Part of South Korea’s puritanism has to do with having a large Christian population (26.3%, as opposed to Japan’s 2%). But most of it predates the arrival of Christian missionaries by many centuries. The preservation of childhood innocence is rooted in Confucianism, a rigid system of social order that dominated every aspect of public and private life.

Confucianism began in China around the fifth century BC and migrated to Korea. By the 14th century, it had became Korea’s system of governance, and this led to a lot of weird stuff, including male primogeniture, filial piety, and the use of really hard exams for determining one’s entire life course.

Part of the Confucian way was extreme sexual separation.“Boys and girls must not share a seat after age seven,” was the dictum, and even as adults, aristocratic men and women in old Korea lived in separate compounds.

Japan, meanwhile, did adopt some Confucian elements, but never as strongly as in Korea; today, 83.9% of Japanese are followers of Shinto, an indigenous Japanese religion.

And for what it’s worth, the K-pop boy acts (Rain, Super Junior, Big Bang) were popular exports before the girl bands ever were. I hope this means that the popularity of K-pop has to do with general appeal and not just some submissive fantasy of Asian women.

Here’s a particularly awesome male K-pop video, “Keep Your Head Down,” by TVXQ:

Reason 3: Because Americans are seen as the heroes of the Korean War, South Korea has been closely influenced by US pop culture. Japan, less so.

Despite some grumbling, South Korea still sees the US as its protectors during the Korean War (1950-1953). The US continues to maintain an enormous military presence in South Korea–some 30,000 –and this has had a powerful effect on South Korean music tastes. Several generations of South Koreans grew up hearing American pop on American Forces Network television and radio, and US soldiers’ tastes created the demand for American music to be sold in shops and played in night clubs. Perhaps this is why the K-pop sound is much more US-influenced than J-pop is, particularly with the K-pop’s predilection for R and B, hip-hop, and rap.

The K-pop sound, therefore, has a familiar ring to a worldwide audience raised on American pop.

Reason 4: K-pop has already conquered Europe.

For some reason, 15,000 people gathered at Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on Nov. 10 for a flash mob Gangnam Style dance. And at the MTV Italy awards in May, K-pop boy band Big Bang won the “Best Fan” award, whatever that is.

Pucca, the oddly-drawn South Korean cartoon, achieved popularity in Europe years before Walt Disney bought the production rights and brought her to the US.

Europeans, and particularly the French, love Korean pop culture with a frenzy. Part of this may be because the K-pop sound has–in addition to the aforementioned American influences–elements of big band Europop, and is redolant of old French Eurovision acts like France Gall.

K-pop bands are so popular in France that in April 2011, tickets for a multi-band K-pop concert sold out in 15 minutes, and days later, thousands of French people protested in front of the Louvre to demand a repeat performance. The story made the front page of both Le Monde and Le Figaro.

That said, Koreaphilia in France began not with music, but with film. The French have always been easily open to multiculturalism when it came to cinema, and they embraced the raw emotion of Korean “revenge” movies like Palme d’Or winner Oldboy—whose plot probably seemed familiar to the French, as it was based loosely on Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

These days, I know a number of Parisian filmgoers who have a standing policy of seeing every new Korean movie that comes out, just as they used to see every Woody Allen before he started making crap.

Reason 5: The South Korean recording industry is run like Hyundai and Samsung.

The Korean pop industry is run like Korea’s chaebols (giant Korean conglomerates). Hyundai and Samsung are much closer models to Korean music companies than are EMI or Columbia records. There are only three big Korean recording companies (SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG entertainment), and they own all the distribution channels and every point of entry. Independent talent agencies are insignificant; record labels do all their own recruiting.

They don’t find the star; they make the star. Tiffany, a member of Girls’ Entertainment, was discovered in a California mall and trained for three years and seven months before ever appearing in public.

Like the Monkees or Menudo, the bands exist before the members are picked. There is virtually no room for a Bob Dylan type to start out strumming in coffeeshops and rise out of obscurity.

No US record label would invest the resources to train performers for that many years. A lot can happen to a teenager between the ages of 14 to 18: they could go to another label or turn to drugs. The Korean recording contract, by contrast, is airtight. The performers in K-pop bands are usually not even allowed to date. At all.

The structure of the J-pop industry is superficially similar to that of Korea, but it’s always had one major difference: Japanese pop music is much more experimental and often avant-garde (think of the Plastic Ono Band). They even went through a rockabilly stage in the 1960s (“rokabiri”) and play around with cross-cultural hybrid sounds. South Korean tastes, meanwhile, are factory-made and conventional: the country has never had a hair band.

Reason 6: The Japanese are nutty for Korean pop culture, and have pretty much voluntarily ceded the tastemaker role to South Korea.

Korean fever first hit Japan in 2003, the year that the runaway hit South Korean soap opera Winter Sonata premiered on Japanese TV. The plot centers around an architect recovering from amnesia and re-discovering his childhood sweetheart. Its male star, the unassuming, bespectacled Bae Yong-joon, was subsequently credited with the $2.3 billion rise in trade between Japan and South Korea between 2003 and 2004, including tourist revenue arising from tours to the fictitious character’s hometown.

In August 2004, then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said during elections for the upper house of Parliament, ”I will make great efforts so that I will be as popular as Yon-sama.” (Bae’s honorific nickname in Japan).

Korean heartthrob Bae Yong-joon, start of soap “Winter Sonata”
Korean heartthrob Bae Yong-joon, start of soap “Winter Sonata”
Image: Youtube / KBS

An important reason behind K-pop’s success, even in Japan’s home turf, is that Korean music labels embrace YouTube as a way of popularizing their songs.  By contrast, in the words of a Japan Today article, ”Unlike their Korean pop equivalents, most Japanese labels are allergic to promoting their artists’ work abroad.” South Korea, meanwhile, has seized upon music marketing over the Internet (aided by the world’s fastest broadband.) Its influence is so great that Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei recently used K-pop to get the the world’s attention by doing his own Gangnam Style parody. The Chinese government censored it. Such is the power of K-pop.

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