It’s a known fact that Korean acts are trying to make it big in Japan, the world’s second largest entertainment industry. Promoting in Japan is very convenient; it’s nearby, somewhat familiar, and could potentially bring huge results. It used to be that only senior acts — acts like BoA and TVXQ who had their fair share of experience — would be the only ones to try to debut in Japan, basically starting anew at those points. However as of late, more and more groups are debuting in Japan and their debuts have become all the more systematic compared to the hard work it used to take to debut there. It’s come to the point where the Japanese music industry is saturated with K-pop acts, acts all trying to spread the Korean Wave as famous Hallyu stars.
However, the longevity of the mentioned cultural wave in Japan is now being questioned due to how little effort groups seem to try when promoting there. This lack of effort only makes those who promote the right way (by, you know, actually giving a damn) all the more notable. To show the difference between right and wrong in terms of Japanese promotions, let’s take a look into two popular girl groups who have pretty similar images back in Korea: Secret and T-ara.
When it comes to debuting to Japan (or any foreign Asian market for that matter), as pointed out in Patricia’s article, it has almost become a routine for groups to use a remake of one of their more successful songs as it is more practical compared to starting anew. While that attempt can be seen just as a lazy ways for companies to guarantee hits by using the group’s popularity at home and to make money, the use of a remake for a group starting out in a new industry is a smart choice. This is true in the way that a hit in Korea would probably translate into a hit in Japan and other Asian countries, and a hit would attract the group some attention, attention crucial to a debut. Also, a remake of a song or a compilation of remade songs can help groups introduce themselves to the public as it can be used to sum up what the act is or what they have become back at home or help set the image the group wants to sell itself with much earlier into their career.
So with that being said, both the two mentioned groups, T-ara and Secret, debuted similarly with remakes of previous hits, “Bo Peep Bo Peep” for T-ara, and “Madonna” for Secret. “Bo Peep Bo Peep” turned out to be a huge hit for T-ara, debuting at number one on the Oricon charts, the first number one for a debuting girl group. Also, “Bo Peep Bo Peep,” as old as the song was, was able to help personify to the Japanese audience what T-ara’s material was at home and what T-ara’s future material would be like, insanely addicting, somewhat random, and stuck flip-flopping the border between sexy and cute.
“Madonna,” however, was not even close to being as successful or representative. The entirety of the project was nothing short of a disaster, as it was just basically a lower quality version of the original, even staying dominantly Korean. Even “Bo Peep Bo Peep,” as nonsensical the song was, deviated from both versions of the original by providing a new (questionably even more nonsensical) plot. “Madonna” wasn’t able to show Secret’s current direction; although it was able to show their under-appreciated past, it failed to show Secret’s change to a cuter (albeit forced) image, the image they are currently promoting and the image they would use to move forward in their Japanese endeavors. So when it came to their debuts, T-ara had the upper hand.
Seeing how groups follow a sort-of routine when debuting and how that routine is somewhat justified, the group’s treatment post-debut would determine whether the group is handling Japan well or not. Both Secret and T-ara continued promoting in Japan using remakes, namely “Yayaya” for T-ara and mini-album Shy Boy for Secret. But this is where the similarities stop when it came to promoting for their groups. The use of remakes is only really forgivable if used to gather attention or solidifying an image. Other than that, the only other reason to use them is the same reason why companies release repackage albums, to guarantee profit. And companies have the full right to release remakes for the sake of money; that was their original objective all along.
General fan consensus, however, darkens when it comes to remakes. Fans would rather have an original track rather than a lower quality version of a song they already received.
But that’s what T-ara gave. T-ara had already gained their fair share of attention by using “Bo Peep Bo Peep” so the use of “Yayaya” served no purpose but to make T-ara more money and give T-ara more “experience” in promoting overseas. This was where the quality of T-ara’s material and the effort T-ara’s management showed when it came to promoting experienced a decline. From “Yayaya,” T-ara released remake after remake of their most popular songs, all of which featured at a lower quality compared to the original. The girls went from a butchered version of summer hit “Roly-Poly,” to a very blah version of debut track “Lies” sans plot and featuring a single backdrop and a very exhausted looking T-ara, to a less autotuned (in a bad way) music video of “Lovey Dovey,” seemingly filmed in an abandoned garage. And not only were the songs poorly translated, but the line distribution of some songs had to be changed completely due to the late addition of Hwayoung. While this did help some under appreciated members get some lines, their delivery was usually awkward compared to the original.
And the music videos weren’t the only things that faced decline. T-ara’s live show skills were severely impaired as well. Because T-ara’s songs are nearly impossible for them or anyone to perform live due to the majority of them being in the frequency of a chipmunk (unfortunate as some of these girls are fairly talented), the girls had to rely on prerecorded tracks a lot. While they can make it appear as if they’re actually singing in Korea, using their native language, the girls struggle to lip sync in Japan, often forgetting lyrics and making it blatantly obvious that they’re lip syncing.
The decline in effort only culminated in the announcement of T-ara’s first Japanese album Jewelry Box. Of the tracklist of thirteen songs in the album, only two are original songs. The rest are just remakes of practically every single they promoted back here in Korea, making the entire album seem like a greatest hits compilation. The songs don’t come together to create a theme as the song choices vary from T-ara’s nonsensical hits like “Yayaya” and “Roly-Poly” to songs from T-ara’s original bad girl concept such as “Lies” and “TTL” (which may be a fairly good song to promote if T-ara doesn’t use one of the Japanese originals, seeing how available label-mate Supernova is in Japan).
In contrast to T-ara’s decline after debut, Secret only improved. While Secret did follow up with a mini album featuring remakes of their more popular songs, their use and the promotions of “Shy Boy” were justified, however, as their debut with “Madonna” wasn’t able to do what a debut was supposed to do. “Shy Boy,” the song that made Secret a big name back home, was able to get the attention “Madonna” wasn’t able to in Japan, and was able to show Secret’s current image and the direction they were intending for their Japanese promotions. Another feat that was commendable in Secret’s part when promoting this album was turning single “Starlight, Moonlight” into a Christmas single. The song already had carol-like vibes and rewriting the song to fit a Christmas theme was an ingenious idea. The attention “Shy Boy” and the rest of the album gave to Secret allowed Secret to expand with a reasonable fanbase as assurance that their expansion would not be in vain.
And that expansion definitely wasn’t in vain. After Shy Boy, the girls promoted single “So Much for Goodbye” a gorgeous ballad song, a smart move to promote in the more ballad friendly J-pop market. The song was among Secret’s best ballads with all the members sounding great, even Sunhwa and Zinger, whose vocals aren’t usually utilized. The music video, while simple, was also adequately done, having great visuals and focusing on the emotional performance of every member, which was actually pretty well done. Along with “So Much for Goodbye,” Secret also released two original Japanese songs on the single CD, all of which were promoted in Secret’s promotional tour. The promotional tour itself was an amazing and commendable feat for Secret’s management, and it showed how much Secret was putting into their Japanese promotions, especially considering that Secret didn’t even have a complete full length album.
And Secret’s most recent Japanese release, “Twinkle, Twinkle,” really showed that Japan was serious business for them. The song itself sounds very, very J-pop, arguably sounding even more J-pop than some J-pop artists right now. The song is also perfect for an anime, and conveniently enough, it happens to be used as the ending theme for the Naruto spinoff, Naruto SD: Rock Lee and His Ninja Pals. Using anime as a way to promote in Japan is always a great move as it exposes material to the target audience. The music video for the song is peppy and bright, and all the girls manage to keep a sexy undertone through the nearly distracting agyeo-ness of it all. The Japanese sounds natural, even during Zinger’s somewhat misplaced rap and all in all, “Twinkle, Twinkle” is an amazing effort, a huge improvement from Secret’s beginnings overseas with “Madonna.”
While T-ara’s promotions brought the group’s promising future in Japan into redundancy, Secret’s promotions and genuine hard work is a breath of fresh air to see. But despite Secret’s superior promotions compared to most idol groups, their results are a bit underwhelming. Even T-ara, with their inadequate promotions seem to have a larger following. However, while Secret’s current level of success isn’t where it should be, if they keep at the pace they’re going, they’ve at least set themselves up for longevity when it comes to promoting in Japan. Most other K-pop groups who debuted in Japan in the past year can’t say the same, and I’m proud of Secret for going the extra mile to stand out. And as for T-ara, I honestly hope they release more original material, or at least promote with few they already announced. As a fan of T-ara, I’m somewhat scared for the changes they’re going to have in the near future, and with their Japanese tour and Jewelry Box being some of the last things T-ara as they are now is going to take part in, I just wish they clean their act up by then, so what they do will be remembered.
What do you think, Seoulmates? What do you think of Secret’s and T-ara’s Japanese promotions? What do you think of how Japanese promotions are treated nowadays? And is there any other idol whose Japanese promotion you consider notably good or notably bad? Leave your thoughts and more below!
(TS Entertainment, Sony Music Associated, Core Contents Media, EMI Music Japan, secretb2uty)