This month came with news of Yunho’s impending military enlistment along with a more surprising choice of a Japanese solo effort. The foray into Japan has moved on from simple translations of Korean works into Japanese to releases made just for Japan, including solo debuts from idols like 2PM‘s Junho, the aforementioned Yunho, and even BEAST‘s Dongwoon recently.
Releases tailored to Japan have their own flavor, so this week, we asked our writers: what are your favorite Japanese releases by Korean idols? Why do you think some idols go for Japanese solo debuts instead of Korean ones?
Cjontai: Lately, my favorite Japanese release has been “For You” by BTS. I just love how this group can flow through different styles without it coming off too forced or gimmicky. In fact, I’ve liked all of their Japanese releases. I also loved “Crush” by 2NE1, but I was mad that it wasn’t used as their title song during their Korean promotions.
As for why some idols go for Japanese solos more than Korean ones, I think it depends on the idol’s popularity overseas. While a number of idols going solo have been successful, more times than not, some don’t generate enough buzz by themselves in Korea. Japan appears to be the safety net market because Korean companies are more familiar with that audience. You never hear of anyone doing Chinese solos, even if they are from that country, and that probably has to do with Chinese fans being attracted to idols in a different way. In other words, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Korean companies will continue peddling their artists to Japan as long as the formula works. Supposedly, sales are slacking in that market lately, so we could be seeing a shift in tactics or even countries if they continue to fall.
Lindsay: Oh man, this is a hard one for me because I have so many.
FT Island immediately comes to mind as a group with a Japanese sound that appeals to me, specifically their song “Be Free.” They’ve been experimenting with the harder rock sound in their promotions in Japan for a while and that happens to be something I enjoy. It works because Japan has a solid popular rock scene where as in Korea the harder rock music tends to be indie.
I can’t possibly talk about Japanese promotions without mentioning MYNAME. Yes, like so many others I fell in love with them via their Japanese releases first because as a group they have promoted in Japan more than they’ve promoted in Korea. Why? There are many reasons I’m sure, but the over-saturation of the K-pop industry is probably one of them. They were able to make a name for themselves in Japan where there are less rookie boy groups from Korea performing, and they’ve put the effort into making that Japanese business flourish. Unlike some K-pop groups that just release language changed versions of their Korean singles, MYNAME has an entirely different Japanese repertoire, and one of my favorites is “What’s Up.”
Lastly, I’ll mention Boyfriend, who fall into a similar category as MYNAME. Although Boyfriend’s fan-base is more even across the countries, they experienced a lot of success in Japan while they were still finding their footing in Korea. With them, the reason is largely that their cute boyfriend-dol image appealed to the Japanese fans. And like MYNAME, they have an entirely unique Japanese repertoire of songs. I’m not ashamed to admit that it was the song “Be My Shine” that made me fall in love with Boyfriend.
Chelsea: Admittedly, I don’t keep much track of Japanese releases. When I initially got into K-pop, the friend who introduced me to the K-pop world described the Japanese market as “the place K-pop groups go to die.” However unfair that assessment was, it stuck with me. It didn’t help that most of my bias groups, when beginning their Japanese promotions, started with Japanese versions of their Korean singles. Japan just never caught my interest, with the exception of a few releases here and there.
With that in mind, I immediately think of Daesung of Big Bang and his success in Japan. I love trot music, and I love watching him perform trot because he truly shines when being sort of ridiculous. Though the circumstances that sent Daesung to Japan were very unfortunate, I think his time in Japan allowed him to explore a variety of music styles and concepts that he wouldn’t be able to try with Big Bang.
Since I’m a Shinee stan, I also keep up with Shinee’s Japanese releases. I still am a little bitter when they promote in Japan for months and months, but I also admit their Japanese releases keep getting stronger. In Japan they are able to release ballads like “1000 Years by Your Side” which are very different from the concepts and sound they promote in Korea. I also get to see Minho [’s thighs] in an orange plaid suit while he whispers about “breaking news” — which was one of the highlights of 2013 for me.
In summary, Japan is a market I don’t understand nearly as well as Korea, but I do appreciate the opportunities that it presents for some groups to explore outside their [SM] box. Also, most of the 2nd generation idols like BoA and TVXQ were groomed for the Japanese market because Korean companies understood the need to expand beyond Korea if they wanted to stay afloat. There simply isn’t a large enough market in South Korea for K-pop to thrive, and the Japanese market is the safest and most lucrative market to expand towards. Personally though, I’ll stick to Korean releases unless it’s a group I’m already super invested in.
Joyce: Given how ridiculously saturated the Korean market had been as of late, it makes perfect sense the idols are using the Japanese market as a testing ground, especially since the overseas reception don’t matter as much. It’s exactly how Woollim debuted Infinite F in Japan, and was all, hey, the reception is pretty good, and then proceeded to debut them in Korea. The stuff the idols do in Japan get minimal coverage in Korea, and if a certain release falls flat, its easy to come back to Korea and pick up from where they last left off. Most importantly, the Japan market is huge, so perhaps the standards for failure might be more forgiving.
Like Chelsea mentioned, groups like BoA and TVXQ practically have a separate full-blown career in Japan, given that they do so much more than just remakes and sporadic singles, and their almost-native fluency in the language. Most of my friends actually think they are both Japanese artists instead of Korean, especially since J-pop was all the rage back then when BoA and TVXQ just happened to ride that wave.
As for Japanese releases, I’m going to go old-school with TVXQ classics “Bolero“, “Doushite”, and “Proud”. The live recordings don’t even do it enough justice. And as for more recent stuff, I totally dig Infinite’s crossover to the dark side with “Dilemma“. It’s a pity it didn’t garner more attention since it’s a pretty different Infinite from what we’re used to hearing, and it’s actually pretty legit.
Like Lindsay, FT Island has the sound that attracts me. Prior to their latest Korean album, I Will, if I wanted to hear a “real” rock song from the group, Japan was my only option. Also, there’s my forever underdog: U-KISS. I think the group releases music that is probably a bit more nuanced, including ballads, that they can’t really promote in Korea.
I think the reason idols do solo debuts in Japan is the same reason groups promote in Japan: different fan base and attention. The K-pop market in Korea is heavily saturated and standardized, and it’s very easy to slip through the cracks. By promoting in Japan, idols get a chance to garner less divided attention and explore different styles, dances, concepts, etc. If it’s someone from a big group, like Daesung or Yunho, they already have a stable fan base, so a solo debut isn’t that big of a risk. By these solo debuts, the companies nurture their fans by making them feel special and like they matter: “Hey, we know you guys are fans! Here’s a song specifically targeted for you!” It’s quite smart. For less popular groups, it’s another way to get fans. It all comes down to money.
Cy: I’m in the same boat as Joyce. When I think of Japanese releases I go back to TVXQ. What people may not remember is that they weren’t a K-pop group promoting in Japan. They were a legitimate J-pop group with Japanese writers, producers, directors, staff taking care of their music and videos. They had to learn Japanese and for the first two years they promoted in Japan they had struggled to get through variety shows as they were learning the language. They even had to promote the old-fashioned way: go to businesses and hand out flyers, do rapid-fire radio and television promotions, sometimes ten or eleven in one day. I think what makes their Japanese releases so good is because they weren’t promoting as a K-pop group with Japanese versions of their Korean songs. They made a legitimate effort in the Japanese market by becoming a J-pop group.
Because of the work BoA and especially TVXQ did in Japan, groups now have a viable option for success even if success is limited in Korea. Though Hallyu may be settling down, save for groups that have established themselves in the Japanese market, it still provides an opportunity for the group to be successful in some way.
That being said my favorite Japanese songs from Korean artists just so happen to be from TVXQ because, as Jocye said, they made legitimate J-pop. When I got into TVXQ I first heard “Mirotic,” but it was their a cappellas and Japanese releases that sealed the deal. When I first heard “Begin,” I was blown away. Their Japanese albums, over the span of an entire album, had something smoother, more vocally sophisticated than the work they did in Korea, at least prior to Mirotic. Five in the Black was overall a fantastic album, as was Heart, Mind and Soul. Some of the songs on The Secret Code, particularly “Kiss the Baby Sky,” “Doushite,” and “9095” are really remarkable.
I’ll need to check out FT Island’s work, though. Rock in Japan is just an overall good idea, and I’ve no doubt that what FT Island experiments with in Japan is at least as solid as the J-rock from the country itself.
Morgan: As said the K-pop scene has become saturated in solo debuts as of late and Japan provides solo artists with that breathing space so they can debut effectively. Most soloists though already have an existing fan base in the country from group promotion, meaning that there is a stability to any solo debut from a group; working of the success of a group to achieve success of their own.
Personally, I have found myself preferring Japanese releases a lot more over a group’s Korean releases. That said, not all groups release new music tailored for the Japanese market, so there is a limited amount of new product. However, I have noticed that there is a structure to Japanese releases, at least in SM’s case, that is often lost and manipulated in the competitive and evolving K-pop market. When Girl’s Generation was putting out three in one songs like “The Boys” or “I Got a Boy”, I found myself listening to the group’s Japanese releases a lot more. “Time Machine” was a side of Girl’s Generation that I hadn’t really heard before and “Flower Power” and “Paprazzi” gave me that old group flair that I was missing. To me, the Japanese market seems to give a mix of old and new.
It’s that mix that makes the Japanese market so attractive to me. Despite it being a market where groups get to test out different styles there is still an attention to what has worked for a group before. They have a chance to hone and emphasize aspects that stood out but were not promoted much in Korean releases. For instance, TVXQ were more known for their ‘intense’ or ‘manly’ image from their upbeat releases in Korea, despite having some great ballads. In Japan they focused more on their ballads, which make up a majority of my favourite Japanese releases. I can’t go past “Love In The Ice” (It was originally a Japanese release before Changmin rewrote the lyrics and it was released in Korea), “Bolero” and “Back to Tomorrow” by TVXQ when listening to music any day.
Willis: I feel like the artists that get it right in Japan are the ones that have been primed for that market. Like Joyce and Camiele mention, TVXQ and BoA both set the mark for successful promotional strategies in Japan. They immersed themselves in the culture and had quality releases that catered to the Japanese specifically — not just recreations of Korean hits.
I personally enjoy the brightness of Japanese releases. “Jet Coaster Love” from Kara was upbeat, and they have excelled in making a name for themselves in Japan. 2pm’s “Take off” is another gem that was bolstered by being the Ao No Exorcist closing theme. Another group who has greater success overseas is DGNA (The Boss). Their cute concepts like “Love Parade” are well received, and they can also show off their vocal prowess in slower tempo songs.
I do see several advantages for debuting solo in Japan. It is a separate market and wouldn’t come into conflict with a group’s Korean concept. Like Andy pointed out, solos can be gifts to fans, and there is less of a risk with a fanbase that already exists. For the untested soloist, it can be an opportunity to gain valuable experience and a chance to develop their own sound.
(YouTube, SM Entertainment, Woollim Entertainment)