One of Japan’s beloved holiday traditions is coming under scrutiny of K-pop fans around the world. The Kouhaku Uta Gassen is Japan’s favorite New Years Eve television program that airs annually and features appearances by the year’s most popular artists in the Japanese music scene. This year’s lineup of participating artists made headlines for its shocking lack of singers and bands of Korean descent. Considering the high number of Korean artists whose albums and songs have topped Japan’s Oricon charts and enjoyed successful concert ticket sales in Japan, appearances by K-pop artists on Kouhaku have been common in the last few years. NHK denied accusations that this year’s surprisingly K-pop-devoid selection is related to issues of race and nationality, instead stating that Korean artists were simply not popular enough to be invited to the annual program. (“NHK Denies Lack of K-Pop at Kohaku Uta Gassen Due to Racial Tensions”)
In another interesting observation of Asian year-end programming, the Korean-produced MAMA (Mnet Asian Music Awards) seems to only target Chinese-speaking audiences in its outreach efforts. Despite Japan accounting for 70 percent of the Korean music industry’s overseas proceeds, the Korean cable channel Mnet interestingly chose Macau, Singapore, and Hong Kong as the venue for the three MAMA awards ceremonies that have taken place thus far. Is the Korean Wave leaning toward China in Asia’s pop warfare, having encountered Japanese criticism? Perhaps. After all, Korean actors are regularly hired to play lead roles in Chinese productions even despite their inability to speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Even obvious dubbing apparently can’t get in the way of Chinese viewers’ hunger for Korean celebrities and shows.
Despite NHK's denial, the sudden and complete lack of chart-topping K-pop artists from the Kouhaku Uta Gassen in the aftermath of significantly increased tensions in the Japan-Korea bilateral relationship can not be easily overlooked. Does this dampen not only holiday cheer among diehard fans in Japan but also dash the hopes of scholars and practitioners who believed in the power and potential of popular culture to overcome racial tensions or political disputes? Are cultural envoys now out of the question, and will Japanese housewives no longer flock the streets of Seoul after watching Visit Korea videos featuring boy bands and pop princesses? Probably not. But the geopolitics of pop in East Asia will nevertheless hold significant implications for the applicability and effectiveness of soft power and cultural diplomacy.