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Business trends

J-pop goes flat as Southeast Asia swoons for Korean artists

Japanese groups losing fans to K-pop stars, who are winning on stage and online

Arashi members wave to fans during a meet-and-greet in Jakarta on Nov. 11. The group's once-unassailable fan base has been eroded by the emergence of South Korea's K-pop. (Photo by Dimas Ardian)

JAKARTA -- Early Sunday morning, over a hundred people milled about an upscale hotel in central Jakarta. Clutching smartphones, the small crowd waited to catch a fleeting glimpse of Arashi, one of Japan's most popular boy groups.

Arashi was in town as part of a whirlwind two-day tour of Jakarta, Singapore, Bangkok and Taipei.

Fans screamed as band members made their way to a room for a press conference with 50 or so lucky devotees allowed in. "Hi Jakarta! We finally made it," said member Sho Sakurai. "Thank you for giving us a great opportunity to express our gratitude to the fans in Jakarta, who have been supporting us since our debut 20 years ago."

For many of those gathered, this could literally be a once in a lifetime experience; it was the first time the group had toured Jakarta and will enter a hiatus period as of end of December next year. "I've been waiting for Arashi to come to Indonesia ever since I became a fan," said Chrissy, a 29-year-old woman who has been following the group since 2011. "It's a dream come true," said another.

But despite the delighted fans, Arashi's arrival in Indonesia and Southeast Asia may be too late to stop J-pop's sagging popularity as the region's youth turn to South Korean entertainment, headlined by K-pop music with its savvy online and offline strategies that are winning the hearts -- and wallets -- of Generation Z and others.

J-pop stars are almost nonexistent in the media, their places taken by K-pop idols whose faces are flooding billboards, TV commercials and the internet.

Indonesian fans of Arashi await the group's appearance at a Jakarta hotel. (Photo by Dimas Ardian)

Tokopedia, Indonesia's biggest online marketplace, recently launched a new series of ads featuring BTS, South Korea's seven-member boy band and the first Korean group to grab the No. 1 spot on America's Billboard music chart.

"They are a group that is changing the music industry," said a Tokopedia spokesperson. "We feel that their strong commitment to innovation and their positive influence resonate strongly with Tokopedia."

Similarly, Singaporean online retailer Shopee featured miniskirt-clad Blackpink, a popular K-pop girls group, in TV ads last year. The spot drew fire from the island-nation's conservative Muslim community and was subsequently banned due to "indecent" content.

But the South Korean beat goes on, as other companies cherry-pick the country's entertainment industry when launching ad and marketing campaigns. In the Philippines, local rival apparel makers Bench and Penshoppe have been using Korean celebrities in ads. Penshoppe recently enlisted Blackpink member Lisa as its newest brand ambassador, while Bench countered with compatriot actor Park Seo-joon.

Southeast Asia is the third-biggest market for Korean music after Japan and greater China, according to data from South Korea's Creative Content Agency. The country exported $64 million worth of music content to the region in 2017, a 60% jump compared with 2015.

Fans of the K-pop group GFRIEND flood a Jakarta shopping mall in April during a media event featuring an appearance by the all-female ensemble. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

And it is not just music. Over the same period, South Korea exported creative content worth $1.3 billion to Southeast Asia, a 63% increase. While Japan does not provide comparable statistics, trends indicate Japan cannot sit on its laurels: For broadcast exports -- which Japan does track -- the country recorded 24.3 billion yen ($223 million) to all of Asia in fiscal 2017, with anime proving to be a cash cow. South Korea was not far behind, exporting $221 million worth of broadcast and animation combined in 2017.

Part of the secret to K-pop's global success may lie in its inclusiveness. Blackpink includes a Thai member named Lisa. Another all-female group, (G)I-DLE, has members from Thailand, China and Taiwan while boy band GOT7 includes members from Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Japan has adopted a different approach to exporting its pop music culture. One example is the cloning of AKB48, a long-running all-female group. Indonesia's JKT48 and Thailand's BNK48 are popular draws in their home market, with each group comprised of local talent. Meanwhile, Philippine broadcaster ABS-CBN last year launched a talent search for MNL48 for the Filipino version of the band, while Vietnamese digital content provider Yeah 1 debuted SGO48 last year.

But inclusiveness is only one reason for K-pop's massive appeal. According to Hidetomi Tanaka, professor at Japan's Jobu University and an expert on pop star culture, there is a perception among young Asians who want to be pop stars that if you want to succeed globally, then South Korea is the best place to start. "K-pop fans are very international, and that's K-Pop's strength," he said. "There's a culture of fans voluntarily translating lyrics, editing video clips, and sharing them whenever promising new stars appear. The information can spread very quickly to foreign countries."

Besides thrilling fans from around Southeast Asia, the interest in K-pop and other aspects of Korean culture may be helping South Korean President Moon Jae-in promote his New Southern Policy designed to increase his country's visibility and influence in the region.

"That the public is already approving of Korean culture makes it easier" for the Indonesian government and businesses to forge deals with South Korea, said international relations lecturer Rangga Aditya Elias of Indonesia's Binus University.

The countries inked a $1 billion deal in April for three submarines for the Indonesian Navy, and are close to signing the Indonesia-Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. "The government felt no burden in accepting Korean investment in strategic sectors like transportation, and even in defense," Elias said.

Meanwhile, the battle between South Korean and Japanese content is being fought on the smartphone -- on platforms like YouTube and Instagram -- the main mode of media consumption for trend-hungry Southeast Asians.

Arashi is finally coming around to accepting this reality. On Nov. 3, it became the first group under music giant Johnny's Entertainment to open social media accounts. The group also launched a YouTube channel, and its music is now available on Spotify and other streaming services.

While having a social media presence could seem to be a no-brainer in the 21st century, all this had previously been forbidden by Johnny's, which thought the risks -- copyright infringement, image rights infringement and so on -- outweighed the benefits.

"It was the dream of recently deceased CEO Johnny [Kitagawa] to introduce our own brand of entertainment and music to a global audience," said Jun Matsumoto of Arashi. "There are a lot of other groups under Johnny's Entertainment ... It will be good if other acts in the company -- as well as the company itself -- figure out how to expand digitally by drawing on our experience."

Additional reporting by Jun Suzuki and Ismi Damayanti in Jakarta, Marimi Kishimoto and Masayuki Yuda in Bangkok, Cliff Venzon in Manila.

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