SOME people have caught on that the Japanese seem impervious to the delights of the Gangnam Style Youtube video by PSY, which has now become one of the top ten most-watched Youtubes ever. That’s a matter of degree, because the song did make it into the lower level of the iTunes top 30 in Japan. It didn’t mirror the success that it’s had in the United States and Britain, however, or the lesser success in China.
Those folks are puzzled because Japan is perhaps the country most open to South Korean pop culture in the form of K-Pop, television shows, and certain types of movies (i.e., the ones middle-aged women like). Different theories are being offered for the limpness of the interest, but they’re ultimately unsatisfying because they miss another reason for the relative popularity that might be the most important of all.
One theory floating around is that Facebook postings gave a boost to the PSY video in the West, and that with only 30% of Net users, Facebook has a lower penetration in Japan than elsewhere. That might have something to do with it, but the Japanese are just as aware of Youtube and use it just as frequently.
Another theory is that the K-Pop performers regularly release Japanese-language versions of their performances, and PSY’s song is only in Korean (as far as I know). Foreign language pop songs for the teen and early 20s demographic in Japan are unlikely to be much more popular than a foreign language pop song in the United States, for example. There are some exceptions, but all of them are in English, the language everyone studies for six years in secondary school.
As this report points out, however, PSY was slated to release a Japanese-language version of the tune (called Roppongi Style) earlier this year, but his plans came a cropper. That post quotes a translated opinion from someone in the Japanese television industry:
PSY had already begun to be featured on Japanese morning variety news programs back in July, but the reaction from viewers was horrible. This was right around the time when Japanese media were under fire for over-promoting K-pop while attitudes toward Korea were souring, and the reason K-Pop became so popular in Japan in the first place is because Korean artists are known for being beautiful, so PSY looked completely out of place on screen. Even if he debuted in Japan, I don’t think he would have sold very much.
The industry insider raises some important points, and it’s not just the one about beauty. PSY first appeared in July, and the problems with South Korea didn’t erupt until August, but it was natural for those problems to dampen the enthusiasm for Korean pop culture. Lately I’ve been quoting and featuring excerpts here from a book by Tsukuba University Prof. Furuta Hiroshi, who is fluent in Korean. He studied for a time at a South Korean university and had a Korean roommate while there. He later returned to teach Japanese at another South Korean university from 1980 to 1986. He says his hobby is watching South Korean and North Korean movies and collecting them on DVD.
In a current edition of one of the Japanese monthlies, however, Prof. Furuta dashed off an article in which he declares that after the events of this summer, he will not visit the Korean Peninsula again until attitudes there change. The behavior of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, combined with the frothing-at-the-mind articles in South Korean newspapers (which they conveniently translate for their Japanese-language websites) has poisoned the well of Japanese goodwill. A connection has been snapped.
There might be an attempt to start restoring those connections by the end of the year. Every New Year’s Eve since 1954, NHK TV has broadcast live a program called Kohaku Utagassen, which presents the most popular singers in the country. The show’s concept is a singing contest between the men’s team and the women’s team. The results are judged by celebrities, the audience at NHK Hall, and now on the Internet.
While greater affluence and the resultant increase in disposable income and decentralization of culture have lessened the program’s impact, it is still the touchstone for identifying the performers the mass audience most want to see, with demographic differences taken into account. Three K-Pop acts performed on last year’s program. As of last month, it was starting to look as if none would be invited this year. Said one person affiliated with the program’s production team:
“President Lee’s problematic statement about seeking an apology from the Emperor had a serious impact. Many Korean performers do not refrain from shouting “Dokdo is our land” at the top of their lungs. Their appearance would elicit a negative reaction from viewers.”
That now seems to have changed. The question was raised at a meeting of department heads at NHK on Wednesday, and reports say a network official answered: “We are considering this from the overall perspective and will separate politics and culture.” That could mean that some K-Poppers will appear after all.
Given the South Korean predilection with taking everything that happens in Japan the wrong way, an overreaction to the Japanese ambivalence toward the global cultural success of the Korean Nation was to be expected. Some Japanese music bloggers suggested the South Koreans used bots, or automated viewing programs, to pump the Youtube viewing totals. Others started calling the song “F5 Style”, referring to the keyboard key for refreshing a browser window.
Those witticisms detonated a small explosion at the premises of the Korean Wave Research Institute. That organization is a non-profit established in 2010 to conduct research into and promote Korean culture, particularly the pop variety. (They also display the seals of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Korea Tourism Association on their website, which suggests government funding.)
Anyone in Japan could have scripted the response of KWRI President Han Koo-hyun in advance:
Denouncing the “conspiracy theories” of YouTube chart manipulation, KWRI president Han Koo-Hyun said the “outrageous” Japanese argument was “tantamount to doubting a world record in an Olympics marathon.”
Skepticism about the song’s worldwide popularity on YouTube “should be viewed as a primary school kid’s jealousy and envy”, Han said in a press release.
Not content with defending the success of “Gangnam Style,” Han launched a vitriolic attack on the only Japanese entry in YouTube’s chart of the 30 all-time, most-viewed videos.
Currently ranked 29th with more than 237 million views, the video shows a young Japanese woman engaging in the popular Internet meme activity of dropping some mentos candy in a bottle of diet coke so that it sprays soda everywhere.
Mocking what he described as the “most grotesque and preposterous content” on the entire chart, Han said it was “another lowly example showing the video-related preference of the Japanese.”
And some people would have you believe the attitudes of the Japanese are the biggest obstacle to improved bilateral relations.
“A primary school kid’s jealousy and envy”? I put it down to collegiate spitballing — it’s the Internet, dude. “Grotesque and preposterous” are terms that should be reserved for the continuing Korean ban on Japanese performers on Korean terrestrial TV and radio. If South Korea has a television program resembling the Kohaku Utagassen, Japanese singers are prohibited from appearing on it by law.
The extent of Japanese popularity aside, however, there is another aspect to the intense interest in the video that people tend to reference obliquely. Brian Ashcraft, the author of the piece at the first link cited, wrote:
Online in Japan, however, some seem to think that the idea of a fat Asian guy wearing sunglasses and dancing about is probably humorous to Westerners—hence the song’s popularity.
Last month in the Guardian of Britain, Arwa Mahdawi took that one step further in an article titled, What’s so funny about Gangnam Style? The subhead:
The South Korean pop video taking the internet by storm does little to overturn tired stereotypes of east Asian men
The last time the west laughed so uproariously at a Korean singer was when an animated Kim Jong-il bewailed how “ronery” he was in the film Team America, and how nobody took him “serirousry”. The puppet had a point: popular western media doesn’t tend to take east Asian men seriously – even when they’re brutal dictators. The stereotype of a portly, non-threatening Charlie Chan-type who speaks “comical” English is still very much alive, apparent in everything from hungry Kim Jong-un memes to Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts. And it’s hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that this stereotype is contributing something to the laughter around Gangnam Style.
I’ll take that another step further. Consider:
* The only people who understand the social commentary of PSY’s lyrics are the Koreans. Everyone else is working off the music and the video.
* The music, while catchy, is not that compelling. I sent a link of the Youtube video to a friend in England before it caught on there. One of his three income sources is his work as a DJ at pubs on weekend nights and at wedding receptions. (He’s also a big technopop fan and has played piano since childhood.) He thought the video was fun, but commented that the music reminded him of 20-year-old European disco.
* The video features several attractive Korean women. The Japanese are already familiar with northeast Asian pulchritude. But in the United States and Britain, where the video is especially popular, such a free concentrated shot of exotic beauty is seldom seen all at once in the same place.
* PSY is variously described in English-language accounts as “portly”, chubby”, or “dumpy”. He performs a goofy horse-trot dance; a moonwalking Michael Jackson he isn’t. I can see junior high school kids clumsy with the initial rush of puberty trying it out as a joke at a dance party, but that’s less likely for high school students and not at all for college men and women. (If someone did that at a party where I attended university, guys would have either hooted him out of the building or asked where he got the mushrooms.)
* One of the first places I saw the video referenced on the Internet was at an American site for the fans of the baseball team I follow. A frequent poster used the video to create a short gif file to accentuate a humorous reference in a point he was making. He didn’t use the scene with the women covered in feathers or that Korean yogini with the pert and shapely butt. He instead snipped several seconds from the scene near the beginning with a shirtless PSY sitting outside in a lounge chair and a boy doing the dance in the foreground.
There you have it: This video has become an example of Weird Koreana in the same way that Westerners incapable of taking successful East Asians seriously have for years found Weird Japan stories and photos as entertaining as the dickens. I’ve seen English-language websites focused on politics and world affairs whose only links or mentions of affairs in Japan are limited to goofball stories. Now it’s Korea’s turn.
They’re not laughing with PSY. They’re laughing at him. PSY himself may be laughing all the way to the bank, but that doesn’t alter the reason he’s got the cash in hand to begin with.
This is an observation that Westerners do not like to hear. To see how they usually respond, try some of the commenters on Arwa Mahdawi’s article at the Guardian. “What’s the problem with you Guardianistas,” they ask. “This is all in fun.”
My worldview is about 180° away from that attributed to the Guardianistas, but I agree with Ms. Mahdawi. I’ve made the same point about Weird Japan by commenting on one or two Western websites (with less politico-cultural stridency than she uses) and the outraged backlash is the same. Telling people in the Anglosphere to their cyberface that they really aren’t as clever, classless, and free as they like to think they are does not earn hits on the Like button.
I suspect PSY is hip enough to know that he’s seen as a clown in the West, but he’s now so rich that he probably doesn’t care. The question he’ll have to come to terms with is whether he’ll want to work against the typecasting in the future, and, whether he does or doesn’t, if the creators of his video can keep coming up with ideas as striking as the one for his Big Payday.
It’s understandable that the Gangnam Style phenomenon has generated excitement in South Korea about the potential for spreading Korean pop culture worldwide and creating cultural ties where few now exist. I hope they can and do.
It would be most unfortunate, however, if their excitement causes them to overlook the ugly side of the Gangnam Style phenomenon.
The photo above is of the K-Pop song-and-dance team Shojo Jidai. The group has the same name in Korean. They were one of three Korean groups to appear on the NHK New Year’s Eve program last year. This electronic disco number is similar musically to Gangnam Style, and is sung in Japanese (with a bit of English). The Japanese-language version of their song has more than 66 million views on Youtube. So much for anti-Korean childishness.
Other than the language, the differences with Gangnam Style are obvious.