Artists everywhere are always looking for ways to increase their revenue streams and in places with increasingly crowded music markets, this is especially important. A simple (in theory) way to do so is to increase your audience. Of course, without being able to create new human beings at will, you need to find a new audience first and this is why artists look to foreign markets for success.
Korea is definitely not an exception to that and one of the popular places for artists to go to is Japan. Japan is prime territory as the music industries are not entirely dissimilar (although perhaps not as similar as some people believe), it’s geographically close and, in terms of money, is a reasonably large music market.
There are certainly cons to choosing Japan, too – your artists need to at least be able to sing along to Japanese lyrics, even if they don’t speak Japanese, and the Pop industries have been diverging somewhat in recent times so a different image is sometimes needed for Japanese promotions.
Here’s my run down of some of the Korean artists who are or were ‘Big in Japan’. Remember that ‘Big’ in this case refers to Korean artists who have achieved a reasonable level of success in Japan. Their popularity compared to Japanese acts themselves or awareness within the general Japanese public is a whole other issue.
The Old Guard
These acts are arguably also those who have had the most success in Japan, if only because they have experienced success over such a long period of time. These acts also pushed through during the peak of a now diminished Hallyu wave in Japan.
SM might have their troubles, but they have (in the past at least) invested serious time and effort into promoting their acts in Japan. BoA began her push in Japan when the import restrictions between the two nations loosened up. BoA worked her way up in Japan beginning with club singing. SM worked with Avex Trax to promote BoA in Japan and this allowed them to take advantage of Avex’s knowledge of the market to position BoA correctly. Her mini-album ‘Don’t Start Now’ was successful enough to convince SM to continue with the investment in Japan that they had started.
BoA also took large chunks of time on hiatus in Korea to solidify her success in Japan – a luxury modern groups are less likely to be able to indulge in with the crowded market back home. As well as promoting a number of releases, BoA’s Japanese language skills allowed her to participate in more promotional opportunities including her own radio show ‘Beat it BoA’s world’ and by the time her full length Japanese album ‘Listen To My Heart’ was released, BoA was poised and primed for success and, sure enough, it came.
BoA’s success was helped by her ever evolving image. As BoA grew up, so did her fans and her changing musical style kept up with this. Oddly enough, considering the tense relationship between the two nations, BoA’s active support of Korean independence causes does not seem to have coloured the Japanese market’s view of her.
The keys to BoA success in my eyes centre around her grasp of the language opening doors for her, even voice acting in films as well as the time that was invested into building her image and fanbase in Japan.
Over the years, BoA has consistently returned to the Japanese market and while she might not be the girl of the moment these days, she will be on lists relating to the Hallyu wave in Japan for years to come.
Known as Tohoshinki in Japan (or sometimes DBSK – their Korean name) TVXQ’s Debut (Stay With Me Tonight) was a bit of a disappointment to the label after BoA’s success. Although I personally think their chart positions were pretty good, SM obviously had higher expectations, whether due to how much had been put into the debut or off of the back of BoA’s success.
They continued to push forward in Japan with one of their releases – Asu wa Kuru Kara – even becoming the ending theme for One Piece at the time.
Eventually the hard work paid off and they finally achieved the level of success they were aiming for in Japan. The moral of both BoA and TVXQ’s stories seeming to be that success in Japan requires a willingness to sink time into it that, as mentioned previously, current artists may not have.
TVXQ’s story isn’t a fairytale happy ending as most of us will know from the lawsuit. Despite continuing for sometime as five in Japan, eventually in 2010 the split was final all around. I won’t go into massive details here (I feel an ‘idiots guide’ post coming on the matter) but it resulted in Avex group forming JYJ out of the members exiting TVXQ and it would be two years before the remaining two members pushed into Japan again.
Big Bang surprised me when I was researching this post. Big Bang have experienced a lot of success in Japan – in fact they promoted in Japan almost from day one. It does however seem a little like over the years they have eased off the gas just a little bit in Japan, possibly deliberately now that they have cemented a certain degree of popularity there. That being said, Big Bang are ever present in Japan due to Daesung’s solo career being focused on Japanese releases.
The Ones With No Choices
The title might be an oversimplification, but it serves its purpose.
JYJ may have got their launch from Avex (see above) but SM’s reaction has left little choice for JYJ than to be successful in Japan. The JYJ story is a little different to the other Japan stories – all 3 members had already built up a fanbase in Japan. On top of that, the ongoing issues with SM made Korea a difficult, if not impossible, prospect in terms of being a primary source of income. Unfortunately JYJ’s problems were not going to end there, as there were then ongoing legal issues between their new label C-Jes and Avex, which pushed them into a 3-4 year break in Japan.
Despite issues with broadcast bans in Korea, JYJ’s loyal fanbase have helped them to maintain an income stream in both Korea and Japan. This has been partly assisted by the members popularity in their acting careers that has led to opportunities to stay in the public eye.
In 2013 JYJ returned to Japan and proved to still be popular, selling out their Tokyo Dome series and also having the show broadcast in theaters to accommodate further fans.
These are the acts who have achieved good levels of success in Korea as well as a respectable level of success in Japan. These are heavy hitting acts, but they haven’t relied on that alone to push them into the new market.
I have no doubt that the prior success SM had in debuting acts in Japan would have played a major part in deciding to debut SNSD there as well. Unlike previous acts, SNSD seemed to achieve success very quickly in Japan and have in the past been criticized for focusing on Japan at the detriment to Korean releases. In actuality however, the girls seem to have spent less time focused on the Japanese market than BoA and TVXQ and it remains to be seen whether they are going to experience continued success in multiple markets, especially amongst constant speculation that many of the girls are looking to move on from SNSD. Unlike prior acts however, SNSD are with Universal Japan.
Sources: (Japan times)
SHINee are another SM act, so it should come as no surprise that SHINee have also experienced chart success as well as sold-out concerts. In what has apparently become SM’s technique, SHINee make regular releases in Japan, as well as promoting there as regularly as possible keeping themselves relevant in Japan. Much like their generation mates, SNSD, SHINee are signed with Universal Japan.
And so we are finally away from SM acts. Success in Japan has become one of Kara’s identifying characteristics. Also signed to a a Universal Music subsidiary, their debut went better than expected and their tracks have proven to be slow burners in Japan often achieving sales over time in Japan as opposed to all at the release.
Over time, Kara have gone from strength to strength in Japan and unlike other acts who, to some extent, sell themselves based on their ‘foreign’ style compared to the traditional Japanese Idol market, Kara have preformed primarily with a softer, sweeter more stereotypically ‘J-Pop’ image and sound in Japan.
Kara’s popularity in Japan has even led to ex-members making steps to promote their individual activities in Japan, with Nicole making Japanese releases and Ji Young pursuing acting in Japan.
Another anime theme song; 2pm’s debut track ‘Take Off’ was the ending song for Blue Exorcist and benefited from a successful pre-order campaign to chart successfully. They also toured successfully. 2pm have the shortest experience of Japanese success so far, with their full on Japanese promotions falling between 2011 and 2012. This will definitely be one to watch as 2pm are less aggressive in the Korean market than many artists, so it will be interesting to see if they can regain momentum in Japan for future promotions.
The ‘Punching Above Their Weight’ Division
These acts are certainly successful in Korea, but have yet to achieve the full on top tier success that groups like SNSD and SHINee have enjoyed. Some of them are very close. What is distinctive about these acts is their comparative popularity in Japan. Compared to the level of Korean popularity these acts have enjoyed, they have obtained amazing levels of Japanese success – even if it was only for a limited period of time.
Afterschool experienced a period of up and coming success in Korea, however rumors of mismanagement and the agency being broke have led to the group losing steam in recent times. Afterschool debuted in Japan using AVEX and, much like other acts who have used AVEX to make headway in Japan, they began with laying the groundwork.
In Afterschool’s case this meant a collaboration with Japanese music stalwart, Namie Amuro. Afterschool have managed to maintain a moderate level of success in Japan despite their waning Korean popularity. However, recent concerns over the label’s financial situation have left question marks over their Japanese future.
Who knows though? Perhaps if the label ARE having financial difficulties, they will turn more attention to the Japanese market to try and monopolise on the available money there.
Label mates to Kara, it is unsurprising that Rainbow have made an effort to be noticed in Japan. Much like Kara, Rainbow have advanced with something that incorporates elements close to the stereotypical J-Pop sound than other acts, although perhaps not to the same extent as Kara. Unfortunately, similarly to Afterschool, there seems to be much less investment into Rainbow these days so it doesn’t look like we will be seeing their full potential in Japan realized.
T-ara may be most famous now for their popularity in China, however, T-ara have also had their share of Japanese popularity. Their initial momentum in Japan was great and after their controversies, T-ara promoted a Japanese specific release which included different versions of the CD as well as multiple show-cases. Whilst T-ara might not be THE most successful group to transfer over, the impact of their controversy was less in Japan than in Korea, allowing them to continue enjoying success in a time when it was difficult for them to do so in Korea.
Sources: (Korea times)
Secret as a group seem to be always just teetering on the edge of a big success in Korea, and it seems similar for them in Japan. Their Japanese releases are characterised by a much more squeaky ‘little girl voice’ than we usually hear from them in Korea, even on their cute releases. These girls haven’t reached the lofty heights that other members of this list have, but the supplementary income they make in Japan is surely helping them continue making music in Korea too.
Sources: (The Seoul Times)
I am not personally a big fan of Beast, but it says a lot that I DO like one of their Japanese releases. I’m going to put my hands up and admit here – I actually don’t know a lot about Beast, but they do show up on a number of lists for Korean artists who have had success in Japan based on record sales. Their debut in Japan was affected by the 2011 earthquake preventing them from promoting, but they have still followed up with further Japanese releases. Beast are another act relatively new to the Japanese market and should be labelled as ‘one to watch’.
Infinite started their Japanese offensive early on in their careers and they seem to have been making a conscious effort to balance Korea and Japan throughout, which, as we have seen from those that have gone before them, bodes well. The most successful acts listed here have built up over time through constant momentum in the market and Infinite look on the path to do just that.
U-Kiss have been reasonably successful in Japan. However, it often feels like their promotions lack direction and they are trying to balance too many options at once. I am not 100% sure that their success in Japan will be enough to overcome member changes and lack of success in other markets. AVEX are fighting to get them as embedded into Japanese pop as they can and there is still hope – heck, they have even had their own Visa card!
Boyfriend have definitely worked really hard to promote in Japan, releasing as often in Japan as they do in Korea and bedding down into the industry. The next step for Boyfriend would be to make themselves stand out in the market a bit more, so when people mention Hallyu stars in Japan, people will think of them straight away.
The Just Famous Everywhere
The acts in this section are pretty successful and well-known in the pop industry of Japan, however, in their cases it doesn’t come from hard slog but mostly overspill from just how big they are globally.
A quick browse of Allkpop, Entasia and others showed EXO as being a known act in the Pop market of Japan, if not to the general public. EXO however, have never made a concerted effort to move into the Japanese market. In fact, famously, the foreign market EXO primarily targeted was China, so I am going to chalk this one up to just being due to how successful EXO are globally.
Super Junior have promoted a little more than EXO during their careers, but it certainly hasn’t been a focus in the same way as it has for many of the other artists listed here. It feels like successes in Japan have caused Super Junior to direct some promotions that way, as opposed to their promotions causing that success. None-the-less, Super Junior are definitely a known act in Japan and are boosting their revenue with it.
2NE1 have had a number of Japanese releases, and have promoted them. They seem to suffer from the YG effect when it comes to taking advantage of momentum though.
Ok, some of you are boiling over with rage right now because I haven’t included CN Blue or FT Island on this list. The reason I haven’t is twofold. The FNC approach to Japan is slightly different and the artists aren’t actually merging with the Idol market in the same direct way over there. Japan has a financially lucrative band market and the artists move through that to commercial success in Japan. Don’t worry – FNC artists are some of my favourite artists so you will see more about them in future posts and I am certainly not downplaying their success in Japan!
You thought I was going to make a joke about being tall when you saw the title of this post didn’t you? Shame on you 😛
I know I haven’t been able to include absolutely everyone who has had any success in Japan, so let me know in the comments below who you think deserves recognition for their inroads to Japan and why!
Authors note: This is part of our content reclamation project and so may not be up to date to current day.