I would be one of the handful of people on this planet who have not watched South Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style YouTube video but for most of my fellow countrypersons in Japan, who also met it with indifference. Google “江南スタイル (Japanese for Gangnam Style)” and you get 2.7 million hits, so it’s not as if Gangnam Style has been ignored altogether. Still, Japan is so out of step with the rest of the world, where “Gangnam Style” now produces 753 million hits and the official PSY YouTube video has been viewed 1.31 billion times (both including Japan, true), that people have wondered what’s going on here.
It’s not for lack of interest in or hostility towards things Korean. Japan is still far and away the largest overseas outlet for Hanryu entertainment products with significant knock-on effects on the tourism and, to a lesser extent, language school markets. The most recent cross-straits tiff over history issues have dampened the enthusiasm a tad—and NHK, the state-owned media group, last year dropped Korean entertainers from its new-year’s-eve omnibus variety show—but only a tad; Hanryu soap operas (is there any other kind?) contemporary and historical still grace the TV landscape, largely daytime and late-night in the case of terrestrial broadcasts, 24/7 in the case of satellite and cable* and Korean girls groups continue their valiant battle in against the AKB48 juggernaut in implicit alliance with their shorter, less-leggy, Japanese counterparts.**
Come to think of it, that must be why PSY never caught on here. Hanryu is a lot like us, only more beautiful, more polished, more articulate, more ripped (in the case of male entertainers). Familiarity, with perfection: that’s the Hanryu formula for success, the kind of success that has yet to be found elsewhere outside of Korea. PSY, by contrast, is almost a comic act. A middle-aged guy hopping around on an imaginary horse? Why, we could have far more outrageous stuff on any one episode of our nightly, dirt-cheap, variety shows featuring any number of rent-a-comics from Yoshimoto and its lesser competitors as well as past-consume-by-date straight personalities. There is no market here for weird Asians—we are, come to think of it, Asians***—William Hung never caught on, and PSY didn’t get that far either.
* This is a casual, unscientific observation that does not even have the benefit of a cursory newspaper check on today’s TV programming. Remember, these are my “unfalsifiable thoughts” so the normal self-imposed rules of fact-based blogging do not apply.
** I have an idea here for an SNS game, an industry BTW that appears to have reached or is close to be reaching its saturation point.
*** Reminds me of the Chris Rock joke in his White President Obama video about Obama going into the hoods to organize.