Fans of K-pop rejoiced online last week when news that the group TWICE would perform at this year’s Kohaku Uta Gassen. The annual event, broadcast on national network NHK on New Year’s Eve, stands as one of the biggest music events of the year in Japan. The program’s selection of the nine-member Korean unit cements what sales charts and online chatter hinted at all year long; that TWICE were among the biggest acts of the year in the country. In some way, their performance on December 31 could be seen as a simple but well-earned victory lap.
NHK bringing TWICE onboard, though, carries much more significance. They are the first Korean artist to appear on the show since the 2011 edition of Kohaku. This wasn’t a simple hiatus for musical groups from Japan’s neighbour and TWICE’s forthcoming slot on the show offers a look into what’s next.
(Above: TWICE introduced at the press conference for the 68th annual Kohaku Uta Gassen program.)
The Kohaku program started broadcasting in 1951, initially as a radio program. It aired on TV for the first time in 1953 and has been a New Year’s Eve staple ever since. The conceit behind the show is that performers are divided into two teams, red for female performers, white for male artists, who then “compete” by singing songs and earning votes at the end of the night. Which squad triumphs isn’t really that important, as Kohaku serves as a year-end music extravaganza, gathering together marquee-names from Japanese entertainment. Notable repeat performers include Namie Amuro, Perfume, Arashi and many more. It used to be the music event of the year, although ratings have dropped drastically in recent years. Still, no single show devoted to music does better, and being selected to perform is seen as a big development in one’s career.
Japanese acts have always been the focus, but Kohaku has long made room for non-Japanese performers, mostly from around Asia (though Paul Simon stopped by in 1990). Hong Kong’s Agnes Chan, a popular idol in Japan during the ‘70s, was the first in 1973, and acts from around the continent have popped up in the subsequent years. South Korea, naturally given their entertainment industry, has provided the most, starting with Cho Yong-pil, appearing from 1987 until the new decade.
While a few others stopped by, things really got going as the Hallyu boom started sweeping across Asia. Artists such as BoA and TVXQ appeared on Kohaku multiple times, while the 2004 edition saw Lee Jyung-hyun bring her pinky microphone and rave-pop to the stage due to Japan’s love for K-drama Winter Sonata. Watch it below.
K-pop started making inroads into Japan in the late ‘90s, but always moved concurrently with J-pop; BoA and TVXQ mostly released Japanese-language tunes separate than their Korean work. It was less a boom and more of a select few artists finding a niche. This wasn’t the case in 2010, when KARA and Girls’ Generation sparked off a very different Hallyu wave in Japan. Their respective singles “Mister” and “Gee” generated buzz even before Japanese versions came out (and promptly broke records on the singles charts). K-pop became a phenomenon, dominating variety show segments and radio airwaves. It culminated in Kohaku 2011, which saw TVXQ, KARA and Girls’ Generation perform, the most Korean acts at a single Kohaku ever.
You can catch glimpses of Girls’ Generation live rendition of “Genie” in the above clip, but the scene is actually a demonstration held during Kohaku by protesters opposed to their presence. While Hallyu won over many in Japan, it also angered a fair amount of people; groups protested local station Fuji TV for having too many Korean dramas, while personalities such as Matsuko Deluxe rallied against it.
The 2012 edition of Kohaku noticeably featured no Korean artists on the line-up, as did the following five years of the show. There are other reasons this might have happened, such as a shift back towards Japanese artists following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the general pop music cycle. But Korean pop music remained highly popular in Japan after 2012, groups routinely sell well enough to lurk near the top of the charts, and events such as K-Con Japan attracts huge crowds. K-pop has usurped American pop as Japan’s biggest foreign music.
What changed is how the media in Japan covers Korean pop culture. In recent years, that has meant barely at all. During the peak days of KARA and Girls’ Generation, it was a buzzed-about topic all over the news. But in the past five years, TV stations have devoted far less time to entertainment from Korea. NHK, noticeably, stopped airing Korean dramas. K-pop remained popular, but watching Japanese TV or following other media wouldn’t give that impression.
TWICE’s upcoming appearance on Kohaku marks a potential shift. An NHK official was quoted as saying that the group’s massive popularity guaranteed they would land on the show. TWICE have been gaining steam in Japan for a few years now, but the national media didn’t pick up on them until the “TT pose” from “TT” went viral in Japan. That triggered actual mainstream coverage, carrying across all of 2017. Even NHK covered them, with their report playing up the fact three members are Japanese. K-pop fans in Japan would have made TWICE a success regardless, but they would be slightly more niche and just outside of the J-pop mainstream. But with media’s support, the group ended up as one of 2017’s biggest hits.
The Kohaku appearance doesn’t signal any great Hallyu boom; TWICE remain the only Korean group getting significant airtime, with only BTS and BIGBANG appearing on music shows over the past year (and only once each). Ultimately, it’s a return to normalcy, when Kohaku would feature one Korean act amongst domestic fare. And that’s an important first step.
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