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I like to think I have a pretty varied musical library. One moment I could be listening to French rap and the next it’ll be Japanese lo-fi or classical. I even have a few J-Pop songs mixed into my Spotify playlists here and there.
But you never seem to hear about J-Pop unless you’re actively searching for it. K-pop on the other hand is all over the place whether you like it or not.
That got me thinking, which is more popular and why?
In short, K-Pop is far more popular and has a much larger fan base. This is due to multiple reasons including reinvention, struggling economies, approachability, and international investment.
Also, in case you’re interested, here are 9 of my favorite Japanese music artists you should absolutely listen to!
The history of J-Pop
J-Pop (Japanese popular music) is a musical genre that’s been established in Japan since the early 1970s and eventually went mainstream in the 1990s.
It came about through the heavy influence of 1960’s rock music (like the Beatles, beachboys, Rolling stones, etc) and culminated with a live performance by Happy End in 1971 which took the first step in introducing a new wave of pop music to the people of Japan.
Wanna see the performance?
Here you go then!
J-Pop vs K-Pop: Interest in Japan
One of the more interesting revelations I discovered through my research is that K-Pop is vastly more popular in Japan than its own domestic music.
We can see from the graph that in around May of 2011, K-Pop overtook J-Pop and has stayed that way ever since. J-Pop on the other hand had been steadily declining for around 2 years before this date, adding to the clear and decisive win by Korea.
If I delve a little deeper and compare the two genres of pop music by sub-region in Japan I can see just how widespread K-Pop’s popularity is in comparison.
In every prefecture, K-Pop’s popularity sits at around 65% or over making it a clear victor.
If this isn’t a sign that J-pop needs to reinvent itself, I don’t know what is…
J-Pop vs K-Pop: Interest worldwide
Is K-Pop currently more popular than J-Pop worldwide?
Looking at the graph above we can see that K-Pop overtook J-Pop in terms of popularity around the world at roughly the same time as Japan.
This time, however, their popularity has soared far higher than it did in Japan.
The map above shows how much more popular K-Pop is around the world. K-Pop is red and J-Pop is blue.
Is there even any blue?…
Reasons J-Pop isn’t as popular as K-Pop
So we’ve seen the facts, now let’s find out what’s led to the ‘downfall’ of J-Pop and the widespread popularity of K-Pop:
1. The industry isn’t targeted to an international audience
One of the biggest reasons that J-Pop is nowhere near as popular as K-Pop is that the Japanese music industry as a whole has little to no international investment.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never actively searched for K-Pop music but still seen it on TV.
Mega K-Pop Idols ‘BTS’ have been on pretty much every talk show known to man, penetrated global music markets, and have worldwide fame for more than just their music.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some Japanese pop groups you’ll probably have heard of (AKB48, Babymetal) but their fame is almost entirely constricted to Japan.
Although saying that, we’ve already seen from some of the above graphs that J-Pop has been steadily declining in popularity (in both Japan and worldwide) since 2009.
Whilst J-Pop is popular in Japan, it’s nowhere near like it once was.
2. J-Pop doesn’t adapt
Japanese pop was once extremely popular. Especially when bands like AKB48 put on regular shows at their theatre in Akihabara and did meet and greets, photos with fans, and generally did a lot to be inclusive of their fanbase.
At the time, it was something no other bands or types of music did but now times have changed.
Many bands have adopted the same style of ‘Advertising’ and that’s led to J-Pop losing its sense of mystery and what once made it unique is now just expected by everyone.
Instead of reinventing themselves and finding other ways to push the boundaries of the J-Pop music scene, most managers and producers have stayed with what they know and failed to adapt.
Go onto youtube and search through a few J-Pop songs from different artists.
99% of them sound so similar, and it’s because virtually no one is willing to adapt to what’s being produced (and is popular) elsewhere in the world.
Ahhh, that classic stubborn Japanese attitude!
It’s not even necessarily a bad thing, especially if the artists are performing the music they love. But it’s a fact that may stop them from becoming incredibly popular overseas.
Obviously, Japan isn’t as insular as it once was, but it’s times like these that make me feel it still has a ways to go.
3. You’ll probably listen to K-Pop, but won’t like J-Pop
A lot of J-Pop is weird, like really weird. And that’s coming with someone who has an unhealthy obsession with Japan.
It’s almost an unwritten rule that a large majority of J-Pop bands wear apparently ‘Cute’ clothing, act childishly, and sing less-than-relatable songs.
Of course not every J-Pop band is this way so that’s quite a huge sweeping statement, but still I struggle to take anything like that seriously, and those artists often take the spotlight away from the other incredibly talented Japanese music artists.
K-Pop on the other hand is, on the whole, relatable, normal(ish), and the vast majority of the time just has a general appeal to a wider audience than its home country.
Let’s take two songs as an example:
The first is by Japanese pop singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
Annoyingly I can’t embed it but you can open it in a new tab by clicking here.
I’m not saying it’s not fun to watch, but I just don’t understand it. Like, does it have a point?
Why is she running down the road with toast in her mouth?
What the hell is “chewing love”?
And why are they in such weird costumes?
Annnnnd why are girls always portrayed as young and cute?
It seems as though it’s been produced for an extremely specific audience and potentially has a ‘shock’ value for westerners but for the vast majority of people that’s as far as it goes.
Although I must stress that not all J-Pop is this weird, I just chose it because it proves my point.
There are actually a few fantastic J-Pop songs (like this one by King Gnu), but they Consistently get overshadowed by stuff like this.
…PONPONPON gets a free pass. That song is untouchable!
Here we have a song by ‘Stray Kids’, a South Korean pop band.
Its video is still a little weird, but definitely not unreasonably so.
Lyrics are provided by the band in English (subs) and they make a lot more sense than someone running with toast in her mouth.
The beat is also a little more recognizable for western audiences and it’s easy to say something like this could be on the charts without much problem.
Again, this isn’t the case with all K-Pop, but it’s the overwhelming feeling you’ll get if you listen to a few of them.
4. Fans are insular
Obviously, this is also quite a big sweeping statement but stick with me.
Japan isn’t exactly the most open or free-spirited country in the world, and this often rubs off on the people who live there.
As we’ve already figured out, the J-Pop music industry was specifically catered to Japanese people.
And it’s an industry that’s probably far bigger than we realize with over 3,000 idol groups currently active, each one of them fighting for devout Japanese fans’ attention.
In fact, people are so loyal to their group, that even the implication that they could listen to another band is unheard of (for a lot of fans).
Couple this with the increasing competition from newly emerging groups, and you’ve got yourself a country that’s fighting with itself to determine the most popular group.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to consider this a reason that J-Pop doesn’t do well in other countries around the world.
5. It’s not approachable for a western audience
Japan is famous for having an extremely stubborn entertainment industry.
As such there’s very limited fan activity online, especially on YouTube where songs are often taken down or copyrighted.
That means no lyric videos, no translations, and sometimes no covers.
It’s quite clear from this that the foreign market is something Japanese band producers and managers just aren’t interested in conquering.
It also means you might not even be able to listen to your favorite J-Pop artists’ new songs if they’ve region-locked it in your country.
Sure you can grab a VPN and change your location by that’s a lot of extra effort to go to when it’s obvious they won’t be going to the same amount of effort for you.
So, Japanese pop music just isn’t as popular as K-Pop.
And potentially not even in Japan, that’s absolutely mad!
Let me know in the comments below what your favorite J-Pop and K-Pop band are, I need some new material to listen to whilst I write these posts!