Reflecting on Japan-Korea relations through the Korean Wave: Fan desires, nationalist fears, and transcultural fandom

Thomas Baudinette

Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

[0.1] Abstract—The reception of K-pop in Japan must be contextualized within the postcolonial relationship between Japan and Korea. Studying fan discourse and discourse about fans reveals that the Korean Wave (that is, fandom around Korean popular culture) has produced various desires and fears among the Japanese public, suggesting that persistent Korea-phobia among conservatives stymies K-pop's soft-power potential. A longitudinal study of K-pop fans in Japan and an ethnographic investigation of Tokyo's Koreatown, Shin-Ōkubo, indicate that these fans' activities reflect the current state of Japan-Korea relations. Consuming K-pop instills attraction among fans, but this must be weighed against the potential dismissal of Korean Wave fandom by conservatives as being too feminized. This case study shows the usefulness of transcultural approaches to analyses of fans.

[0.2] Keywords—K-pop fandom; Korea-phobia; Shin-Ōkubo; Xenophobia

Baudinette, Thomas. 2021. "Reflecting on Japan-Korea Relations Through the Korean Wave: Fan Desires, Nationalist Fears, and Transcultural Fandom." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 36.

1. Introduction

[1.1] One Saturday morning in January 2020, I found myself lining up with approximately fifty excited young people in front of a small bubble tea store on the top floor of Shibuya's 109 Mens department store. Located on the corner of the famous Shibuya "Scramble Crossing," 109 Mens represents one of many youth-oriented department stores in Tokyo's Shibuya district and is a popular destination for young people looking to buy the latest trendy clothes or relax in the chic cafes situated on the building's top floor. But neither I nor the young people with whom I was queuing were there for the bubble tea. Rather, we had all been lured into the store by a prominent poster (figure 1) placed at the entrance to 109 Mens celebrating the Japanese debut of rookie K-pop band TXT (Tomorrow X Together). By coming to this bubble tea store and purchasing a drink, we were each entitled to a special giveaway of a themed coaster depicting a member of TXT. After purchasing my drink and receiving a colorful coaster, I sat down in the department store's food court, which was filled with telescreens broadcasting the promotional video of TXT's Japanese debut single at high volume. While I drank my bubble tea and admired my coaster, two young women approached me to ask if I (a White Australian male) was also a fan of K-pop. I answered in the affirmative, surprising them with my knowledge of TXT, and received another coaster from the excited fans as a memento of our meeting.

A poster featuring the headshots of 5 K-Pop band members above the words Magnet by Shibuya109 Winter Sale, 1.2 Thu to 1.19 Sun. Below this is a group shot of the band posing together.

Figure 1. A promotional poster for K-pop band TXT's Japanese debut at Shibuya 109 Mens in January 2020. Photo by the author.

[1.2] In parting, one of the women informed me that "Japan may have some problems with [South] Korea, but girls really love K-pop here" and suggested I visit the nearby "Koreatown" of Shin-Ōkubo to learn more about Japan's K-pop fandom culture. Upon arriving in Shin-Ōkubo several hours later, I found the streets of the district particularly crowded with young women visiting both the numerous stores selling K-pop and K-beauty merchandise and the many restaurants specializing in Korean cuisine. Shin-Ōkubo had historically developed as a Koreatown for Korean migrants working in Tokyo's Shinjuku area during the late 1980s due to its cheap rents (Park 2014, 5), but the explosion in popularity for Korean popular culture that occurred in the early 2000s transformed the neighborhood into the premier site for Japan's burgeoning K-pop fandom (Phillips and Baudinette 2021). Since at least 2015, Shin-Ōkubo has become a must-visit entertainment district for young Japanese women attracted to handsome Korean male idols as part of a phenomenon termed "the third Korean Wave boom" (daisanji kanryū būmu) by Japan's mainstream press (Suzuki 2019).

[1.3] Visiting Shin-Ōkubo, a casual observer might receive the impression that K-pop fandom has become a mainstream phenomenon in Japan and that all young Japanese people are strongly attracted to South Korean society and popular culture. But the reality of Japanese engagement with Korean popular culture is far more complex than an initial glimpse from a visit to the heart of Japan's K-pop fandom culture could provide. At the same time as K-pop consumption was growing in Japan and Shin-Ōkubo was turning into a K-pop fantasyland for young women, Japan's political and economic relationship with the two Koreas was entering a period of escalating tension. From flare-ups in ongoing territorial disputes to renewed arguments concerning the legacies of Japanese colonialism on the Korean peninsula, the twenty-first century has seen a distinct worsening of Japan-Korea relations (Sakaki and Nishino 2018, 735). As a result of these worsening ties, Japanese society has seen rising levels of hate speech directed toward Japan's long-term resident Korean communities—particularly online among members of the so-called netto uyo (online right-wing)—spurred in part by the actions of the xenophobic, right-wing organization Zaitokukai (Itagaki 2015, 49).

[1.4] The worsening relations between Japan and South Korea reached their zenith in 2019 when the Japanese government removed South Korea from a whitelist of preferred trading partners in a move widely seen by political commentators as retaliation against South Korean demands for Japanese accountability for World War II atrocities (Sugihara 2019). In response to the actions of the Japanese government, South Korean citizens began a high-profile boycott of both Japanese consumer goods and international air travel to Japan, negatively impacting Japan's export and tourism industries and escalating Japanese economic reprisals (Bartlett 2019). In fact, the late 2019 collapse of bilateral relations between the Japanese and South Korean governments has represented the biggest crisis in Japan-Korea relations in recent memory.

[1.5] Regardless of these worsening political relations, K-pop fandom and consumption remains strong in Japan. For instance, the high-profile girl group TWICE (which contains Japanese members) held a sold-out dome tour and performed at Japan's prestigious year-end Kōhaku Uta Gassen (Red and White Song Contest) at the same time as relations between Japan and South Korea had soured and Korean fans were calling on the girl group to boycott Japan (Bartlett 2019).

[1.6] I will explore the contemporary Japan-Korea relationship through the lens of fandom for Korean popular culture, known as hallyu in Korean and kanryū in Japanese—both of which translate into "Korean Wave" in English. I draw upon interviews with fans from a variety of backgrounds, including both young women and gay men, as well as community stakeholders active in Shin-Ōkubo. In analyzing these interviews, my specific interest is in making sense of the paradoxical nature of the Korean Wave in Japan, where strong desires for and fears of Korea seem to simultaneously coexist in the same public spaces.

[1.7] Much of the scholarship that has investigated the broader Korean Wave phenomenon has posited that as a "soft power resource" of the South Korean state, K-pop fandom can be strategically converted into political capital that facilitates the realization of South Korea's international policy agenda (Nye and Kim 2013). Yet in the Japanese context the considerable popularity of K-pop among young people has not especially attracted broader society to South Korea (Chung 2015; Jung 2015; Kitahara 2013). Indeed, Ji-Hyun Ahn and E Kyung Yoon (2020) note in their study of Japanese female K-pop fans that "disengaging" from ongoing anti-Korean sentiment in Japan is central to the contemporary fan experience.

[1.8] I therefore argue that Japanese engagement with the Korean Wave is typified by a cycle of booms and busts in which increased popularity and putative mainstream appeal are always followed by an intense conservative reaction or backlash that is grounded in nationalist rhetoric. I suggest that the reception of Korean popular culture in Japan cannot be understood without situating this fandom within the historical context of the Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula, even if fans themselves are unaware of this history. Furthermore, I argue that the embeddedness of Korean Wave fandom within young Japanese women's consumer culture may decrease this fandom's ability to combat what Ryuta Itagaki (2015) terms "Korea-phobia" in Japanese society. This is because conservative, nationalist voices can quickly dismiss the fannish behavior of women as delusional and dangerous to the status quo, as has been the case with other Japanese young women's fan cultures.

[1.9] In making these arguments, I respond to recent debates in fan studies that center a "transcultural approach" and bring the emerging work on K-pop fandom in Japan into dialogue with this analytical paradigm. In their highly influential article, Bertha Chin and Lori Morimoto (2013) point to the theoretical necessity of exploring how shared cultures of affect and attraction provide a useful point of departure for understanding how East Asian popular culture fandoms develop globally. Chin and Morimoto (2013, 99) reject the twin privileging of the nation-state and "national culture" that typified earlier theoretical frameworks developed to understand East Asian popular culture fandom (most notably, Iwabuchi 2002). Rather, they suggest an approach that recognizes shared cultural experiences across fan communities in disparate regions of the globe (Chin and Morimoto 2013, 95).

[1.10] But what happens when these shared fannish affects encounter explicit attempts to manage the borders of national culture, as is the case in Japan? Through this article, I put forward the Japan-Korea relationship and the history of K-pop's reception in Japan as a case study to begin to answer this broader theoretical question. The desires and fears that sit at the heart of K-pop fandom in Japan, I argue, reveal how fans' desires may be frustrated by conservative, xenophobic gatekeeping and broader structures of fan pathologization, problematizing the idea that transnational fandom is always already radically transformative and socially progressive.

2. Methods

[2.1] Between 2013 and 2020, I made yearly trips to Tokyo to observe the emplacement of K-pop fandom within the city's consumer culture, with a specific focus on charting the gendered nature of this fandom in the context of young people's everyday lives. I conducted formal, audio-recorded interviews between 2013 and 2017 with ten gay men who identify as K-pop fans. These ten gay men were initially recruited for a project investigating the experiences of underexplored K-pop fans from sexual minority communities, but I found that they also had many insights relevant to the current article's argument. In 2016, I also conducted an audio-recorded interview with two members of the Shin-Ōkubo Promotion Committee (Shin-Ōkubo Shinkōkai). In January 2020, I held a focus group with six young women attending a private university in Tokyo who identified as casual K-pop consumers and also conducted an interview with Mr Chung, the secretary of the Arirang Center for History and Culture in Shin-Ōkubo (acquiescing to Mr Chung's request for direct identification, this name is not a pseudonym).

[2.2] By "casual consumers" (kajuaru na shōhisha), a term I borrow from Hanako (a study participant), I refer to those who engage with K-pop as part of their broader music listening practices but who do not participate in other fan activities and/or those for whom K-pop consumption did not form "an important part of their identity" (as Hanako put it). That said, members of this focus group were quick to point out that listening to K-pop was meaningful for them in many ways and that they often critically reflected on their listening practices.

[2.3] Neither the focus group nor the interview with Mr Chung were audio-recorded at the participants' request; I instead took detailed notes in a research journal both during and after our conversations for the purposes of analysis. These nineteen individuals represent the principal informants for my investigation of the Japan-Korea relationship, and I provide their demographic details and the pseudonyms I assigned them to ensure their anonymity in table 1. Notably, Yuna, Jongho, and Mr Chung are all ethnic Koreans living in Tokyo, although Yuna is a newcomer who migrated from Seoul whereas Jongho and Mr Chung were "old comers" born in Japan.

[2.4] The interviews I conducted with these nineteen participants were open-ended, as is common in a qualitative project that seeks to open a space of inquiry rather than answer a specific, set research problem (Dörnyei 2007, 134). Fundamentally, my conversations with these nineteen informants focused on their broader understandings of Korean popular culture and the Korean Wave in Japan. All interviews that I carried out over the years were conducted in Japanese, in which I am fluent. I transcribed all the audio-recorded interviews and translated the resultant transcripts myself because I viewed personally working with converting the interview material into a form ready for analysis as essential to the process of interpretation (Dörnyei 2007, 134).

Table 1. Informants' demographic backgrounds

Pseudonym Age Gender Fieldwork period K-pop fan or casual consumer? Frequency of visits to Shin-Ōkubo
Osamu 20 Male 2013 Fan Weekly
Daiki 21 Male 2013 Fan Every two weeks
Manato 21 Male 2013 Fan Weekly
Kazuya 21 Male 2013 Fan Weekly
Tomo 20 Male 2015 Fan Monthly
Hiroki 20 Male 2015 Fan Weekly
Shinji 21 Male 2015 Fan Monthly
Aki 22 Male 2015 Fan Twice a week
Yuna 20s Female 2016 Store clerk (fan) Daily (for work)
Jongho 30s Male 2016 Store clerk Daily (for work)
Yōsuke 20 Male 2017 Fan Monthly
Ryūji 22 Male 2017 Fan Weekly
Hanako 20 Female 2020 Casual Monthly
Mia 20 Female 2020 Casual Every other month
Chie 20 Female 2020 Casual Few times a year
Naomi 20 Female 2020 Casual Monthly
Kumi 20 Female 2020 Casual Monthly
Sumire 20 Female 2020 Casual Every three months
Mr Chung 50s Male 2020 Not applicable Daily (for work)

[2.5] The arguments in this article are also informed by a longitudinal ethnographic investigation of Shin-Ōkubo that focused on the material environment of the neighborhood. Importantly, my ethnographic practice entailed regular visits between 2015 and 2020 to K-pop merchandise stores, Korean restaurants, and live houses where trainee idols perform. As part of my ethnographic observations, I regularly conducted vox pop–style "intercept interviews" with consumers in Shin-Ōkubo to ask them about their opinions concerning the neighborhood and the increasing visibility of K-pop in Japanese society. My impressions of these brief interviews, often lasting less than five minutes and exclusively conducted with young women, were recorded in a dedicated research journal. In total, I have conducted intercept interviews with roughly twenty young female K-pop fans in Shin-Ōkubo between 2018 and 2020. As is consistent with an ethnographic research design (Schein 2013, 205–6), I drew upon my experiences in the field when analyzing the data from the interviews with my nineteen principal informants, providing an important cultural context to their responses that helped guide the development of my argument.

3. Cycles of boom and bust: A historical survey of the Korean Wave in Japan

[3.1] Scholars often position the 2004 broadcast of the drama Winter Sonata (Gyeoul Yeonga or Fuyu no Sonata) on Japan's national broadcaster NHK as the beginning of the Korean Wave in Japan (Tokita 2010, 3.2). This was also true of some of my informants, with Chie and Sumire both noting the continued popularity of this foundational television serial in the Japanese media landscape during our focus group interview in 2020. Mia even suggested that "everyone in Japan knows Yon-sama," using the affectionate nickname given to Winter Sonata's charismatic star, Bae Yong-Joon, by his legion of passionate Japanese fans. After its initial broadcast, Winter Sonata quickly became a sensation in Japan due to the emotionality of its story, which contrasted significantly with the idol-dominated "trendy dramas" popular in Japan at this time (Lee 2010, 7.01).

[3.2] The drama particularly resonated with middle-aged women, who quickly emerged as a social phenomenon known as kanryū obāsan, "Korean Wave aunties," who fanatically consumed Korean dramas (Lee 2010, 7.03). Part of the popularity of the drama among this demographic, Kitahara (2013) argues, was because fans contrasted their belief in the expressive masculinity of Korean stars such as Yon-sama with the often rigid, emotionless masculinity celebrated within mainstream Japanese popular culture. These beliefs in the desirability of Korean masculinity have remained influential among consumers to the present day, with various young women with whom I spoke about K-pop idols in Shin-Ōkubo repeating the belief that Korean men were "kind" and "caring" "ikemen" (hot guys) who would make "ideal boyfriends."

[3.3] The impression I received from discussions with my interlocutors over the years was that Winter Sonata, a text that many positioned as inaugurating Japanese fandom for the Korean Wave, played a strong role in producing an attraction to (South) Korea among Japanese consumers. Jongho, for instance, highlighted that the "Yon-sama boom" played a strong role in the revitalization of Shin-Ōkubo as fans of the drama traveled to the district in search of authentic Korean food and the opportunity to interact with Korean men. Likewise, Yuna revealed that it was this "first Korean Wave" tied to drama fandom that led many businesses selling Korean Wave merchandise to open in Shin-Ōkubo as Japanese women emerged as a new market for the neighborhood. In fact, the popularity of the drama grew to such an extent in the first half of the 2000s that Japanese fans of Winter Sonata would travel to shooting locations within South Korea as a form of "contents tourism" (Mōri 2008).

[3.4] This pattern of traveling to South Korea as a celebration of K-pop fandom continued well beyond the so-called Yon-sama boom, with seven of the ten gay male fans I interviewed between 2013 and 2017 having traveled to South Korea to attend concerts and purchase K-pop merchandise. Daiki noted during our conversation that visiting South Korea is essential "for any K-pop fan who can afford it" because it not only gave them "pleasure" but also an opportunity to develop a "deeper understanding of the Korea that we love." Daiki further intimated that fans' travel to South Korea played an important role in helping them develop knowledge to combat the problematic stereotypes of Korean people, society, and culture that circulate throughout Japan.

[3.5] While this story of the success of Winter Sonata and the first Korean Wave boom in Japan initially appears to be a positive one of growing affection for South Korea among consumers (especially women), the boom was followed almost instantaneously by intense backlash from conservative voices (many of whom were middle-aged men). The most notorious example of this first wave of anti-Korean sentiment was the 2005 publication of Yamano Sharin's manga comic Hating the Korean Wave (Manga Kenkanryū) (2005). Initially serialized online and written in response to the joint hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup by South Korea and Japan, Yamano's manga sought to "educate" the Japanese public about the "true history" underlying Japan-Korea relations (Sakamoto and Allen 2007, 4).

[3.6] While it devoted little attention to the Korean Wave, the manga did become an important text for conservatives seeking to criticize the increasing broadcast of South Korean dramas on Japanese television networks (Chung 2015, 196). As a revisionist text, Hating the Korean Wave sought to discredit so-called Korean interpretations of history, focusing its ire on territorial disputes as well as seeking to disprove the existence of sexual slavery during World War II (Sakamoto and Allen 2007, 6). Further, the discourse within the manga did little to disentangle South and North Korea, positioning both states as equally culpable in their attacks on Japanese culture and society (Sakamoto and Allen 2007, 2).

[3.7] The manga became a bestseller and led to a further explosion in anti-Korean publications in the Japanese marketplace (Sakamoto and Allen 2007, 1). The fans I interviewed viewed Hating Korean Wave with open derision, identifying the manga as one of the primary obstacles that stymied the success of the Korean Wave among mainstream consumers. Kazuya was most vocal in his criticisms, calling the manga "typical right-wing hate speech" designed to misinform the public of Korean society.

[3.8] Despite the rising conservative backlash against the Korean Wave engendered by publications such as Hating the Korean Wave, the popularity of Korean media continued to grow in Japan in the second half of the 2000s. During this time, the focus of fandom shifted from television dramas to K-pop music. According to Eun-Young Jung, the Korean Wave initially arose in 2002 when Korean songstress BoA successfully debuted in Japan (2015, 119), with Jung thus positioning the emergence of the Korean Wave earlier than the broadcast of Winter Sonata. BoA's mainstream success with the public led her South Korean management agency, SM Entertainment, to debut other artists such as TVXQ (Dongbangshingi or Tōhōshinki) in 2005. For many of my interlocutors, it was the phenomenal success of this boyband that allowed K-pop fandom in Japan to exponentially grow in the second half of the 2000s, leading to what they termed "the second Korean Wave boom."

[3.9] Jung further notes that the success of SM Entertainment's artists in the Japanese market was due to their "hybridized" performance, with BoA and TVXQ strategically changing their images to match the expectations of the Japanese music industry and its consumers (2015, 118). BoA particularly focused on releasing original albums designed for the Japanese market that responded to the norms of Japanese female idol culture, featuring songs that were musically, lyrically, and tonally similar to popular J-pop songstresses such as Amuro Namie, Koda Kumi, and Hamasaki Ayumi (Jung 2015, 119). Importantly, TVXQ followed suit, releasing singles and albums in Japan that differed from their emerging Korean discography and were phenomenally successful with young Japanese women (Ono 2015, 45). Soon, on the back of these Japanese original releases, K-pop artists were dominating Japan's Oricon music chart, reaching such a high level of mainstream appeal that they were invited to perform on NHK's prestigious year-end song contest, the Kōhaku Uta Gassen. This growing mainstream appeal of K-pop was further facilitated by formal relationships between SM Entertainment and Avex Trax, the two largest music production companies within South Korea and Japan respectively (Jung 2015, 119).

[3.10] The ten gay male fans I interviewed between 2013 and 2017 had entered the Japanese Korean Wave fandom around this time, each explaining during our conversations that it was the skilled performances and handsome looks of male K-pop idols that drew them to the popular culture of South Korea. Because of the broader shift from drama to K-pop fandom, the demographic of the fan base in Japan shifted from the so-called Korean Wave aunties to young women in their teens and early twenties, although gay men also represented a significant minority presence within the fandom.

[3.11] This demographic transformation of Korean Wave fandom is not unique to Japan, instead forming part of a global phenomenon identified by Dal Yong Jin (2016) as "hallyu 2.0" where South Korean entertainment companies consciously deployed social media services to strategically target techno-savvy youth around the world. Indeed, some of the promotional strategies pioneered in Japan by K-pop production companies have been instrumental to the increasing popularity of K-pop in the North American marketplace, most notably the strategic release of original singles in English that conform to the norms of US pop music. One example is BTS's global hit "Dynamite," their first English language single that also strategically responds to the "retro music" boom in the twenty-first century US pop market (Choi and Haasch 2020).

[3.12] During this supposed second wave boom, Korean popular culture fandom became increasingly embedded within young Japanese women's consumer culture, with Kumi noting during our focus group interview in 2020 that K-pop idol fandom became an integral part of Japan's broader "girl culture" (shōjo bunka). The integration of K-pop fandom into this girl culture was pioneered by the joint promotional strategies devised by SM Entertainment and Avex Trax for TVXQ in Japan (Ono 2015, 54–55). As an idol boyband, TVXQ was strategically marketed to the large preexisting fandom for Japanese male idols managed by domestic entertainment companies such as Johnny&Associates, and it was the successful uptake of K-pop consumption among these young women that consolidated the second Korean Wave boom in Japan (see Ono 2015, 45–47). Indeed, Toshirō Ono highlights in his history of TVXQ's continued popularity in Japan that the band's phenomenal success between 2008 and 2012 represented the moment when Korean Wave fandom finally matured into a "recognized" subculture within Japan's hyper-consumerist marketplace (2015, 72). For Ono, the strength of this consumer culture was so great that "not even anti-Korean Wave sentiment could shake" K-pop idol fandom among young Japanese women (2015, 106).

[3.13] By 2011, when the devastation wrought by the Great East Japan Earthquake led to a remarkably conservative shift within Japanese culture that energized xenophobic elements within society (Sakaki and Nishino 2018, 737), K-pop was once again arguably on the verge of becoming mainstream. But due to the continued positioning of Korea as a problem within the discourse of Japan's right-wing (Itagaki 2015, 50), K-pop soon disappeared from the Japanese airwaves as another wave of anti-Korean sentiment swept through society. One seminal event within the emerging backlash against the so-called second Korean Wave boom was a high-profile protest staged in August 2011 at Fuji Television—the main broadcasters of Korean dramas in Japan—calling for a reduction of Korean content on the station (Itagaki 2015, 59). Further, between 2012 and 2017, South Korean idol acts were noticeably absent from participating at NHK's year-end Kōhaku Uta Gassen in a move that Tomo described to me as "an obvious attempt to smash K-pop's growing success." From 2012 to roughly 2016, instances of anti-Korean hate speech in Japan grew as conservative and xenophobic groups such as the Zaitokukai began openly staging anti-Korean rallies in major cities throughout Japan (including several protests held in Shin-Ōkubo) (Itagaki 2015, 50).

[3.14] Yōsuke and Ryūji explained to me during a joint interview in 2017 that although K-pop fandom did not disappear because of this increased backlash, the period between 2012 and 2016 represented a "dark age" during which Korean Wave enthusiasts felt a need to hide their fandom so as not to be positioned as "traitors to Japan." Yōsuke particularly noted that one of the reasons that social media-based fandom on sites such as Twitter became increasingly important among fans in Japan during the early 2010s was because it represented a safer virtual space to express one's intense attraction to South Korea. Ryūji did point out, however, that social media fandom was not always a safe space; he recounted an experience when he was harassed over Twitter by "right-wing crazies" for being a "degenerate fag obsessed with Korea." Further, discussions with Yuna, Jongho, and Mr Chung also revealed that this period of backlash saw a considerable decline in custom to the K-pop stores and Korean restaurants of Shin-Ōkubo. In fact, Mr Chung reported in 2020 that he estimated almost 30 percent of businesses within the district were forced to close their doors due to the resultant loss of income engendered by the increased anti-Korean backlash of 2012 to 2016.

[3.15] Although this period did initially appear to spell the end of K-pop in Japan, the fandom never completely died out, proving that Ono's (2015, 106) predictions concerning the resilience of the Korean Wave as a female-focused consumer culture appeared to be correct. This is most likely because Japan remained a priority market for South Korean entertainment companies who continued investing in Japanese promotional activities and were rewarded by increasing success on Japan's Oricon music chart (Kim 2018, 183). In fact, 2015 saw the expansion of the global "K-CON" K-pop fan conventions to Japan, and 2016 witnessed the rise of a new boom in K-pop fandom on the back of several successful (and immensely profitable) concerts by boyband BIGBANG and girl group TWICE. These successful events were followed in 2017 by the global explosion in popularity of the Korean boyband BTS and the historic appearance of TWICE on the Kōhaku Uta Gassen (Kim 2018, 182). Between 2016 and 2017, positive reporting on the global success of K-pop within Japan's mainstream media—particularly news reports concerning the appeal of BTS in the United States—also led to renewed interest in Korean popular culture among the public (Kim 2018, 189–90).

[3.16] In recent years, Japanese media have begun reporting on a "third Korean Wave boom" as young women once again headed to Shin-Ōkubo in significant numbers to consume all things Korean (Suzuki 2019). It was at the height of this third wave that I encountered numerous young women lining up to purchase drinks to receive TXT memorabilia in Shibuya 109 Mens and learned from an excited fan that "Japan may have some problems with [South] Korea, but girls really love K-pop here." The third Korean Wave boom has also played an important role in revitalizing Shin-Ōkubo and allowing the district to not only bounce back from the losses it suffered during the second period of backlash against the Korean Wave but even apparently led to increased profits for the stores and restaurants in the neighborhood. As Yuna and Jongho explained to me in 2016 just before this third boom began in earnest, the Shin-Ōkubo Promotional Committee had made the conscious decision to further gear the commercial activities of the district toward a young female market. But as the introduction to this article makes clear, the long-term success of this third Korean Wave boom may be jeopardized by the 2019 collapse in the Japan-Korea relationship.

4. Fan desires, nationalist fears: Korea-phobia and the Korean Wave in Japan

[4.1] As the historical discussion makes clear, whenever K-pop becomes successful in Japan, this popularity is almost always followed by periods of intense backlash that are often tied to ongoing anti-Korean sentiment. For the K-pop fans I interviewed, the inevitability of this backlash was a constant dampener on their enjoyment, with Tomo noting that he was "exhausted" from having to constantly defend his interest in "idols from a supposed enemy nation." Likewise, the six young women who participated in my focus group in 2020 expressed their belief that the recent success of K-pop may not maintain momentum. Naomi specifically noted that the visibility of K-pop might eventually draw out "angry people afraid of North Korea," an opinion that Mr Chung also shared with me during our discussion of anti-Korean protests held in Shin-Ōkubo over the past few years.

[4.2] It is this ongoing Korea-phobia that stymies the soft-power potential of the Korean Wave within the Japanese context and diminishes the ability of K-pop's mostly young female fans to positively intervene in debates over the Japan-Korea relationship. Importantly, the anti-Korean backlash engendered by the Korean Wave often has little to do with K-pop itself; instead, it is focused on territorial disputes between Japan and the two Koreas or issues over interpretations of history. Within this context, both Mr Chung and Naomi's insistence that fears of North Korea specifically drive anti-Korean Wave backlash in Japan makes sense.

[4.3] Itagaki coined the term "Korea-phobia" to designate what he perceives to be the consistent positioning of South and North Korea as "threats" to Japanese culture among not only right-wing xenophobes but throughout mainstream society (2015, 50). Reflecting on rising hate speech by organizations such as the Zaitokukai, Itagaki argues that Korea-phobia especially mobilizes fears of North Korean attacks on Japanese territory in service of discourses that position Japan as a unique and homogenous culture (2015, 63). That is, Itagaki suggests Korea-phobia is so pervasive within Japanese society because it bolsters belief in Japan's cultural superiority over its East Asian neighbors by framing "Korea" (broadly defined) as threatening Japan's dominance in the region (2015, 64). Itagaki is quick to emphasize that Korea-phobia is not a new phenomenon but instead emerges from Japanese history. In particular, the Korea-phobic discourse's conflation of South and North Korea emerges from the postcolonial nature of the Japan-Korea relationship. Itagaki reveals through his analysis of the Zaitokukai's language that the right-wing xenophobic group deploys tropes and stereotypes of Koreans that developed during the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula during the first half of the twentieth century to erase the significant differences between South and North Korea in their discourse (2015, 50). Because the discursive positioning of the cultural development and superiority of Japan was crucial to colonial management of Korean territory during this historical moment, Itagaki views Korea-phobia as an attempt by disenfranchised Japanese to combat growing precarity in Japan through the resuscitation of colonial language (2015, 54–55).

[4.4] Within this context, backlash against the Korean Wave among conservatives represents an outlet for fears born out of the postcolonial nature of the Japan-Korea relationship as well as perceptions of a decline in Japan's cultural vitality. Whereas fans such as those I have interviewed reported turning toward Korean popular culture as a remedy for their sense of alienation within a society that appears to be becoming increasingly precarious (Allison 2013), the Korean Wave emerges as a target for the dissatisfaction of xenophobic conservatives such as Yamano Sharin and the Zaitokukai. The repeated backlash against the Korean Wave that I have explored through this brief history is motivated by desires among conservatives to restore Japan's prestige by removing polluting elements from society, with "Korea" representing an empty signifier through which xenophobic anger can be channeled. Thus, anti-Korean Wave backlash has less to do with Korean popular culture itself than it does perceptions among conservatives that the rising popularity of K-pop among young people is a symptom of Japan's current weakness.

[4.5] Mr Chung believed that critics of the Korean Wave aimed to instill fear and fatigue among Japanese fans as part of their broader strategies to "purify" Japanese culture from any form of foreign interference. Importantly, Mr Chung suggested that conservatives such as the Zaitokukai tied their ongoing hate speech against resident Korean communities in Japan to critiques of the Korean Wave partly because they recognized that K-pop represented a media buzzword. That is, by tying their broader xenophobic critique to a popular subculture that attracts heavy online engagement among young people, Mr Chung alleges that anti-Korean groups cynically manipulate online trends to increase the impact of their messages. This in turn bolsters xenophobic backlash among the public because Korea-phobic rhetoric effectively hijacks the discussion from both fans and resident Korean communities eager to push a more positive and generous interpretation of K-pop's influence on contemporary Japanese society.

[4.6] I certainly encountered a sense of fatigue among some of my interlocutors, most notably Tomo, Yōsuke, and Ryūji. All three of these fans mentioned during our interviews that they found the backlash exhausting, with Ryūji explicitly coupling his sense of fatigue to broader debates concerning the difficulties of living as a young person in contemporary, precarious Japan. Ryūji also noted that his sense of alienation was doubled due to his status as a member of Japan's stigmatized sexual minority community who had turned to K-pop in part to "escape" homophobia through fantasies of "handsome Korean men." But the impression I received among the various young women I interviewed on the streets of Shin-Ōkubo—particularly during my visit in January 2020—was one of increasing excitement and passionate fandom. These fans repeatedly expressed their belief in the desirability of South Korea and pointed to the development of Shin-Ōkubo into a "K-pop space" as evidence that Japan was ready to accept K-pop into its music industry.

[4.7] As Kathryn Phillips and I detail in our ethnography of Shin-Ōkubo, the neighborhood is "flooded with billboards and telescreens advertising K-pop and Korean fashion…[and] is dominated by stores which sell unofficial merchandise for K-pop bands" (2021, 14). My intercept interviews revealed that traveling to Shin-Ōkubo to purchase this idol merchandise, visit K-pop live houses, and eat in the district's many Korean restaurants represented an important practice for K-pop fans in Tokyo. Young women I met in Shin-Ōkubo consistently referred to the district as a "K-pop paradise," revealing how their attitudes toward this ethnic enclave were intimately tied to the object of their fandom. We highlighted that as the neighborhood association strategically repositioned Shin-Ōkubo as a "K-pop space" for young women, they replicated preexisting consumer practices and promotional strategies tied to established young women's consumer spaces in Tokyo, such as Harajuku, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro (2021, 16). Shin-Ōkubo has thus been linked to young women's consumer culture in general; while representing an important "holy site" (sei'chi) for K-pop fans (2021, 9), the neighborhood also has a broader appeal. Indeed, Hanako explained during the 2020 focus group interview that visiting Shin-Ōkubo to enjoy Korean food had become a common practice for Japanese university students in recent years, even if they did not identify as K-pop fans.

[4.8] Many of my intercept interviews in Shin-Ōkubo with young women were clearly framed through fannish attraction (many, for instance, were keener to discuss handsome Korean male idols than Japan-Korea relations), but there was a broad indication that K-pop consumption had ameliorated their personal opinions of South Korea. Among these young women emerged a strong sense of akogare or yearning for South Korean society, framed through their positioning of K-pop idols as not just ideal boyfriends but also cultural ambassadors. As one young woman put it in 2020 as we discussed a "Visit Korea" advertisement featuring the popular boyband EXO that was prominently displayed in Shin-Ōkubo, K-pop idols tie (musubu) Japan to South Korea through attraction, driving fans to learn more about Korean culture and society. This young woman explained that the yearning for Korea is very deep among K-pop fans, suggesting that it is not a simple, superficial fantasy but instead a real desire to create bridges (kakehashi) between the two nations. Importantly, through their shared attraction to the handsome idols in EXO, this fan suggested that Japanese and Korean women were united by their desire to support K-pop idols. In making this claim, this fan evoked Chin and Morimoto's (2013, 99) argument that transcultural fandom is ultimately based in cultures of shared affect.

[4.9] In fact, even casual consumers such as the six young women in my focus group expressed an overall positive interpretation of K-pop's role in shifting discourse, even if they believed that backlash was inevitable due to Korea-phobia among conservatives. Hanako framed this attraction through generational change, highlighting that although young people's engagement with K-pop "may not appear overly deep," the very fact that K-pop fandom had become visible and normalized suggested young people were more willing to accept the idea that South Korea could produce enjoyable and innovative popular culture than in previous years. Chie noted in response to Naomi's statements concerning fears of North Korea that young people also possessed a stronger ability to differentiate South and North Korea than older generations; she hailed K-pop as a useful resource for challenging "old-fashioned" views of Koreans in Japan.

[4.10] Responding to my question concerning the role of K-pop fandom in addressing hate speech directed toward resident Korean communities in Japan, Sumire argued that the Korean Wave had also led more young people to learn about this community, particularly as the "third Korean Wave boom" had encouraged young people to travel to Shin-Ōkubo and directly engage with Koreans living in Japan. This idea of engagement was central to these six young women's narratives of the Korean Wave's impact in Japan. Just as one fan in Shin-Ōkubo suggested that K-pop tied Japan to South Korea, these six young women believed that the Korean Wave allowed more Japanese people to directly experience Korean society and thus challenge negative stereotypes emerging from Korea-phobic discourse.

[4.11] It has long been established in the fan studies literature that broader society tends to position fans not only as obsessive and misguided in their supposed uncritical consumption but that the often-feminized framing of fandom is typically deployed by critics to dismiss fan knowledge and expertise (Asquith 2016). The third Korean Wave boom has firmly tied K-pop fandom to culturl spaces aligned with young Japanese women's consumer culture and thus is similarly positioned as a feminized" subculture (Phillips and Baudinette 2021). For this reason, Mr Chung expressed his concern during our conversation that fans could be dismissed by conservative critics by framing them as "foolish young women" who have been "tricked into supporting Korea" through their attraction to handsome male idols. Although Mr Chung applauded young consumers for their passionate attraction to K-pop, he closed our interview by suggesting that the feminized desires that the subculture produced in Japan were unlikely to shift the debate in meaningful ways. Mr Chung was quick to explain that he was not criticizing young people or women per se, but merely expressing the "sad reality" of Japanese society where young people's voices are quickly dismissed. For Mr Chung, K-pop fandom could only go so far in addressing the state of Japan-Korea relations, and he advocated for continued activism from resident Korean communities. He explained that the Arirang Center for History and Culture was actively setting up talks designed to entice fans of K-pop to learn more about resident Korean communities in Japan, taking advantage of the Center's proximity to numerous K-pop merchandise stores and idol live houses in Shin-Ōkubo to reach out to fans.

[4.12] Considering the highly passionate fans I met throughout my research, I am not sure I can fully endorse Mr Chung's position. But Mr Chung's concerns speak to a long tradition of conservative men dismissing young women's fandom in Japan and evoke broader patriarchal attitudes toward women's media content. As Mark McLelland (2015) notes in his reflections on the predominantly female fandom for homoerotic Boys Love (BL) media, Japanese women's fandoms that engage with potentially controversial or transgressive content commonly attract censure and criticism from conservative groups that are often dominated by middle-aged men as well as senior male politicians. As an example of such patriarchal backlash, McLelland focuses specifically on the former Tokyo governor—and noted nationalist and xenophobe—Ishihara ShintarŌ's criticism of young women engaging in BL fandom as causing "harm" to young people's morals and health (264–65).

[4.13] Although none of my female informants reported direct experiences of patriarchal dismissal from conservative men per se (although, as discussed previously, two of my gay male interlocutors did mention such experiences), Japanese female fans of K-pop interviewed by Ahn and Yoon (2020) tell a different story. For the fifteen women with whom Ahn and Yoon spoke, misogynistic criticisms over their obsession with Korean men from conservative voices (mostly online) were such a common occurrence that many felt the need to hide their K-pop fandom in their public lives (Ahn and Yoon 2020, 188–92). Both Mr Chung and Ahn and Yoon (2020) speak to the ongoing tensions between desires and fears of Korea engendered by the Korean Wave in Japan as a female-centered fandom that may potentially attract patriarchal backlash, revealing an ongoing complexity to Japan-Korea relations that merits further investigation in future scholarship.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Analysis of the responses of nineteen diverse Japanese individuals engaged in K-pop fandom reveals that the Korean Wave in Japan must always be situated within a postcolonial understanding of the Japan-Korea relationship. Through a history of the reception of K-pop in Japan, I found that K-pop's rising popularity is always tempered by conservative backlash motivated by persistent Korea-phobia among not only Japanese xenophobes but also throughout mainstream society. For this reason, I suggest that theorists of the Japan-Korea relationship must view claims about the overwhelming soft-power potentials of the Korean Wave with skepticism, highlighting how persistent fears of North Korea can stymie the positive impacts of the popular culture of South Korea within Japanese society.

[5.2] That being said, my ongoing ethnographic investigation of the transformation of Shin-Ōkubo into Japan's premier K-pop space does at least demonstrate that desires for K-pop idols are motivating individual fans (often young women, but not exclusively) to reassess negative stereotypes of Koreans that circulate throughout Japanese society. Perhaps most heartening, my conversations with fans and casual consumers suggest that younger generations are less likely to accept or tolerate Korea-phobia due to their engagement with K-pop.

[5.3] In reflecting on transcultural approaches to fan studies, the case study of K-pop fandom in Japan demonstrates how the nationalist discourses of nonfans and the xenophobic fears of conservative ideologues can directly impact the fan experience. Thus, while Chin and Morimoto's (2013, 99) call to move analysis "beyond the nation-state" is an important one, there remains a role for a nation-state-based analysis in fan studies. Indeed, to reflect on how transcultural fannish affects interact with national culture as a constructed ideology (rather than an empirical fact, as was common in previous conceptual frameworks) is to embrace the central intervention that Chin and Morimoto themselves propose—that fan experience is complex and intersectional (2013, 93). As K-pop fandom continues to face conservative and anti-Asian backlash in a variety of contexts due to the Korean Wave's expansion into North American and Western European music markets, my case study of the relationship between K-pop fandom and Japan-Korea relations provides a potential framework to make sense of this emerging, transcultural phenomenon.

[5.4] So whither the Korean Wave in Japan? Despite consistently encountering positive attitudes among Japanese fans over the past several years, the continued Korea-phobia of Japanese public opinion leaves me feeling skeptical as to whether K-pop fandom can ultimately ameliorate the Japan-Korean relationship. In particular, the prevalent linking of North and South Korea together within Japanese right-wing ideology—and the fact that even my fannish interlocutors had little to say about North Korea—seems to me to be the greatest obstacle to the Korean Wave's soft-power potentials in the Japanese context. Fears of Korea seem, then, to be dominating the relationship at a political level while desires for (South) Korea grow among Japanese fans. My own attitude toward the Korean Wave in Japan is thus ambivalent as I recognize that both fears and desires strongly contour Japanese engagement with K-pop. Because the Korean Wave is continuing to develop even greater global recognition and appeal, it will be interesting to see how the cycle of booms and busts that typifies the reception of K-pop in Japan will play out over the coming years.

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