In late July, fellow Tofugu writer John posted this funny K-pop video on Facebook. I liked it, shared it with a few friends, and went on with my day. I thought it might get the same kind of cult following that quirky Asian pop videos like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s videos get (see: PONPONPON) but that’s about it.
Boy, was I wrong. While PONPONPON sits at a respectable 40 million views, that funny K-pop video turned out to be Gangnam Style (maybe you’ve heard of it) which as I write this, sits at 600 million views on YouTube. Its creator, K-pop sensation Psy, has danced with the UN Secretary General, taught Britney Spears to dance on network TV, and was signed to the same label as Justin Bieber.
But Gangnam Style never really caught on in Japan the way it caught on in the US and elsewhere. Around the same time Gangnam Style was blowing up, arguments over disputed islands in the Sea of Japan were getting heated between Korea and Japan. The most visible example of this is the South Korean soccer player ran across the field with a sign about the islands during the Summer Olympics.
In the last couple of weeks, big news outlets have reported that the two are related; Japan doesn’t like Gangnam Style based on the sole fact it’s Korean. It’s pretty mind boggling to me that this line of thinking is getting any press, but let me say it right now: it’s completely wrong.
Yes, Gangnam Style hasn’t done as ridiculously well in Japan as it has elsewhere in the world, but most Japanese aren’t petty enough to dislike a song out of spite. Even though the countries in East Asia feud from time to time, they’re still neighbors with more in common than you might be lead to believe.
Besides a lot of common history that dates back thousands of years, and a lot of the same cultural touchstones, countries in East Asia even like a lot of the same food, TV shows, music, and movies.
Conveyor belt sushi has really taken off in Korea, and last year Nikkei Trendy magazine named the Korean rice makkori as one of its top 30 products of 2011.
Korean dramas, similar to Japanese dramas, have done really well in Japan. At one point, even Japanese prime minister Koizumi proclaimed that he was a huge fan of Korean drama actress Choi Ji-woo.
And of course, we can’t have a conversation about Japan and Gangnam Style without talking about K-pop. Japan loves K-pop and it regularly does really well on the Japanese music charts. In fact as Patrick St. Michel points out, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, K-pop group Kara tore up the music charts in Japan with the song Electric Boy.
In fact, before the whole Gangnam Style phenomenon took off, Psy was planning to write a song called “Roppongi Style,” after Tokyo’s ritzy Roppongi district. Unfortunately for us, the song is indefinitely postponed, and I really doubt that it’ll ever be made.
With all that, I think that it’s pretty fair to say that while there might be some quarreling about disputed territory, the Japanese and the Koreans all in all get along pretty well and that Gangnam Style flopped in Japan for completely unrelated reasons.
Ultimately, I can’t really say for sure why Gangnam Style didn’t appeal to the Japanese. Nobody has found the formula to a song that’s a universal hit, although Gangnam Style’s definitely come close. I guess that Psy will have to be satisfied with the ridiculous success he’s found in every other country in the world.
And if you want further proof of the good attitudes between Japan and Korea, the incredible Japanese band World Order (who we wrote about earlier this year) made a whole music video about their commitment to friendship between Japan, Korea, and in all of East Asia. Check it out: