So when my casual (possibly danced) reference to the viral hit Gangnam Style, over lunch at university, didn’t so much as receive an underwhelmed exhale of acknowledgement, I was a little confused. Turns out, my Japanese classmates had never heard of Gangnam Style.
But why? YouTube’s video statistics show that Gangnam Style is most popular with people aged 13-24, so my demographic was right. And Japan is by no means a stranger to K-Pop, K-Drama or K-anything thanks to the Hanryu Wave.
Today, AFP reported that this experience is not unusual. According to the article Japan has remained “relatively immune to the seductive powers of Psy and his horse-riding dance.”
Only two months after releasing his song on YouTube on July 15, Psy has taken Gangnam Style global with a world tour, which has rocketed to number two on US music charts. But in comparison, Gangnam Style has only made it to the Top 30 on the Japanese iTunes Chart.
Kotaku Eastern, which picked up on the unusual trend over a week ago, even suggests comparing the lengths of Wikipedia entries for “Gangnam Style” in English and Japanese. While the English language version has an extensive write-up which goes as far as to talk about the environmental impacts of the song, Japan’s Wikipedia entry could barely scrape together three paragraphs.
Commentators have given many reasons as to why Gangnam Style hasn’t taken over Japan’s radio waves. The most common suggestion is political. Japanese-Korean relations have been particularly unstable over the last 4 months due to the Dokto/ Takejima Island dispute.
Others have also suggested that Japanese consumers have grown accustomed to a certain kind of K-Pop marketing. For starters, Korean bands that are popular in Japan such as Kara and Big Bang often release Japanese-language albums. So perhaps Psy’s all-Hangul Gangnam Style isn’t as appealing to the Japanese market.
Also the look which has made Psy so popular in the West – slightly chubby and very ridiculous – is far from what Japan is accustomed to when they think of Korean Idols. Time describes Japan’s ideal K-Pop star as “young, svelte and extremely attractive”.
But personally, I think it comes down to two main reasons: Facebook and petty rivalry.
Looking at Gangnam Style’s video statistics, the song goes from being “viral” to “breaking the Internet” after it is first embedded on Facebook on July 15. From that point, the video goes from receiving over 18.5 million views to almost 73.7 million views when it receives hits for the first YouTube search “Gangnam Style”.
While Facebook is slowly becoming more popular in Japan it’s still not nearly as widespread as it is in the US or UK. In July, a NetRatings study by Neilsen Japan found that Japan has 17 million Facebook users. That’s only 30 per cent of those with Internet connections. The importance of Facebook in Gangnam Style’s popularity becomes clearer when you see where the majority of the video’s hits are coming from.
According to AsiaOne on August 25 almost 47% of the video’s views came from the United States, 7% from the UK, 6.8% from Canada and 4% from South Korea.
While in countries in the West, radio DJs felt pressured to play Gangnam Style because of its overwhelming popularity on Facebook, Japan didn’t have this same push from the masses. As a result, people who didn’t go out and search for the song couldn’t come across it by chance on the radio.
Without access to the song, the Japanese public hasn’t been able to shape Gangnam Style’s overall image. This has been left to a handful of music bloggers, some of whom, AFP writes, have suggested the video’s success is due to South Koreans using bots, or automated viewing programmes to increase the hits.
The other reason Japan hasn’t warmed to Gangnam Style could be that there’s a rivalry over which country – Japan or South Korea – “invented” the infamous horse-riding dance
Those in Japan’s corner argue that Psy copied some of the dance moves from a 2011 commercial for Yellow Hat Tires. In the commercial, dancers in cowboy hats line up in a V-formation and do moves similar to Psy’s. The main similarity is when the dancers wave their right arm in the air, as though they’re holding a lasso.
But Korean netizens have one-upped Japan, suggesting that the Yellow Hat choreographers stole the lasso move from a 1998 song by Korean boy band Koyote. The Koyote singers do less horse riding, so while the move is identical it seems to suggest a “whoop-whoop” feeling. Although to be fair, the song puzzlingly opens with a whinny.
But Psy – straight from the horse’s mouth – says the dance moves are original. When interviewed by Fuse the singer said he and his dance group came up with the moves after days of experimenting with every kind of living thing, including kangaroos and trees.
“We spent, like 20 nights with the choreographers… and we said ‘Wait, let’s decide on one simple and single move’,” he said.
Once they collectively came up with the horse-riding dance, Psy said the dancers were almost crying.
For whatever the reason Gangnam Style hasn’t taken off in Japan, I sincerely hope it has more to do with the spread of information than anything political. The essence of Gangnam Style is very tongue-in-cheek, and is all about being able to laugh at yourself. It would be a horrible shame if something like sibling rivalry got in the way of that.