K-pop groups bravely march onward  in their attempts to infiltrate the Japanese music industry, second to only the US music industry in size (and monetary reward). This time around, they’re popping up on annual music program specials. Kara, SNSD, and DBSK have all been tapped to appear on NHK’s annual “Kōhaku Uta Gassen,” also known as “Red & White Song Battle.”

The basic set-up? Fifty artists and singers currently active in the Japanese industry are divided into red and white teams to perform. Not just any old group can sign up; artists are invited by a committee that selects the acts that are considered to be most relevant at the moment. This means that Kara, SNSD, and DBSK will be performing alongside such acts as Namie Amuro, SMAP, and AKB48. In other words, acts with the kind of sales that their respective companies have been lusting after since day one.

The invitation really isn’t anything to scoff at. Although it has attracted a great deal of criticism in recent years for being overly dull and manufactured, and ratings have dipped,  Kōhaku is still considered to be an extremely prestigious program to be invited to. This would make it the third go around for DBSK, who is already on the A-list of the Japanese industry thanks to their painstaking efforts at establishing themselves some years back. Kara and SNSD, however, are relative upstarts, so it’s a fairly big deal for them to get invited. Of course, that isn’t to say that it’s all that rare for rookie acts to show up. After all, model turned singer Leah Dizon performed at Kōhaku  in the year of her debut. But SNSD and Kara should pat themselves on the back, because who really expected any K-pop groups other than DBSK garner enough success in the industry to get an invite?

Of course, the fact that Kara and SNSD are upstarts in the first place opens a whole new can of worms. Plenty of J-pop fans, and some K-pop fans as well are wondering: should SNSD and Kara even be there? To be fair, K-pop is definitely still a niche market in Japan. It’s not something every person on the street is interested in. In fact, the fan base probably looks quite a bit like the fan base in the West: teenageers hooked by the internet on a passing fad. The difference is that in Japan, unlike in Europe or the Americas, these groups have more means to cater to that niche market, appear on television, and overall look more relevant than they actually are. That all being said, I think that Kara definitely deserves their spot. In a turn of events that has startled a great number of indifferent K-pop fans, Kara has enjoyed far more success in the J-industry than any of the other groups currently making feeble stabs at topping the Oricon chart. Unlike the other groups desperately trying to snag a few extra yen, Kara has attained a measure of recognition outside of the niche K-pop fan base. Not only have they put more effort into learning the Japanese language and actively promoting in Japan, but they’ve released original Japanese songs and generally showed a level of enthusiasm lacking in other J-industry promotion attempts. Sure, they’re upstarts, but they’re relevant upstarts.

The Kara question leads nicely to the SNSD one: is SNSD relevant enough to perform there? That’s something of a stickier question. Sure, SNSD hasn’t been doing too shabby on the Oricon, and from the way Korean media trumpets their forays in the industry, you’d think that they’re runway successes. But are they actually runaway successes? Well, not quite. SNSD is still stuck in that little niche fan base. They have neither the public recognition nor general goodwill that Kara has been fortunate enough to gain. In fact, they have a rather substantial anti-fan base. Is that deserved? No. But it does speak for the failure of the marketing tactics that they have been using, as well as their failure to devote enough time and energy to Japanese promotions.

The word on the street was that 2PM and SHINee were on the list of potential performers. All I can really say is thank God that never came to fruition. If people are complaining now about undeserving Korean groups like SNSD getting in on the basis of simply being hyped Hallyu acts, what on earth would they have said if 2PM and SHINee had gotten the invite? 2PM has been doing okay, not spectacular, and while SHINee started off on a good foot, their chart rankings have slowly been sliding and their management has been at least as inept as that of SNSD. Of course, it’s okay for K-pop groups and their fans to celebrate whenever they get some much thirsted for attention in the J-industry, but they had better be able and ready to deal with the criticisms and accusations that come along with being foreign performers getting a leg-up over native groups struggling to make it in the business.

What do you think of Kara and SNSD performing at  Kōhaku? Do you think that they deserved their spots?

(Tokyograph, Asiae)