounds, style of the music, and videos adhere to Korean principles that had made them popular in Korea.

Members of boy group INFINITE practice their positions and gestures in a dance studio.

K-Pop companies further their success through manuals. In S.M.’s case, Lee produced a manual of cultural technology, abbreviated as “C.T.,” where he catalogues the steps necessary to popularize K-pop artists in different Asian countries. The manual, which all S.M. recruiters are instructed to learn, explains the camera angles to be used in the music videos, when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers, as well as the minute specifics, such as the precise color of eye shadow a performer should wear in a particular country and the exact hand gestures he or she should make. S.M.’s stars are made and perfected into idols according to a sophisticated system of artistic development.

Thus, K-Pop has been able to tap into Japan’s globalized music efforts and perfect them. They are so perfect, in fact, that Western artists are recognizing K-Pop’s prestige, like American artist who collaborated with Y.G. Entertainment’s English-speaking girl group 2NE1. Even Nicki Minaj is inspired by 2NE1, to the point that some of her music videos contain Korean influences.

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K-Pop Using Anime Fan Communities As A Start?

The members of VIXX. Starting from top left: Hyuk, Hongbin, Ken, Ravi, Leo, and N.

A large quantity of Japanese soft power derives from anime and manga — and lately, K-Pop groups are starting to tap into Western fan communities of Japanese culture. One recent example of this was at Otakon 2012, one of the bigger anime conventions held on the East Coast of the US. A rising K-Pop group called VIXX (which stands for Voice, Visual, Value in Excelsis) made their first Western debut in America at the convention, with concert, autograph sessions, Q&A, and all. The group was formed much like One Direction had been on Britain’s X Factor: they were formed by the judges, and then deemed the favorite group by the audience who voted for them in a popular Korean star-search show called My Dol.

VIXX even seems to portray itself as a group that comes out of a videogame, as seen in their latest music video, ‘Rock Ur Body.’

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The group also has a video blog and video diary series on YouTube called VIXX TV, where fans can be updated of where the K-Pop members are, as well as see what they do on a daily life schedule. By having gorgeous faces and bodies, and by giving fans the ability to track their personal lives as a star, K-Pop groups almost seem as if they are fictional characters themselves from a pop idol anime — the only difference being that they are actually real, and in the flesh.


Who Is the Dominant Asian Cultural Superpower Now?

Though Japan has gained prestige as a cultural superpower in both Asia and the West, Korea seems to be catching up through its music industry. While Japan created a basic formula for dominating the music industry in Asia using mukokuseki, Korean pop companies have perfected Japan’s methods and have even popularized Korean music not only in Asia, but in the West as well. This brings one to speculate as to whether or not the K-Wave has the potential to take Japan’s place as the dominant Asian cultural power.



⑴ Could Korea’s effectiveness in the Western markets and in Asia be because of Japan’s ‘imperialistic’ history over Asian countries, and how Asia has harsh criticisms of Japan’s history?

⑵ Is there an overlap between K-Pop and Japanese anime/manga? Can K-Pop be seen as an easy transfer from anime/manga fans and be easier to be introduced to it? How?

⑶ K-Pop has imitated Japan’s music industry model, and has even started to tap into Japan’s fan communities of anime and manga. Can Azuma’s database model theory be applied to Korean Pop artists/singers/bands? (ex. hair styles, physique, legs, etc.) Why or why not?

⑷ Do you think it’s possible for both K-Pop and J-Cool to coexist? Or will one outdo the other in the future?

⑸ Is the J-Wave even on a decline? How so, or how is it not?



Bush, Richard. Public Diplomacy in Northeast Asia: A Comparative Perspective. 30 May 2012. TS. The Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. Recentering Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. Print.

Nye, Joseph. “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy 80.1 (1990): 153-171 Print.

Seabrook, John. “Factory Girls: Cultural Technology and the Making of K-pop.” The New Yorker. 8 October 2012. 25 November 2012. Web.

Breaking the Barrier in Travelers’ Tales Japan: True Stories

Traveler’s Tales Japan: True Stories by Donald George and Amy Carlson 411 pp. Traveler’s Tales Inc. $18.95

by Jenny Lee

Through voices from established travel writers such as Alan Booth, Pico Iyre, Dave Berry and the voices of the average traveler, Travelers’ Tales Japan: True Stories offers encounters to experience or to avoid. The book expresses appreciation and a newfound enlightenment through experiences in Japan. Tales Japan parallels a guidebook, though it relies on subjective encounters over objective information. From serene temples to high-tech toilets, it creates a heterogeneous image of Japan as it breaks the country’s stereotypical barrier of impenetrability. Editors Donald George and Amy Carlson successfully push the idea that anyone can find solace and understanding within Japan’s mysticism — and it’s outrageous modernity. At the same time, however, the editors also highlight the strains between Western foreigner and Japanese native, something I found unique about this travelogue.

Tales Japan contradicts Japan’s impenetrable reputation in the first section, “Essence of Japan.” Though the narratives in this section capture Japan’s morals and values, they also support the idea that travelers can relate to traditional Japanese customs, regardless of whether they fully grasp Japan’s theology or not. Brad Newsham’s “Smo,” for instance, portrays the importance of timing and the necessity of intimidation in sumo wrestling. However, Newsham also feels connected to a sumo wrestler he sees on the street, as he emphasizes the wrestler’s docile and bewildered behavior among the crowd. The wrestler looked lost — just as Newsham feels as a foreigner in Japan. Thus, Newsham mitigates the reader’s insecurities about displacement in a seemingly barricaded Japan. Even though one might feel displaced, one is able to parallel one’s sentiments with the Japanese, for even one of Japan’s iconic symbols of tenacity — the sumo wrestler — looked lost in his own country.

Though penetrable, Japan is not always a place one can empathize with due to its modern quirks. “Things to Do,” the second section, playfully characterizes expected or unexpected activities a foreigner can experience in Japan, whether it is taking the traditional flower arranging, ikebana, class or going all-out native by scavenging local trash heaps. Steve Bailey’s “Of Gomi and Gaijin” gives the reader a disgustingly tasteful experience as he prowled through Osaka gomi, or trash piles. Bailey explains it is rude to give one’s old belongings to a friend or neighbor. Instead, one throws one’s old things out into the gomi, and others are allowed to take home up whatever they find. Being, “the most inexplicable and undignified of eccentricities,” gomi hunting is exemplary in how Tales Japan lives up to its reputation of portraying an accurate depiction of Japan (148). Although foreingers like Newsham can find consolation in their experience, Bailey shares a unique tale only Japan can offer. This section, in effect, illustrates Japan’s distinctive edge and unique appeal; it invites the reader to experience Japan not only through its traditional activities, but through its oddities as well. I found this section to be the most appealing part of the book, as the writers exposed me to unknown parts of the Japanese culture and convinced me to visit a place where I can expect things to be different. 

Tales Japan continues to rectify common Japanese stereotypes in section three, “Going Your Own Way,” where people take on personal journeys and learn how common assumptions about Japan are not always true. Through her experience in the Miyama rice fields, Leila Philip discovers the resoluteness and strength of Japanese women in “Rice Harvest.” Though usually thought of as submissive, Japanese women do not conform to this generalization. Philip realizes that, after having reached an age of respect in Japanese society, rural women “drop the pro forma fame subservience” and are outspoken and frank as they bicker about others and chide Philip as they correct her harvesting methods (298). Philip also commends Japanese women who “rule the house, the children, and even the family finances with an iron fist” (299). Through stories like Philip’s, one can discover the real Japan. Using the experiences and discoveries of others as a guide, Tales Japan encourages its readers to travel to Japan and personally break the country’s myths. Only by traveling to Japan and immersing oneself in its culture can people distinguish reality from misconception.

“In the Shadows”, the most powerful section of Tales Japan, contains the narratives I found most meaningful. By peeling away Japan’s playful façade, the writers provide a truthful overview of Japan’s darker side — its irritability of Westerners. In Alan Booth’s “A Thousand Cranes, A Thousand Suns,” Booth struggles with a contemptuous Japanese worker at the Hiroshima Peace Park, which displays the damage done by the atomic bombs during World War II. The aged worker blames Booth for the damage done to his country. Though the man eventually apologizes, Booth concludes with grim optimism, hoping that the historical mistake will never be repeated. By making this the last section of travelogues, Tales Japan is not afraid to comment on the negative realities that lie within Japan. In the end, no one has ever forgotten the strained relationship between foreigner and native.

Overall, Tales Japan provides a truthful and accurate depiction of Japan. I would recommend this book to any prospective tourist because it makes Japan identifiable, but also attractively eccentric at the same time. Additionally, with the different voices presented, Tales Japan allows the reader form their own opinion of Japan; he or she can pick and choose the voices they find more appealing or can empathize with.


Jenny Lee

こんにちは !

My name is Jenny Lee, and I’m currently an English major at the College of William and Mary. As a child, I had always been exposed to Japanese merchandise and cartoon shows, which ranged from magical heroines like Sailor Moon to the adorable electric mouse Pikachu from Pokemon. However, I was never aware that all these things were Japanese – or Asian, for that matter.

Back in middle school, I used to be an avid fan and collector of anime goods like most American otaku do today. Though nowadays, I consider myself a “closet” anime fan. I also admire acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, particularly for his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle by British author Diana Wynne Jones, and also for his own enrapturing fairytale, Spirited Away.

But besides cartoons, the reason I decided to join this class was in hopes of wondering how Japan became such a dominant cultural superpower in such a small amount of time – and in a highly efficient way. Additionally, I hope to learn more about the ways in which the Western views of Japan continue permeate our society today . . . and also to know how other people perceive this super ‘cool’ and ‘kawaii’ country!ヽ(● ω ●)ノ