Korea and the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition

In 1937 Belgian music-lover queen Elisabeth set up the first Queen Elisabeth Music Competition. Since the beginning it was devoted to violin, the year after that pianists could participate and nowadays it rotates every year for violin, piano and singing. At the same time, a composing composition is held, of which the winning piece has to be played by all participants. The competition is considered one of the most prestigious and difficult around the world.


This year, the competition was dedicated to voice. It is held in the opera house “De Munt” in Brussels and even the royal family attends the concerts. A renowned jury (this year with Teresa Berganza and José van Dam!) is appointed to choose a winner. I was surprised to find out that among the finalist there were 4 South Korean singers: Sumi Hwang (soprano), Hyesang Park (soprano), Seung Jick Kim (tenor) and Hansung Yoo (baritone). This night, Sumi Hwang was crowned first place in the competition – and she totally deserves it. What a voice and technique!

This is Sumi Hwang in her favorite role of Mimi (La Bohème – Puccini) during the semi-finals:

The impressive finals with orchestra you can watch here.

Up till now South Korea has had 4 winners in the competition (2 for singing, 2 for competition). To compare: there are as many Belgian winners and that’s one more than Japan. It seems that there are quite a lot excellent opera singers in Korea – the world-famous Sumi Joo for example. Could it be that South Koreans are more fond of classical (European) music like opera than other Asian countries are or am I mistaken?

Turkey and Korea

I went on a trip to Istanbul last week. I was surprised to see the following monument (Unfortunately, my Korean language skills are still very basic and I am not yet able to understand this text):


Next to the Galata Tower

And a surprisingly overwhelming number of Korean tourists was visiting Istanbul as well! I have never seen so much Korean people at one place – except for their home country of course.

turkey and korea

Aya Sophia

Always fashionably dressed, of course.

Topkapi palace

Topkapi palace – sorry for the bad quality

A Korean friend told me before that Turkey and South Korea have good relations. He mentioned the fact that Turkey supported Korea during war times and vice versa. He also said:

Here’s one more similarity between Turkey and Korea: language. Turkish and Korean root from the same language. It has the same word order and even some of the same words. So you’ll also be able to easily learn Turkish like Korean!

Although my friend clearly overestimated my language skills, I have to say that I as well discovered similarities in grammar and structure between Turkish and Korean/Japanese. That’s because these languages are Altaic languages.



Turkey and Korea are called blood brothers (혈맹 hyŏlmeng), mainly because Turkey sent a lot of troops to Korea during the Korean War. But not only in recent times, during history Turkish and Korean people worked together to beat the enemy, a role almost always allotted to China. Traces were found of ancient Koreans (Korea was called Koguryŏ in that time) visiting Samarkland during the 7th Century. They wanted to strengthen bonds with the nomadic tribes in order to overthrow the Tang dynasty. Though they didn’t really succeed in that, the allies won some crucial battles. These nomadic tribes are the ancient Turks (돌궐 Dolkwŏl), who migrated to the Turkey of today.



Ask a Korean

– Taek Joong-sshi

South Korean Boy Bands – Part Three

Recap of Part Two

So far we have looked into the history, popularity and characteristics of Kpop boy bands. Since Kpop aims at the international market too, some of its characteristics can be considered successful due to their “global” character.

The music style for example, is more or less similar to pop music in other countries around the world, in particular American pop music. Dancing as well is generally appreciated. Especially Kpop artists can be admired for their choreographic skills. Next to that, MVs play an important role in spreading Kpop around the world through visual media like Youtube. Therefore, a lot of money and creativity is spent on producing videos as attractive as possible.



Elements that often have to deal with critique and are sometimes difficult to pick up by foreign people are the way entertainment companies operate, the crappy lyrics full of English mistakes and the aesthetic ideal of the Korean male idol. Last but not least comes the fandom. They are as important for the artists’ popularity as they can be slighty to incredibly bothersome for other people.

We finish this topic today with examining Kpop in Japan, and the impression it leaves on people when first introduced to Korean boy bands.

Kpop Goes Global

It is very clear that Kpop is focused on foreign markets. In the first place, all songs have an English title, sometimes with the Korean transcription written after it. They are distributed through the internet, where fans abroad can pick them up very fast. Many boy bands have singles in Japanese or Chinese. These songs can be a new song in the target language or the same song with new lyrics. Companies sometimes create subgroups assigned to a specific area where they have a huge fan base, for example Super Junior-M (M stands for “mandarin”) consists of Korean and Chinese members, and bring songs in Chinese. The same for Exo, which is divided into Exo-K en Exo-M.

Kpop in a Japanese music store.

Kpop in a Japanese music store.

Big In Japan?

South Korea entered the Japanese market officially at the beginning of the 21st century, but it had already exported some of their entertainment in the early nineties. In the past, Korean entertainment products had been banned by the Japanese government, but since the end of WWII, those trade barriers were more or less eliminated. Joined by a boom in the domestic market for pop groups, South Korea launched their first artists like BoA and TVXQ (Tōhōshinki 東方神起) in the Land of the Rising Sun. That was no easy job. In the first place, Korean and Japanese people are not best friends. Many events, climaxing in WWII, led to a rather hostile relationship. Besides, by the end of the 20th century Japan had already established a strong, domestic pop culture. Far from all Korean groups introduced made name in Japan.

Japan has the world's second biggest music market. And how many Japanese songs did you hear on the radio today, you said?

Japan has the world’s second biggest music market. And how many Japanese songs did you hear on the radio today, you said?

But some succeeded. BoA reached no. 1 on the Japanese Oricon Music chart in 2002. The first Korean idol to enter Japan’s hall of musical fame, the Tokyo Dome, was Rain (or Bi 비) in 2007. A year later, TVXQ topped the Oricon chart again with their sixteenth Japanese single. During 2010-2011, total sales for Kpop artists in Japan went up to 22.3%. SM Entertainment’s profits rose to some 44 million USD in the first quarter of 2012.

Japanese magazine dedicated to Kpop.

Japanese magazine dedicated to Kpop.

Money Changes Everything



As I mentioned before, Koreans can make good money in Japan because the Japanese always download legally or buy CDs. And entertainment goods are not sold at a cheap price in Japan (other goods neither). Let us compare: for MP3 downloading of a new song, you pay 600 Won (0.40 EUR/0.53 USD) in Korea, and 250 Yen (1.9 EUR/2.5 USD) in Japan. A CD costs 13.5 USD in Korea and 23.1 USD in Japan. Regarding the fact that liking the song or band results in buying it, you can get a lot of money out of that indeed. In South Korea, more money is made with ancillary businesses like drama appearances, reality shows and advertisements than with the music itself. Japan accounts for the overseas sales of albums. But concerts are expensive in both countries as well. Kpop also proves to be 30% to 50% more expensive than Japanese or Western music events. More profits are made out of fan meetings.

“No offense, but a lot of people in Japan view kpop groups as “those groups that only come to Japan to make money” obviously, every new artist that debuts in Japan is out to make money, and it’s not like anyone is forcing them to buy the albums, but it’s kind of sad that kpop groups especially have gotten that reputation.” – comment on Seoulbeats 

Recently however (source 15 July 2013), it has been reported that SM Entertainment has to deal with losses of more than 70% compared to last year. This is due to the weakening yen. Or has it something to do with the popularity of Kpop in Japan too?

original source sankeibiz.jp

original source sankeibiz.jp

A Korean in Japan

It appeared that introducing their music in Japan à la Korean was too difficult, so some adaptations were needed. Sarah’s article on Tofugu mentions three changes Korean artists have to go through to gain popularity in Japan: adopting Japanese names, debuting in Japan with exclusively Japanese albums, and changing their appearance and style to something marketable in Japan. With the first one I disagree (Japanese tend to translate foreign words in Japanese as they see fit, and our Kpop idols merely went along). The second one, which includes mastering the Japanese language as well, is true for sure. The last point can be observed too. In short, Kpop artists have to act as if they were Jpop artists.

The band that deserves some respect in doing so, is TVXQ (or DBSK or Tōhōshinki, but I will stick with the name I mentioned first). While researching, I found many people who had the same opinion like me, i.e. TVXQ started as rookies in Japan, and put in an enormous effort to appeal to a Japanese public. They can speak Japanese quite well (I watched Kim Jaejoong in the Japanese drama sunao ni narnakute and was impressed). While they were popular in South Korea, they had to start all over again in Japan. But they worked their way up to the top, debuting as an a capella boy band. I brushed up my mathematical skills and made calculations of their efforts (note: as from 2012, it is about the new TVXQ, not JYJ, based on this data wiki):

rest of Asia, incl. S-Korea Japan
concerts 33 109
albums 7 7
singles 6 34

Their first Japanese concert was held in 2006 for 500 people. In 2013 (as well as in 2009 before they split), the Tokyo Dome was filled with 55,000 of their fans. They never had an audience that large outside Japan, even in Seoul. 700,000 of their “best selection” albums were sold in one month, making them the first foreign male artists to do so in Japan. No wonder most (for 90% female) Japanese fans of Kpop are fans of TVXQ. Funny is that among these fans not only teenage girls, but also many middle-aged women from the upper class can be found.

four complaints and a theory

Okay, we got it, TVXQ is popular in Japan. Whereas other Kpop boy bands are … not as popular. Now we can sit down with our head in our hands, weeping over the golden years of TVXQ and BoA and cursing those new generations of useless brats trying to conquer Japan.

“There’s no way that other music acts can reproduce TVXQ’s success in Japan, which was the result of their years of ground work in Japan. But at the time of 2011, Japanese record labels were crazy about purchasing contracts with K-pop acts that the Korean music industry was producing unrestly. Because it financially makes sense to buy already professionally trained K-pop bands at “cheap” price instead of finding domestic talents and invest a bunch of money to develop their music and presentation skills.” – article on akb48wrapup 

One of these “low-budget Kpop boy bands” is SHINee, selling around 24,000 tickets for their original home-made concert without adjusting a thing. So it seems that recently, South Korean boy bands can gain some popularity as a “pure” Kpop product in Japan. Apparently Korean boys are considered a bit more “macho” because of their slightly taller physique and their compulsory military service that gives them a more manly allure. Next to that, the boys are carefully picked because of their looks. The elaborate choreography is a plus point as well for some Japanese people. Nowadays, Kpop is not as popular as it has been (pop artists will always have to deal with hypes), but it is still a niche in Japan.



One thing that I was really fed up with while researching, was the fact that I had to read over and over again why Jpop is better than Kpop and vice versa. Music appeals to one’s personal taste, so how can your taste be better than someone else’s? If you like one of them better, that needs no explanation or theory about the other one being worse. And both of them are manufactured, mainstream popular music. I admit that there are some differences concerning music style, vocal type, image and presentation in the MV, but the borderline between the two is rather vague and depends heavily on one’s personal preference. Japan seems to cherish its own musicians and music market, and therefore their music style or concept could perhaps be described as more “original” or “unique”, which is just fine for me. South Korea tries to get their music sold around the world, and is consequently more similar to the dominating American pop, which is equally fine. As a matter of course, they will check out their neighbors first. There are some exceptions, but Kpop is not embraced wholeheartedly by the Japanese population. Still, everything is fine for me. That doesn’t seem the case for some other people out there, accusing South Korea of “invading their music charts with their manufactured music”. Honestly, I would rather be able to dance SHINee’s complete choreography than to choose between AKB48 and SNSD. Both are not my cup of tea. I have no problem with “I like this better”, I have a problem with “this is better”.

This is an example of how it should not be done: BBC comments on Kpop. Who’s accusing who of manufactured “vacuous” music? That is how the pop music industry works, after all. Don’t forget to enjoy the entertainment our capitalist world has to offer you. And some of those kids should realize pop music can actually be produced by other countries than only the English-speaking countries. Some decent anti-criticism can be found here.

Time for the theory. I found the following video on Youtube and after some replaying to understand it (the guy talks quite fast), I thought it seemed interesting enough to share this with you.

Kazuya-san discusses why Kpop is not that established in Japan. After all, compared to hugely popular AKB48, Kpop idols sing and dance better. So why do Japanese people love AKB48 more? Korean idols are “perfect” when they make their debut in Japan. And the Japanese are not very fond of that perfectness: they prefer some degree of “inexperience” (未熟). Watching the “growth” (成長) of their idols, encouraging them as dedicated fans from the sideline, is what the Japanese enjoy. That makes a possible answer on the question why TVXQ succeeded in Japan: they started with nothing. Kazuya-san points out that this theme of growth is a big thing in Japanese pop culture (“国民のテーマ”). For example, in the manga One Piece, the reader enjoys how Luffy and his fellows grow and mature with time. The same goes for Dragonball. In my opinion, this is not only a characteristic of popular culture, but also of Japanese culture in general. For example, if you only speak a bit Japanese, you will be encouraged and made compliments to all the time. But oh dear if they realize your Japanese is flawless. As you are foreigner, this kind of “perfection” is not acceptable.

In the second part, Kazuya-san informs us that especially women love Kpop, and that it doesn’t appeal to Japanese men at all. Kpop boy band members are pretty boys… with a muscular body. Again too much perfection. On which a women commented that she prefers “more natural beauty” and therefore does not admire Korean idols.

Belgian Reactions on Kpop Boy Bands

I asked my friends some questions on this topic. Most of them didn’t know a single thing about it, some of them knew what it was about but didn’t listen to it in particular, and others were Kpop fans. I showed some MVs (Lucifer – Shinee; Fantastic Baby – Big Bang; Mr. Simple – Super Junior; Warrior – B.A.P.; Mirotic – TVXQ; Baby Good Night – B1A4) and asked several questions about the things I discussed throughout these three posts. I was glad to hear diverse opinions and points of view I had not thought of myself. Of course that was part of my intention.

Thanks to Delphine, Elise, Emma, Erik, Famke, Kris, Margo, Nina, Sammie, Seppe, Sheena, Stephen and Lotte!

The Newbies

What about the music? Almost everyone agreed that Kpop is similar to Western pop music. Margo told me some melodies reminded here of the Jonas Brothers. Stephen thought it resembled American pop music. Seppe said that without lyrics the songs could be even from any other country and thought them sometimes a bit too repetitive. Lotte, though, said she was surprised it appealed to her, and couldn’t think of some resembling music style she knew. Delphine and Stephen found the music catchy and cheerful, something that gets stuck in your head very easily. Margo and Erik didn’t like it very much. Erik explained me that the total sound was as stereotypical as Western pop music in choice of chords, harmony, rhythm and melody. Nevertheless, he had the impression that Western pop music is more diversified.

kpop1322958940_1361909887Is it important to understand what they sing? I found it quite striking that male friends answered “no” and female friends “yes”. For Erik there is almost no connection between the lyrics and the music. In the case of classical music, in comparison, the music is often composed in a way it reinforces the sung text. In that case it would be disturbing if you couldn’t understand the language. But in the case of pop music, where the style of composition is more or less similar for every song, understanding Korean lyrics seems unnecessary. In Seppe’s opinion it is sometimes required to understand what is sung in order to appreciate the music, but with pop music this is not the case. Stephen, too, doesn’t think knowledge of the Korean language is necessary to enjoy the music, but if you could understand it, maybe it would be more entertaining, he said.

The girls opposed to that idea. It bothered Margo that she had not a glimmer of understanding while listening to the songs. Not that she used to sing along all the time, but for her the content is important to a certain degree. Lotte as well found it a pity she couldn’t understand it at all. She likes to know what a song is about. For Delphine it is a big disadvantage. In her opinion, the lyrics are a very important part while listening to a song. The text can give her strength and expresses often certain feelings. She thinks of it like poetry accompanied by music.

kpopfe678eeb16009680298071ab34efdda0Is the intensive choreography a plus point? “Yes, it is,” according to Margo. The music was not quite to her liking, but she kept watching the MVs because of the dance moves. Lotte and Stephen also enjoyed watching. Erik thought it impressing as well, the trendy visuals as a characteristic of today’s youth. Delphine doesn’t really care as much about the dance as she did in the past, but it is nice indeed if there are some fixed dance moves in a certain song. But, if these become too difficult to be performed by everyone, you will hesitate to try it in the first place. Seppe believes it nicely done, right the way it should be with boy bands. He questions the possibility of simultaneously singing and dancing on stage, though.

Did you like the music videos? Lotte and Stephen certainly did. Margo as well, but she discovers songs by listening to the radio, and hardly watches any MVs. Erik said that you can see the result of a lot of time and money spent on those clips. The music may be not much, but visually it attracts all attention. That it’s a commercial success, is the same what Delphine was thinking. She liked B1A4’s clip in particular. That’s funny, because Seppe found that same clip utterly ridiculous. In his opinion, Super Junior and Shinee performed in more “clean clips”, to show off their dance moves and handsome looks, while Big Bang, B.A.P. and TVXQ’s clips had a “dystopian undertone”. I guess he meant that they profiled themselves more as “cool”, the bad boy type.

What about their looks? No one denies that their appearance plays an important role. The styling, the make-up, the hair… everything is done perfectly. They can be considered handsome, albeit a bit effeminate seen from an European view. Erik and Delphine point out that Asia has a different aesthetic perception. Stephen says their styling and make-up is done sometimes quite artistic and special, but it suits the music. He compares them with female American stars like Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Margo describes the Kpop idols as stylish and manly, but with some female features. Seppe tells me that in every band different types of boys are present, as to provide a wide range of handsome boys between whom the female fans can choose. He also sees them as more androgynous than manly.

Kpop can be confusing...

Kpop can be confusing…

Do we need the mash-up of talents? Erik, Delphine and Seppe find this very important. Erik compares with the “survival of the fittest” in the world of classical musicians. Seppe believes that there are too many talentless people who are being idolized. If that’s the case, he prefers showing interest in those who have trained hard to come this far. It can be compared with Disney, where actors often bring out singles or CDs as well. For Delphine, the most important element is that boy band members know how to play an instrument. In that way, they can go back to the basics, i.e. acoustic singing. Acting and dancing are important for further steps in their career. Margo doesn’t think acting is necessary to make it in the idol world. Dancing can be a plus point, though. Lotte believes training could only make things better, but without years of working they could get on top as well.

Target group? Unanimously teenage girls, but some songs could be appreciated by a broader audience, thinks Seppe.

Can you imagine a Kpop boy band breakthrough in the West? Yes, very likely, according to Lotte. She even questions why it hasn’t happened this far. If she had to pick one group with the highest chance, it would be B1A4. Delphine too believes the latter band to be most successful here, and gives SHINee a chance as well. English lyrics would be an advantage, she adds. Margo and Erik have no clue who would be considered for a breakthrough. Erik also says that the West tends to have some kind of reluctance regarding the acceptance of other cultures. Seppe is not very sure about it, as the golden age of boy bands is long gone (but there seems to be a comeback recently). It would be difficult as well because of a different perception of aesthetic ideals. He would rather pick Super Junior and TVXQ as the most likely candidates.

The Neutrals

Why does it appeal to so many people you think?  Handsome, stylish boys, singing catchy songs, and giving lots of fan service in addition too, can be a good reason for girls around the world to idolize them, says Sheena. It is not about conveying the music, but about satisfying the public’s desires. She underlines the importance of eye candy and fan service. Sammie agrees, and declares that some competition for America’s music market wouldn’t be a bad thing. Nina was a fan some time ago, but nowadays she hardly listens to Kpop anymore. What she liked about it, was the fact that it cheered her up. She also got caught by the romantic feelings some ballads evoked. The bond she was able to build up with other fans was nice as well.

Why isn’t it your cup of tea? Nina grew tired of the similar melodies. Every band was situated in the same genre. Sheena doesn’t like the concept in general. The music, the dance, the styling… But she has to admit that sometimes the eye candy can be tempting as well. Sammie isn’t interested because they are all guys. He likes girl bands, though.

Girls generation's "Gee" was the most viewed Kpop video before Gagnam Style crushed that record.

Girls generation’s “Gee” was the most viewed Kpop video before Gangnam Style crushed that record.

Which band is ready for a Western breakthrough in your opinion? Sheena isn’t very sure if our region is ready for some more Kpop after Psy, but if it was, she would go for Super Junior. Sammie believes the breakthrough has already started. As traditional media like television and radio have become less influential, a new pop culture is spreading via the Internet. He hopes it will be an all-girl group to be the first lucky ones. Nina thinks a breakthrough to be quite difficult. We Westerners are stubborn: we are not very open towards other cultures. For that reason, other languages and nationalities could prove to be unsuccessful. But at the same time, Kpop is very similar to Western pop music, like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. Maybe it will become popular, but that won’t happen overnight. That the possible breakthrough will come through the Internet, is a given for all three.

The Lovers

Why do you love it? Nice music, and you know they’ve worked hard for it, says Emma. Elise likes it because it’s so attractive. Kris doesn’t like mainstream music. She listened for a while to Jpop, but discovered Kpop and has been a fan since. The fact that she doesn’t understand the lyrics is one of the main reasons. That way, she can enjoy the music and dance along. Kpop is mostly superficial and pure entertainment, something she needs in order to relax from studying. Next to that, the boys are worth watching. She realizes that talent isn’t about looks, but when it concerns Kpop, she doesn’t mind some eye candy. The MVs are visually very attractive, says Famke, almost short films. Rhythm and melody are catchy and, although inspired by Western pop music, Kpop can maintain its originality of the combination of beats, lyrics and choreography.

Nothing but good things? Elise thinks some dance moves are a bit “gay”. Kris knows that it’s all commercialized and manufactured. Most of the time, not always, looks surpass vocal skills, and too much use of auto tune results in songs that sound all the same. Emma and Famke accuse the entertainment companies of giving their idols a hard time and pushing them sometimes too far.

What about the “idol factory”? More than one talent is useful. Nevertheless, Kris thinks that requests on the visual aspects are sometimes too much and nowadays, agencies are taking it too far, sometimes even encouraging their boys into plastic surgery. Besides that, she doesn’t think there is a problem with the training for years. After all, if you choose to become an idol, you should give it your best shot. Famke tells me the same happens with classical artists. Idols don’t live in the ideal circumstances, but they receive a training to be able to show multiple showbiz talents. Emma thinks it a plus point if the boys have many talents, but she observes that some people are not treated equally, in particular within SM Entertainment.

kpoptumblr_mcowo23k0Q1qjpa8fo1_1280Favorite boy bands? All four of them are a fan of SHINee and Big Bang. Emma has been a dedicated fan of TVXQ since long, Kris and Famke listen to a whole range of Kpop boy bands and Elise has started fangirling over Super Junior and B1A4 this holiday.

How do you describe yourself as a fan? Elise likes looking up facts and details about her idols to get to know them better. On the Internet she finds a whole bunch of variety programs to watch. She also discusses everything what covers the topic of Kpop with her friends. Often she watches drama starring favorite singers/actors. Kris describes herself as a “disloyal fan”. She is a fan as long as the band makes good songs. When the next one isn’t to her liking, she steps back for a while until they release a good song again. The exception is SHINee, the first Kpop band she discovered. Emma calls herself a “die-hard fan”, albeit a less extreme one than some years ago. She listens to Kpop everyday, and tries to keep up with the latest news. She’s a member of an unofficial TVXQ fan club and has been abroad to concerts thrice. These concerts were held in European cities like London, Paris and Barcelona. She has written fan fiction in the past.

ZE:A's Kwanghee is one of the few male Kpop idols who publicly admitted plastic surgery. kpopranter.blogspot.com

ZE:A’s Kwanghee is one of the few male Kpop idols who publicly admitted plastic surgery. kpopranter.blogspot.com

Has your European view changed because of the Korean aesthetic ideal? Kris says every band has his own image, as for every age something to choose from. But it doesn’t conform with the European perception of masculinity at all. Famke points out that there are different types. The “flower boys” resemble in her opinion Western high fashion models, who often sport an androgynous look. The trained body with “chocolate abs”, on the other hand, fits the European aesthetic ideal. Without “guyliner” and extravagant costumes, Kpop idols would be considered very attractive here. For Emma, the Korean concept of beauty has become more attractive for her and she has developed a weak spot. She thinks that there are many differences between Western and Kpop boy bands what concerns looks.

And the breakthrough award goes to… Big Bang, says Emma. Famke goes for YG and SM Entertainment boy bands, which has become rather popular in France lately. Elise gives SHINee and Super Junior a shot. Kris hopes the breakthrough will not happen, as she fears a visual change would happen to adjust to the Western standard. Emma kind of likes it that Kpop is more of a niche here. It shouldn’t become too popular. Kris too, believes it would be better for the fans at well. Listening to the same underground music creates a bond. Famke and Elise oppose that, they would like Kpop to be more generally known.

How important is the media? Kris says Kpop CDs are difficult and expensive to buy here, and she believes in the power of Youtube. She often introduces Kpop to newbies. The same goes for Elise, who is proud of her talent to “convert” her friends into Kpop fans. Emma as well thinks the spread of Kpop is due to Youtube. She uses social media like Twitter and Facebook to post about Kpop. Youtube plays a key role, thinks Famke. In the past, she posted articles on Facebook news sites.

Is there, in your opinion, a more intimate bond between idol and fan, in comparison with Western boy bands? Famke likes the variety shows very much. These show us the different sides of Kpop idols. In our country, she regrets that we know things about pop stars because it is written in gossip magazines. Kris thinks the variety shows are fun to watch too but remarks that it still remains “merchandized”. She also questions whether the boys promote their real personality or more an “easy-to-like personality”. Emma says the intimate bond between idol and fan, shown through the fan clubs’ names and colors, is certainly a plus point.

Does “What a pity I don’t understand Korean” count for you? Kris laconically says “I hope my Korean will become good enough to handle basic conversations but bad enough to understand the lyrics.” She doesn’t expect much from the texts and sighs already when she hears saranghae 사랑헤 (love). “Again a love song.” It doesn’t bother Emma, who enjoys listening to the song without understanding the text. She often looks up translations, but doesn’t remember much of it afterwards. Most of the time, it isn’t necessary, thinks Famke. Occasionally she searches for the translation, but sometimes the MV and way of singing says enough. Elise thinks some of the song texts are ridiculous. “Did you hear Super Junior boasting about themselves in Superman?”

And here we approach the end of our tripartite story. Not all is said and written yet about Kpop, and not in the least because it is a phenomenon that is fluctuating every second. Will the popularity of Gangnam Style bear crucial effect on the global recognition of Kpop? For that, we will have to wait, perhaps not for so long, but most likely it will take some time, as many of my friends suggested.

Before I conclude this post, I want to say something about my personal experiences. I chose this topic, because Kpop is a concept that has attracted the interest of so many people all around the world. I could have written about something traditional and culturally “safe”, the hanbok perhaps, or Korean shamanism, but why ignoring a topic so intensely actual among (mainly) teenagers these days, and preferring subject matters that could only occasionally attract the attention of our surfing audience? The next thing I want to point out is, although my favorite music is situated somewhere between classical music, jazz and eighties rock, I really enjoyed digging into the Kpop world. If the objective of pop music is to give the listener a happy feeling and the fancy to dance around, I think its mission has succeeded.

Facts for Fun

As I focused solely on Kpop (boy bands) in Japan, here are some examples of Kpop elsewhere I came across while researching.

– Bigbang was awarded the 2011 MTV Europe Music Award  for Best Worldwide Act.

– The first time SM Entertainment held SM Town in Paris in 2011, the show was sold out in 15 minutes. Discontented fans without tickets organised a street mob event in front of the Louvre, in order to get a second concert. They got what they wanted. This time, 6000 seats were sold in less than 10 minutes. And they caused a temporary breakdown shutdown on the ticket selling sites.

– “It’s no wonder so many people around the world have caught the Korean Wave, Hallyu.” Not my words, but those of president Obama.

– My (Kpop fan) little sister went to the movies last week. As she likes dance movies, she picked the Hollywood movie “Make your move”. How she was surprised when the SM Entertainment logo flickered on the screen, and Kpop idols like BoA and Yunho made their appearance! Soundtracks from SNSD and TVXQ completed the Kpop feeling.


– Krista Mahr. “South Korea’s Greatest Export: How K-Pop’s Rocking the World.” Time, n.d. http://world.time.com/2012/03/07/south-koreas-greatest-export-how-k-pops-rocking-the-world/.
– “Has Japan’s K-pop Bubble Burst? Weakening Yen Hits Major Korean Record Label Hard.” Japan Today, n.d. http://www.japantoday.com/category/entertainment/view/has-japans-k-pop-bubble-burst-weakening-yen-hits-major-korean-record-label-hard.
– “Dream Machine.” The Sydney Morning Herald, n.d. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/dream-machine-20130225-2f0ch.html.
– “K-pop and AKB48: Why K-pop Is Playing a Losing Game Against AKB48 in Japan”, n.d. http://www.akb48wrapup.com/2013/02/k-pop-and-akb48-why-k-pop-is-playing-a-losing-game-against-akb48-in-japan/.
– JKJK-Pop: We’re Actually Korean”n.d. http://www.tofugu.com/2013/07/18/kpop-in-japan/
– “The  ‘K POP’ Floodgates Open.” Nagoya-info, n.d. http://nagoya-info.com/3478/the-k-pop-floodgates-open/.
– “Exploring the ‘Japan Brand’: K-pop Won’t Live Up to the Hype Forever – Seoulbeats.” Seoulbeats, n.d. http://seoulbeats.com/2012/04/exploring-the-japan-brand-kpop-wont-live-up-to-the-hype-forever/.
– “Perspectives: K-pop in Japan (And a Bit About the World) – Seoulbeats.” Seoulbeats, n.d. http://seoulbeats.com/2012/10/perspectives-k-pop-in-japan-and-a-bit-about-the-world/.
– “SB Exchange #28: K-pop in Japan – Seoulbeats.” Seoulbeats, n.d. http://seoulbeats.com/2012/10/sb-exchange-28-k-pop-in-japan/.
– A.Messerlin, Patrick, and Wonkyu Shin. “The K-pop Wave: An Economic Analysis.” Groupe D’économie Mondiale (July 1, 2013).
– “The Unsung And The Unsaid In Kpop”, n.d. http://kpopkollective.com/2012/01/01/the-unsung-and-the-unsaid-in-kpop/.
– “Second Concert of ‘SM Town Live in Paris’ Sells Out in 10 Minutes – Soompi.” Soompi, n.d. http://www.soompi.com/2011/05/17/second-concert-of-sm-town-live-in-paris-sells-out-in-10-minutes/.
-Delphine, Elise, Emma, Erik, Famke, Kris, Margo, Nina, Sammie, Seppe, Sheena, Stephen, Lotte
– Special thanks to Jana for proofreading!

South Korean Boy Bands – Part Two

Recap of Part One

Boy bands were highly in demand during the nineties in America and Europe. The moment their popularity decreased in the West, Asian countries, specifically Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, reintroduced the boy band. The concept, however, was adapted in “the Asian way”. In South Korea, boy bands played an important role in promoting Kpop (Korean popular music). This gave rise to a growing global interest in the county’s popular culture, called “the Korean Wave” or hallyu. The idea of a vocal group of young boys may be the same as in 1990, but how Korea elaborated “the idol industry” is almost a reinvention.


“Because You Naughty Naughty, SM Entertainment.”

The top three talent agencies who make up for the greatest part of the Kpop industry are SM Entertainment (SuJu, SHINee, TVXQ, EXO), JYP Entertainment (2PM) and YG Entertainment (Big Bang). These agencies do not only scout the boys, but also give them a full training. They attempt to create pop idols, icons that have taken over the  concept of pop stars. Kim Yong Hee explains the link with the economic situation:

“A star enjoyed mysterious, even symbolic status; an idol is by definition manufactured under a commercial system. The rise of the idol in Korea is closely related to the rise of extreme capitalism in the country following the Asian financial crisis of 1998.”

The complete population of SM Town.

Kim also expresses her negative thoughts on the uncertain future of many Korean youngsters who aspire an idol career. In the past, it was almost as good as certain you would become an idol after being scouted. Nowadays, talent agencies select more boys than needed and let them compete against each other. Although many of them have dropped out of school and train everyday in studios, it is very unsure whether they will be chosen to actually become a member of the next boy band. Those who excel will; others will have a hard time finding a job. Kim puts it quite harsh:

“Exposed to this system from an early age, they internalize the fantasy and disenchantment that goes with being a manufactured product. (…) As much as talent agencies might play into the myth of success, the truth is that they are ruthless machines operating in a neoliberal market and to become one of their products is to be programmed and tailored down to the finest detail, rather than to embrace diverse potential and talent.”

Every week, hundreds of Korean boys and girls gather in front of SM Entertainment’s office to take an audition. Training often starts at the age of  nine or ten. Kids visit the training centres after school hours to receive training in singing, dancing, music, performing techniques, and foreign languages like English, Chinese and Japanese. Most of them know how to play an instrument as well. ABC News did a short documentary on a Kpop boot camp.

More negative news about these “star factories” emerged in 2010. Hugely popular TVXQ (aka DBSK) began a lawsuit against SM Entertainment, accusing them of being too strict and unfair. The 13-year-contract gave them no contract fees, and at their debut, the member’s wage would depend on whether they would sell more than 500,000 copies of their album. If not successful, the group would get nothing. The goal was reached, but earnings were not fairly divided over the five members, according to three of the five members. The two others continued supporting the company. A slightly intimidating number of 120,000 fans filed a petition against SM Entertainment, who had seized the opportunity to file a lawsuit as well against the three bad boys. The case came to an end in 2012, when both lawsuits were dropped. There was no need for the troublemakers to come back, though, and they were neatly replaced. In 2010, the three formed their own boy band, JYJ, under C-JeS Entertainment. Luckily, SM Entertainment had already some experience with the Korean law, as the lyrics of TVXQ’s song Mirotic were judged inappropriate for minors by the Korean Commission of Youth Protection. I call in question whether the sentence I got you under my skin is more “overly sexual and provocative” than the music video itself. (My previous declaration of not writing subjectively got lost somehow, shorry shorry shorry…)

Making the Boys in the Band

How do you transform a young man into an idol? It is not an easy a job to undertake. Moreover, it costs a lot of money and time. Luckily, our talent agencies have quite a large sum at their disposal. SM Entertainment, for example, was worth  ₩1.38 trillion (around € 928 million, or US $1.24 billion) in 2012. They employ composers, lyricists, musicians, dance instructors, choreographers, vocal trainers, language teachers, team leaders etc. to make the idol dream come true. Even housing and meals are provided for the trainees. But exactly which factors contribute to their popularity?

“Boom Shakalaka”

You’ve probably noticed already that Kpop is no traditional Korean music. Moreover, Jeff Benjamin of Rolling Stone describes it as “a mixture of trendy Western music and high-energy Japanese pop”. No sign of anything Korean here. On the contrary,  according to Lee Keewoong, a sociologist at Yonsei University in Seoul, “The key to K-pop’s world-wide success is not its Koreanness, but the lack of it”. Kpop is a fusion of different styles like bubblegum pop, ethereal and alternative rock, R&B, hip-hop, rap, electropop, disco, ballad and synthpop. There is even a term for the music style SM Entertainment features: the SMP genre is a combination of rock, hip-hop beats and R&B. The trick is to write a catchy song that gets stuck in your head for the rest of the day. And successfully, I can add. The next clip (“Fantastic Baby” by Bigbang) prepares you at the same time for the incredible visuals I will talk about later on.

the singing

In the strict definition of a boy band, the standard ability of each member would be singing. You will find a lot of good singers, but also some who are better at dancing or performing (or as visual?). Because Kpop is a mix of different styles, every member can claim the part in which he excels, for example a rap part, a lyrical tenor part, a bass part etc. Members are appointed a position like “main vocal”, “lead rapper”, “sub-vocalist”, or even “lead dancer”. In bands with many members, most of them only get one or two lines to sing that suits their voice type. There is one leader and one maknae (the youngest). This system reminds me of Korea’s neo-Confucian hierarchical structure. Fannie of Seoul Beats writes:

Although admittedly there are many more elements that go into producing a successful idol than just pure vocal ability (such as appearance and entertainment value), with singing competition shows (…) people are starting to pay more attention to raw vocal talent than ever before. In addition, idols during current times are no longer able to hide behind loud backtracks to cover their lip syncing or vocal mistakes on stage, as the MR-removed video technology (for better or for worse) is increasingly being utilized by consumers to judge a singer’s worth.

SuJu for example, created a subgroup called K.R.Y. with their three main singers  in order to focus on the vocals only. In their shows or television programs, boy bands are often asked to bring an English song.

“I’m a dancing floor.”

Choreographic dance is one important feature that sets Kpop apart from its western counterpart. In their colorful music videos, we see formations that change in according to who is singing. As a result, a strategy was developed to switch positions. It even is a word in Korean, Jari baggum 자리 바꿈. Amidst all the complicated dance moves, an easier key movement forms the “point dance”, something the fans can reproduce as well when hearing the song. Apart from these moves, I can assure you the dance moves are really difficult, let alone performing them in a group perfectly simultaneously. There are three options: 1) the boys are genius dancers 2) the boys have trained very hard, and 3) the boys are genius dancers who have trained very hard. An example of the third option I find with Shinee. The moment I saw their dance clips my jaws dropped. Nothing but admiration too for choreographer Rino Nakasone, who is behind the choreography of many famous Kpop songs. To demonstrate this is not one of my biases, I show you this clip of a variety show that checks what remains of the choreographic memory of the boy band’s earlier repertoire (debut in 2008), and a dance version of a recent song. The importance of the choreography also points out how bands gain popularity mainly by distributing music videos on the Internet. Buying CDs is considered old. Everyone downloads the songs on their laptops or smartphones with additional movie clip. And, considering the fact that some bands don’t take risks and do lip-syncing during live concerts, the dance performance cannot be faked, so you get your money’s worth after all.

“Loverholic, robotronic”

Is the song less catchy if you cannot understand Korean? I guess not. As with most pop songs, the text is not that important. I mean, it is no poetry. Besides, lyricists do their best to get some English lines in it as well (regarding the quality of it, I suppose they use Google translate). Apart from the fact that these lines are mainly nonsensical and sometimes completely wrong as concerns spelling and lexicon, they make it easy to remember the title and to sing along. And sometimes they are extremely funny. I got the best ones listed for you here:

“sexy, free and single, I’m ready to bingo” Sexy, Free and Single – SuJu

“go kick it in the butt” Spy – SuJu

“I really wanna touch myself” Purple line – TVXQ

“Everybody say hate you one more say” Power – BAP

“I call you butterfly (…) Fantastic, elastic…” Ring Ding Dong –Shinee

“Her whisper is the lucifer (…) Loverholic, Robotronic” Lucifer – Shinee

“I’m a dancing floor (… ) Hey everybody, let’s keep a music on (…) Can you feel the floor?” Dancing Floor – U-Kiss

“Careless, shoot anonymous, heartless, mindless, no one who care about me” Mama – Exo

“Mama, just let me be your lover” Fantastic Baby – Bigbang

“Every I Just can’t control, every night the loneliness is my love” (…) Can’t breath, like freeze (…) Every day I shock, every night I shock” Shock – BEAST

“Bounce to you (…) Break it down to you” Bonamana – SuJu

“Roll like a buffalo” Two Moons – Exo

But the first prize goes to this elaborated poetical piece of rap:

“Probably you’re money is unpublic Try to save my life like a puppy & cream Another hot movie character bumble bee treat me like a slave & I pray is it Halloween Trick or treats oh please don’t even try to pull my head own you’re way Brand new person, A man? So fuck off no more talk Yeah no another sounds can’t make it your body mores Just one truth is without you’re mind and you heart there is no me” Mission – JYJ

Showing off your English when you ought to realize it sucks, is the way to go. And the talent agencies can’t find any native English speaker to check their lyrics, of course. Another mystery is the fact that some of these lyrics are made by foreign people. The earlier discussed “Mirotic” for example, is written by the Swedish Pelle Lidell, who has sold more than 10 million Kpop records up to now. “They wanted a mix of U.S. beats but with a Scandinavian songwriting style,” Mr. Lidell said. “In Korean, the top vocals are more rhythmical, with more 16th notes.” Unfortunately, the Scandinavian couldn’t call a halt to Engrish either.

What did I just watch ???

As the big agencies use a lot of money to promote Kpop visually, music videos are a pleasure to watch. NPR explains:

Korean record labels transformed the way music was released. From the beginning, new songs debuted on national television, not on the radio, like was done traditionally over here.(…) They were watching their music. Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world. So early on in their development, record labels had to get good at YouTube. And they kind of perfected it. YouTube videos by Korean record labels were so good, they got tons of views overseas. And that’s how the record labels knew where to tour their acts. They knew their customers wanted them before they even got there.

Sometimes there is a story with (or without) a plot, sometimes it’s just dancing in a room and sometimes the video is … weird?  But still amusing to watch (first impression of Gangnam style?). The Nippaku Award for funniest boy band video clip goes to “What’s Happening?”by B1A4 (suits the title well). For more fun, their other movie videos are worth seeing as well. I like it, like it like this…

the mighty fandom

You have fans. And you have Kpop fans. They are organized units who play an essential part in the popularity of boy bands. The fan clubs have their own name and color. For example, SuJu fans are E.L.F. (EverLasting Friends) and their color is pearl sapphire blue. It is forbidden to take a color that’s already in use. During concerts, these dedicated fans gather together and wave light sticks or balloons in that specific color or shape to create a “Kpop ocean”. They chant parts of the songs or shout the members’ names in unison (“fan chant”). It is previously decided exactly what has to be chanted when. Fan clubs also support their idols by sending them rice and lunch boxes. They translate lyrics too, organize flash mobs and spread their videos on the Internet. A Kpop group’s popularity is established for a great deal thanks to their fan clubs. Because all kinds of variety shows, television productions and appearances in public offer more chances to get to know each individual member’s personality, a sense of closeness is created. A fan is not only interested in the idol as a singer, but as a person as well. For more, here are eight reasons K-pop fans are the most passionate of all fans.

The official fan lights of Big Bang, SuJu and B.A.P.

The official fan lights of Big Bang, SuJu and B.A.P.

You have Kpop fans. And you have obsessed Kpop fans. These are called sasaeng fans 사생팬, what means “personal life”. Sasaeng fans stalk their idols and invade their privacy. JYJ was being stalked by some fans who tapped their private telephone conversations and installed GPS trackers on their personal cars. Other fans try to break in during private moments to take pictures, to steal belongings or to attack them physically. It has been reported that some fans installed CCTV in the vicinity of their idol’s houses. Chasing them by a taxi is no exception either. That is even a special service taxi companies cater. The taxis are willing to break traffic rules or speed up at up to 200 km/h. One such adventure resulted in a chain accident. If the idols are not busy being chased by obsessed fans, they have to watch out as well for poisoned drinks given by anti-fans.

“Sexy, Free and Single”



It is sad, but true. If you’re not young, handsome and considered attractive for an international public, you won’t make it in the Kpop boy band industry. Sun Jung compared the comments on TVXQ’s clip “Mirotic” and wrote about their “trans-sexual soft masculine image”:

A common characteristic of these comments is appreciation of the sexual and physical attributes of the band members. According to their web profiles, the majority of users are females in their late teens to their early twenties. “six pack” abs and popping blood vessels is the highly sexualized masculine images of members. Nevertheless it is not only masculine features, but also what can be considered more feminine elements of their aesthetic that resonate. “Pretty” and “feminine” and some even suggest that the members look and act like homosexual men (gay to describe their highly feminine images). Both traditionally feminine and masculine elements of TVXQ’s image young female users find attractive.

Here we come at an important cultural issue. Korean idols wear make-up, are fashionable, color their hair, wear nail polish and are very focused on their appearance. After all, selling their looks is a crucial role in gaining popularity. Add the effeminate dance moves and their intimate conduct with their co-members and the result is that in the European culture they would be called “gay” without any doubt. I will approach this matter from a personal perspective. I don’t want to offend any fans, but that is how I experienced Kpop for the first time.

Kpop or Gay-pop?

I was already familiar with Japanese Visual Kei. Nevertheless, when I was introduced to Kpop, I couldn’t help but thinking the boy bands quite feminine. The thought “gay” popped up in my head at once when I saw Super Junior for the first time. I bet I’m not alone: I watched the video  with a European idea of masculinity in mind.

Different cultures require different ideas of aesthetics. In the case of South Korea, Sun Jung already pointed out the appeal of soft masculinity. Young, attractive boys with feminine looks are called “flower boys” or hwarang 화랑. The flower boys formed an elite group during the Silla period (57 BC – 935 AD). These young man with delicate features studied mainly culture and arts based on Buddhism, and were known for their use of make-up, decoration and accessories. Today, the term is still in use.



Male Korean idols can be described as rather beautiful than handsome, rather cute than manly. Unfortunately, these words are often used to describe homosexuality in our culture. However, I don’t agree with a generalization of this idea: sometimes homosexuality can be seen, but sometimes it can’t. Therefore, the Korean ideal of masculinity is something that is almost contrary to our perception of such appearance and behavior. Of course, some of the boys will be gay (as about 10% of world’s popularity is estimated to be homo- or bisexual). However, it is not so easy to be open about it, as homosexuality is seen in a negative light or even kept silent in South Korea. (I had a hard time watching the drama “Personal Taste”. How can their way of thinking be so old-fashioned?) One of the cleverest comments I read on this matter:

And this, in the larger picture, is the clash between Korea and America. In the US, you are gay by default, but in Korea, you’ll always be straight (minus some pretty convincing circumstantial evidence that is). I think most of this is attributed to the difference between Korean [culture of shame] and US [culture of guilt] societies at large, but not necessarily views of “masculinity” per say.

As goes for every cultural matter: don’t judge other cultural aspects rashly without realizing you belong to a certain culture, with its own perception, ideas and thoughts. End of the lecture.

The Bromance



The members of boy bands are often close friends. In Korea, physical contact between male friends is very natural. They hold hands, sit on each others lap, give hugs. Considering the fact that homosexuality is “unthinkable” in Korea, this behavior creates a sense of “bromance”, which is highly appealing for their (mainly female) fans. The industry stimulates this feeling by emphasizing it in movie clips, photo shoots and during concerts. Fans make videos about “couples” and write fiction about it. This is called OTP, One True Pairing, or shipping. Fans think this way: “If they can’t be with me then they can be with someone in their band.”

It is positive that men can show their feelings of friendship without being labelled as gay. But the trouble starts when someone merely suggests certain members could be gay or in a genuine relationship with each other. The fantasy is allowed, but the realization of it is not. When homoeroticism becomes real, strong reactions are evoked among the fans. They experience their idols being called gay as an insult, which is in fact no better than marginalizing homosexuality or denying its existence. From an article on Seoulbeats:

While it appears that more people are tolerant of something decidedly “homo”, that is not the actual case. Rather, fans ship the fictionality of a situation that excludes their male idols from a real relationship – and thus within possible reach – into a fandom that allows for these idols to be playful and intimate without affecting their bachelor status. That is, a “bromance” but not an actual, romantic relationship. The possibility of homosexuality does not even register to fans, that perhaps there is more than just warm fondness between two males. I am not suggesting that anyone there is homosexual, but that’s what I call a rejection of homosexuality, the continual assertion that what is shared between two males is strictly a heterosexual friendship and nothing more.

Some factors contribute to the popularity of Kpop boy bands, others give rise to critique. As the basic features are comparable to Western boy bands, there are some aspects that characterize Kpop in particular: the training, the dancing, the fandom and the emphasis on visuals. In the next post I will discuss the following questions: How does Japan react to the effort boy bands make to gain popularity there? Is a breakthrough in Western countries thinkable? What is the first impression European people get while watching and listening to Kpop boy bands?

Facts for Fun

Eat Your Kimchi: one of the best sites to learn a lot about Korean culture, food, life and in particular Kpop, in a highly amusing way.


– Wikipedia
– Eat Your Kimchi
– Lent, John A., and Lorna Fitzsimmons. Asian Popular Culture in Transition. Routledge, 2013.
– “The Price of Fame in South Korea.” The Toonari Post – News, Powered by the People!, n.d. http://www.toonaripost.com/2012/08/entertainment/the-price-of-fame-in-south-korea/.
– “What Makes SM Entertainment So Powerful? Music Performance And Fandoms Are The Secret To Success.” Kpopstarz, n.d. http://www.kpopstarz.com/articles/35201/20130721/sm-entertainment-fandoms-and-smp-genre.htm.
– “Top 10 K-pop Songs with the Funniest English Ever.” Hellokpop, n.d. http://www.hellokpop.com/2013/04/11/top-10-k-pop-songs-with-the-funniest-english-ever/.
– “Top 5 Ridiculous Uses of English in K-Pop – Soompi.” Soompi, n.d. http://www.soompi.com/2010/10/20/top-5-ridiculous-uses-of-english-in-kpop/.
– Russell, Mark. “A Swede Makes K-Pop Waves”, October 9, 2012. http://blogs.wsj.com/scene/2012/10/09/a-swede-makes-k-pop-waves/.
– “5 Main Styles or Genres of KPOP (Korean Pop Music).” Modern Seoul, n.d. http://modernseoul.org/2012/03/20/5-main-styles-or-genres-of-kpop-korean-pop-music/.
– “Talent in K-pop: The Best Singers – Seoulbeats.” Seoulbeats, n.d. http://seoulbeats.com/2011/11/talent-in-k-pop-the-best-singers/.
– “Are K-pop Stars ‘So Gay’? – Seoulbeats.” Seoulbeats, n.d. http://seoulbeats.com/2011/12/are-k-pop-stars-so-gay/.
– “Of Bromance and Homoeroticism – Seoulbeats.” Seoulbeats, n.d. http://seoulbeats.com/2011/09/of-bromance-and-homoeroticism-2/.
– “Dream Machine.” The Sydney Morning Herald, n.d. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/dream-machine-20130225-2f0ch.html.

South Korean Boy Bands – Part One

Divided over three successive posts, I will give you some information about Kpop (Korean popular music), more specifically about the rise, success and representation of boy bands. Because of my interest in Far East Asian culture, I am fully aware of the fact that my view has already undergone some influence. At the same time, I am a fan of classical music and hardly listen to any pop music. Nevertheless, I will try to sketch an as objective as possible portrait of this music style. The first post contains a general introduction and sketches the historical background of this genre.


A boy band is defined as “a vocal group consisting of young male singers”, what immediately points out their function on stage as well: singing. They do not (or rarely) write their own music or perform by playing instruments. Their performances, on the other hand, are often accompanied by choreographic dance.

Beyond Backstreet Boys

Boy bands have evolved from barbershop quartets over The Jackson 5 towards New Kids On The Block. In the 90s, managers in Europe were inspired by these American phenomena and created boys bands like Take That. The usual number of members was four or five.

Although the highlights of the genre were long gone by then, “new” boy bands formed in the 21st century. And here, South Korea comes into sight. Before being dominated by the American market, the popularity of boy bands shifted towards the East. A Taiwanese boy band called F4 gained popularity all over East Asia.

The members of F4 had their own solo projects and an acting career. Their international success was due to the TV drama Meteor Garden, in which all four  of them performed. Meteor Garden is the Taiwanese adaptation of Japanese manga & drama Hana Yori Dango (got it where F4 comes from?). They had to change their name into JVKV because of copy-right issues with Japan, though.

Although still different from Korean pop idols, a change in representation is noticeable. F4 emits the “radiant light” of four pretty sweet flower boys, sensible and well-mannered. They seem to care a big deal about their long, shiny hair, white teeth and clean-shaven chins, and smile heart-warmingly at the female audience. This, in my opinion, is the East Asian perception of masculinity, a different, but equal approach as the one American boy bands promote. More about this will be discussed in the second part.

In 2001, the Japanese boy band EXILE with 14 members was formed. Yes, that’s a lot of members. Their appearance looks like a mix between the American hiphopping-bad-boy-type and the choreographic South Korean style. They are still active nowadays. Outside Japan, where they have sold over 20 million records, they are hardly known.

But Japan’s most famous boy band is Arashi 嵐, formed by Johnny’s Entertainment in 1999 and consisting of Ōno Satoshi, Sakurai Shō, Aiba Masaki, Ninomiya Kazunari and Matsumoto Jun. They have an acting career as well, appear in TV and radio shows, do commercials, host events and have their own variety show. Their fan base is not limited to young girls, but apparently they appeal to older people (men and women) as well. Many fans believe that the closeness between the members, who have been best friends for over 10 years, is the secret of their huge success.

Arashi Fan Site

Arashi Fan Site

Unlike Koreans however, the Japanese do no grasp the chance to gain international recognition because of a strict application of author’s rights. Audio and music videos are banned from the internet. In a way, I understand this, and they have enough response in their own country, but creating a foreign fan base wouldn’t be a bad idea. The best example I can give is that of Gangnam Style. What would it have been without uncensored Youtube?  In South Korea, downloading music for free is the most common thing to do, while Japanese are very reluctant to commit such a “crime” and gladly pay for it. Bernie Cho, head of DFSB Kollektive, a Korean music distribution company, even stated that “a lot of top idols make more money for a week in Japan than they do for a year in South Korea.” However, the biggest part of their earnings comes from international concerts.

Before we leave the Western music scene behind us, a word has to be said on the current two most famous boy bands, i.e. the Jonas Brothers (2008) and One Direction (2011). They reintroduced the boy band concept by throwing out choreography and focusing solely on the vocals and visuals. (Okay, Big Time Rush takes the trouble to put some dance moves in their choreography, but their dancing skills are nothing to write home about, to be honest.) One Direction makes it pretty clear at the beginning of this video clip:

A Booming Boy Band Business

South Korea, Japan and China disagree with One Direction. They prefer the spirit of the nineties, or rather, the modernized version of it. Music is important, but only a part of the game. Especially the visual aspect, the appearance as well as the dance, is a crucial factor, which makes it essential to promote them through media like television and internet. Members of boy bands are the nation’s top idols, not to mention their huge popularity. To meet the requirements and anticipations of the public, they are carefully guided by entertainment companies.

The story starts in the mid-1990s, when South Korea became largely subject to capitalism. The “Korean Wave” or hallyu 헌류 / 韓流 was born. This term stands for the spread of South Korean culture, more specifically, Kpop, Kdrama, animated cartoons, movies, language, cuisine, fashion, tourism and so on, whereof the first two are the most important. The Korean Wave can be seen as a tool of soft power, comparable with Japanese manga and anime:

“Hallyu as a national and political campaign offers the opportunity to cultivate Koreanness, as it were, through the image, the melodrama, and the music of its culture.”

A question that can be raised here is in how far Kpop is Korean. In the nineties, American music styles like techno and hiphop were introduced and embraced. These were however adopted in a Korean way. Scholar Hee-Eun Lee points out that Kpop is originally a fusion of global and local elements, supported by mass consumption in South Korea (and here I go writing again about cultural hybridity, it somehow seems to be an answer to all contemporary cultural phenomena…):

“Korea has served as a compelling example of resistance to globalization and orientation toward localization.”

In terms of music, the global aspect of Kpop is very clear. One cannot deny there is a lot of resemblance with Western pop stars. Nevertheless, Kpop is no rash copy of Lady Gaga:

“it can be seen as an essentially hybrid, yet distinct, cultural product. (…) Thus, K-Pop is not exactly exclusively “Korean”. These hybrid media forms (…) often problematize or challenge “traditional ideas of Korean-ness, traditional assumptions of uniformity and cultural homogeneity”. (…) There is “interaction between two different cultures that create commonalities who are conducive to transcultural consumption.””

Boy bands proved to be succesful in the South Korean Kpop landscape. First idol group H.O.T. won the hearts of many Korean girls, and other boy bands like Shinhwa and TVXQ – in Chinese, or DBSK in South Korean initials –  followed. Their popularity is beyond all doubt, as the latter band’s fan base of more than 800,000 members made up for “the world’s largest fanclub” in the Guinness Book of Records 2008.

Faithful fans.

Faithful fans.

The official international breakthrough of Korean boy bands internationally was the formation of Super Junior in 2005. They debuted with 12 members, and had 13 at its peak. Five years before, SM Entertainment (not what you think – stands for Success Museum) had started casting auditions and contests to scout the members. From the beginning Super Junior (SuJu) was meant to have an international career: for example, the first audition was surprisingly held in Beijing, and another member was delivered by a casting agency in Los Angeles.

The plan was a rotational system like Japanese all-girl group Morning Musume. Every year, the current “generation” of Juniors would graduate from the group and new members would be added. The plan evoked some strong reactions from the fans and SM Entertainment decided after the scouting of a thirteenth member to drop the rotation system. As a result, leader Leeteuk has reached the age of 30 this year. His youthful look still fits for a boy band, though.

The SuJu members are not just singers. They debuted in 2005, while they were scouted maximum five years before that. Imagine waiting for five years before your real appearance in public. What did they do, except practicing singing? They were trained by SM Entertainment to become true idols who can sing, dance, act and perform. How entertainment agencies make these boys into idols is for later, but the point is here that they are “a mashup of talents”. SuJu members appear in Kdrama and popular television variety and reality shows, act in movies, do musicals and host radio shows. They are called “Kings of the Hallyu Wave”. In other words, they have a successful individual career. Besides the SuJu with its thirteen members, various subgroups were formed since their debut.

Where lies the success of Kpop boy bands? Is it the music? The looks and styling? Or the elaborate training of entertainment agencies? I will try to find an answer in the next part.

Facts for fun: a non-exhaustive list of boy bands in Far East countries

  • Chinese boy bands: Top Combine, M.I.C, HIT5, A-ONE, G.I.P
  • Taiwanese boy bands: F4/JVKV, Fahrenheit, Lollipop, 183 Club, 5566
  • Japanese boy bands: EXILE, Arashi, KAT-TUN, SMAP, NEWS, GReeeeN
  • South Korean boy bands: Super Junior, Shinhwa, TVXQ/DBSK, SHINee, B.A.P, Big Bang, 2PM, 2AM, Beast, Boyfriend, C-Clown, NU’EST,MBLAQ, Infinite, EXO, SS501, U-KISS, JYJ, ZE:A, B1A4, Se7en, Teen Top


– Wikipedia
– Kim, Yong Hee. “Redefining the Real Korean Wave.” List – Books from Korea, no. 14 (winter 2011).
– “Arashi Storms to Crossover Appeal.” The Japan Times Online, February 26, 2010. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2010/02/26/national/arashi-storms-to-crossover-appeal/#.UgAI52b-q9Y.
– “The Price of Fame in South Korea.” The Toonari Post – News, Powered by the People!, n.d. http://www.toonaripost.com/2012/08/entertainment/the-price-of-fame-in-south-korea/.
– Shin, Hyun Joon. “Reconsidering Transnational Cultural Flows of Popular Music in East Asia: Transbordering Musicians in Japan and Korea Searching for Asia.” Korean Studies 33 (2009).
– Park, So Young. “Transnational Adoption, Hallyu, and the Politics of Korean Popular Culture.” Biography 33, no. 1 (winter 2010).
– Hee-Eun Lee, “Seeking the ‘Others’ Within Us,” 137-138.
– Leung, Sarah, “Catching the K-Pop Wave: Globality in the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of South Korean Popular Music” (2012). Senior Capstone Projects. Paper 149.
– Jamie Shinhee Lee, “Linguistic Hybridization in K-Pop: Discourse of Self-Assertion and Resistance,” World Englishes 23, No. 3 (2004): 446.
– Sun Jung, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 19.

The Matriarchal Family Structure on Jeju Island (part 2)

Second and last part of our haenyŏ story focuses more generally on Korean women. Were they really dominated by men during Korean history?


1.1      Powerful women

Traditionally, Korean women are regarded as powerless, dependent of man and submissive. This view, however, is the result of the last centuries, when a male-dominated structure was forced upon them. In early Chosŏn, women’s status was almost equal to that of men. Several indications for that theory can be found in genealogies (chokpo). Regardless of gender, all children and following generations of their descendants were written down. Adoption of boys for sonless families was rarely found and second marriages of women appeared to be socially accepted. The women’s share of inheritance was as large as that of their brothers’ and they carried the same responsibilities for ancestor worship. Women were relatively free in the choice of their marriage partner. In comparison with China, child brides were only reluctantly and at a later age given to the family of the bridegroom. Also, abuses of the child were harshly condemned.

Later on, powerful, independent and active women are also present, parallel to the Confucian structure. These women live outside usual forms of Korean society. There are those who make their own living, like shamans (mansin or mudang), professional women entertainers (kisaeng) or the haenyŏ of Jeju, as described above. It is also clear that housewives in the mountainous region of Korea are of equal standing as their husbands, except for those who can afford showing off public display of status. The division of gender, where men play an active, outside role in the public domain, and women a passive, inside role in the domestic domain, is allocated to households with enough property and prestige to assure the “invisibility” of their female members. Those invisible wives, nevertheless, disposed of power in their own domain. They projected their influence on husband and children. Men in the villages often dealt merely with ritualistic issues, rendering their wives public power.

A young kisaeng. from Cornell University Library

A young kisaeng. from Cornell University Library

The duality of these female figures was that they were at the same time denigrated and indispensable. They proved that power could not be completely taken away from women, as the Neo-Confucian system attempted.

1.2      A male-dominated society

Confucianism takes the family as the central pillar of society. Up till now, “the five relationships”, whereof those between parent and child, and between husband and wife concerned the family structure, influenced Korean values to a high degree. Especially the relationship between father and son was emphasized. More than a relationship based on love between spouses, filial piety lies as a key virtue on the base of a peaceful society. In all relationships, the man came hierarchically first. These values were given stimulus during late Chosŏn, where Neo-Confucianism became established a state ideology. The ideal of male superiority in patrilineal lineage was forced upon the family structure, and the rule of “three obediences” (daughters to their fathers, wives to their husbands and mothers to their sons in later years) had to be respected. Women, as determined three times submissive, should completely sacrifice themselves to serve the other, male members of the family. She was supposed to keep silent and do as she was told. The proverb 암탉이 울면 집안이 망한다 (amtagi ulmyŏn jibani manghanda), translated as “If the hen cries, it will bring a house down” or “It is a sad house when the hen crows louder than the cock”, demonstrates women’s position at those times. Another method to rule over women was the “seven vices” (disobedience to parents-in-law, failing to bear a son, adultery, jealousy, contracting a harmful disease, malicious gossip and theft), valid reasons for men to eject their wives. Obviously, women did not have the right to request a divorce or to choose their spouse themselves. Inheritance shares were much smaller or not allotted, despite the law on equal distribution of properties among descendants.


Grabbing the girl’s wrist: exposure of a male dominated society in Korean drama. Credits and interesting article on http://outsideseoul.blogspot.be/2012/08/the-other-f-word-feminism-versus-korean.html

As Neo-Confucianism was established as the state ideology, discrimination of women by unequal relationships was justified by law. However, the law also prescribed children to respect both their parents. Against the seven vices, there were three reasons for remaining married.

As in China, Confucianism was the philosophy that influenced Korean society most. Buddhism, in contrast, has never had an equally nationwide influence on family structure, as it appealed primarily to the higher class.

1.3      Towards gender equality

Despite rapid economic development and urbanization, the social, political or legal status of women in 1960 did not improve. Sons were given priority in food, clothing and education. Thirty years later, the concept of male superiority was still present. Entering the labor market did not evidently erase male-dominated structures, as could be observed in differences between pay, position and promotion. Even now, women are urged to resign by telling them “they would better get married soon.” After the marriage, women are expected to become housewives.

Korean employment rate 1970 - 2006. Credits and site about korean feminism: www.thegrandnarrative.com

Korean employment rate 1970 – 2006. Credits and site about korean feminism: http://www.thegrandnarrative.com

Park Geun Hye, South Korea's female president

Park Geun Hye, South Korea’s female president

The last twenty years, major changes improved gender relations to a high extent.Cohabitation before marriage has become more common, women charging their husband for divorce socially accepted and son preference has dropped. The male-dominated family structure has shifted towards a husband-wife type. While household tasks were mainly performed by women, young men nowadays are more willing to do chores at home. There is a large difference in values between the older and younger generation: Korean youths appear to be most reluctant in accepting and performing Confucian values among adolescents in 17 Asia-Pacific countries.


This proverb 여자 셋 이 모이면 접시가 깨진다 (yŏja set shi mo i myŏn jŏpsiga kkae jinda) is used to describe women as talkative, but I would like to use it for describing the situation of women on Jeju. It is suitable in the literal meaning, for these women actually provided a market system on the island. In the figurative meaning, it is the other way around. The men at home were regarded as the talkative ones, chatting and gossiping their weariness away with other “house men”. If not at sea, they had to look after the children and do household chores. Although the women of Jeju held economic power and enjoyed higher standing than the average Korean woman, their social status was always inferior to men’s. Consequently, the effects of the matriarchal family structure on Jeju did not change their marginal position socially or politically.

When we apply the proverb to women on the Korean mainland, it becomes clear that the Confucian ideal of powerless women is an illusion. Women did not keep silent all the time, but influenced their surroundings in their own way. They were powerful in the domestic domain, a place where men were not allowed and could not interfere. The image of the traditional Korean women is also produced in late Chosŏn, as before that time, women were regarded as almost equally to men.

The purpose of this paper was to show that the black-and-white representations of Korean women should be adjusted. Haenyŏ did not rule over men, and housewives were not as powerless as they seemed. Their hierarchical position, however, has always been lower than that of men. During history, this position was heavily reinforced by Confucianism. The legacy of this ideology still remains present today in the Korean family structure.

Gender equality in Korean ads? Again from www.thegrandnarrative.com

Gender equality in Korean ads? Again from http://www.thegrandnarrative.com


– Choi, Jung-wha, and Hyang-Ok Lim. This Is Korea: All You Ever Wanted to Know About Korea. Seoul, Korea: Hollym, 2010.

– Kim, Kyong-dong, and Korea Herald. Social Change in Korea. Paju-si: Jimoondang, 2008.

– Nemeth, David J. The Architecture of Ideology: Neo-confucian Imprinting on Cheju Island, Korea. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

– Gwon, Gwi Sook. “Changing Labor Processes of Women’s Work: The Haenyo of Jeju Island.” Korean Studies, Vol. 29 (2005): 114-136.

– Dawnhee, Yim Janellis. “Korean Women: View from the Inner Room. by Laurel Kendall; Mark Peterson: Review.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Aug., 1985), 850-852.

– Lewis, Linda S. “View from the Inner Room. by Laurel Kendall; Mark Peterson: Review.” Signs, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Spring, 1987), 582-586.

– Jai, Poong Ryu. “Korean Women: View From the Inner Room. by Laurel Kendall; Mark Peterson: Review.” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), 335-337.

– Park, Insook Han; Cho, Lee-Jay. “Confucianism and the Korean Family.”Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1.

– “Haeneyo: The Last Generations of Korean Mermaids.” Grrrl Traveler, n.d. http://grrrltraveler.com/sightseeing/jejus-haeneyo/.

– “Lady Good Divers | Artinfo.” Artinfo, n.d. http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/28043/lady-good-divers.

The Matriarchal Family Structure on Jeju Island (part 1)

I took the course “Korean culture” this semester, and we had to write a short paper about a Korean subject that interested us. Because I travelled to Jeju two years ago, I decided to write about Jeju’s “mermaids”: the haenyŏ (part 1). I compared the social standing of these women with the position of women on the Korean mainland (part 2 coming up later). I used Korean proverbs and sayings to illustrate traditional society.


jeju2The Island of Jeju is situated in the Korea Strait, southwest of mainland Korea. Its economy has traditionally been dominated by the fishing industry, until recently when tourism began to play an important role. Because of the isolated location, the influence from outside and the occupation by Japan, language and culture evolved in their own way. One of the most striking differences is the existence of a matriarchal family structure in the past.

Jeju’s male population consisted mainly of fishermen, who went out to sea for long periods. What the proverb in the title endorses, is that women were very visible on Jeju, compared with the situation of women on the mainland. Because of the absence of men, women had to take up not only household chores, but also work in the fields. They were the head of the family.

1.1 Jeju’s “sea women”

jejuhaenyopurseA specific job only performed by women for at least a thousand years, was diving. These women, haenyŏ, literally meaning “sea women”, gathered abalone, conch, sea squirt, agar, marine algae, sargassum and shellfish. The haenyŏ symbolizes Jeju Island’s matriarchal family structure or is seen as “a spirit of women”. In the beginning, men also participated as divers. Due to various reasons, diving became an exclusively female profession. It is said that women are preferred above men for this job, because the latter are too skinny. Women have more body fat and adapt easier to the cold temperature of the sea. In the past, women were more profitable to evade the heavy taxes. Another, earlier mentioned reason, is that men went out fishing in deep sea and could not return home every day to sell sea shells on the local market, like the haenyŏ did. Their traditional swimwear consisted of a swimsuit of cloth and goggles. They kept the catch in a fish net, while a buoy (tewak) attached to it located their position in the water. Their only tool was a hook or knife to detach the sea products. No scuba gear was used, for haenyŏ had developed their own breathing technique, characterized by the whistling sound (sumbisori) that could be heard when they broke through the water surface. Haenyŏ could keep their breath for almost two minutes, and dive twenty meters deep. Because of the cold on these depths, diving during the winter was limited.

Nowadays, there are 480 haenyŏ registrated, of which around 400 are active. Most of them are older than fifty. Traditionally, the profession of diver was passed on to the next female generation, but the daughters of current haenyŏ prefer jobs in less harsh working conditions. However, every year new haenyŏ take part in the diving program of the Hansupul Haenyŏ School. Becoming familiar with the currents, winds and tides is essential to face the dangers of diving. Although traditional swim wear is traded for rubber swimsuits, scuba gear, flippers and Styrofoam buoys, diving is still physically demanding. In spite of the high average age of haenyŏ, working times are still four to five hours a day for seven to fifteen days a month, and lead weights around their waist take them down for ten meters. Modern haenyŏ earn approximately 55,000 to 110,000 won per day.

1.2 Women as breadwinners

Women would take up the job of haenyŏ if they had difficulties in making a living. The money they earned by selling the sea products on the market, made up for the greatest part of the family budget. Regarded as the breadwinners, Jeju women are said to enjoy a higher social standing. That in contrast with the Confucian society, in which female economic participation was barely allowed. In the island villages, men cited Confucian homilies and gave extravagant ancestor worship ceremonies to support their sex’s superiority as a compensation for their secondary status. During the early twentieth century, haenyŏ were the first women workers who migrated to the seaside of Japan, China and Russia. Although they operated as a team of exclusively women, their individual income was still higher than that of skilled male factory workers.

However, Gwon Gwi Sook argues that the economic transformation into capitalism heavily influenced the work and status of the haenyŏ. Changes in haenyŏ labor processes can be found in the colonial period (1910-1945), the transitional period (1945-1960) and the industrial period (late 1960-present).

In the late Chosŏn dynasty, diving became designated as women’s work, as laws following Confucian norms prohibited men from diving. Although seen as performing the lowest job, haenyŏ provided the main part of tribute. At that time, Jeju had a subsistence economy and was burdened with a tributary mode of production, until the government established reformations in 1814. That their contribution to the welfare on Jeju was acknowledged proves the fact that husbands of haenyŏ were prohibited from participating in the educational circle (hyangkyo). Therefore, notwithstanding the strict social regulation by Confucian norms, Jeju women enjoyed some sort of higher status.

During colonization by Japan, Jeju was subject to the most drastic social changes because of its geographical position. The economy depended on Japanese demand, and 50,000 out of 200,000 young Jeju men immigrated to work as wage laborers in Japan’s flourishing industry. The result was that women were left alone to manage the shortage of domestic labor and the increase of their responsibilities. They became simple commodity producers and wage laborers by selling their sea products on the market. Delicacies like brown alga and abalone were sold at high prices in Jeju, but could be sold for even more elsewhere. Therefore, haenyŏ became the first seasonal migrant laborers of Korea. Japanese and mainland Korean merchants tended to hire rather Jeju haenyŏ as wage laborers than divers of their own region because of their skills and low wages. The haenyŏ earned more than their husbands in Japan. In 1934, more than 10% of Jeju’s female population, performed as a haenyŏ. It is clear that women played an important role in the economic development of Jeju.

Socially and politically, however, their status was determined by Confucian norms. Affected by patriarchal structure and ideology, their economical contributions didn’t alter the marginal position of women. Although the wife brought in the money, the way in which it was spent was still decided by her husband. Daughters had little access to education, other than in the traditionally economical sector. There was no discrimination, but haenyŏ were seen as inferior marriage partners.

Pictures from the Korean movie "My mother, the mermaid".

Pictures from the Korean movie “My mother, the mermaid”.

For women who engaged in wage labor abroad, working under male employers also spurred unfair gender relations. As the lowest in the hierarchy, haenyŏ often suffered from humiliating work and living conditions. They were forced to stay because of so-called debts and often sexually exploited and abused. Their wages were reduced to the minimum, barely enough to cover daily expenses. However, all the money was needed as a supplement to commodity production to maintain their family on Jeju. Despite their responsibilities, no improvement of status could be noticed. In 1932, haenyŏ openly accused their Japanese superiors of sale domination. Their demand was partly granted, but unfair market relations remained.

The economic situation worsened after the Korean War. Due to the Jeju uprisings (1948-1954) , the damage was enormous. Women had to shoulder yet more responsibilities, but their position did not improve. They were not strong enough for farming, and their work became devalued. It was still seen as a substitution business. The patriarchal family system proved to be dominant over improving labor relations.

Further development of capitalism did not fill the gaps between sexes. Men’s work was valued highly, while working women’s status remained low. The number of new haenyŏ dropped, as the haenyŏ herself encouraged her daughter to take up a less harsh and more prestigious job than what she had done all those years.

picture by Idobi

picture by Idobi via Wikimedia Commons

Today, haenyŏ have never been so protected by law and other institutions. They participate in trade union and decision-making processes. They were, however, till not so long ago excluded from inheritance, property and ancestor worship ceremonies. As a conclusion, haenyŏ’s status did not really improve since the beginning. Nowadays, they are seen as a symbol and represent a feminine culture, specific to Jeju Island. The representation of haenyŏ as strong, powerful women positively effected their status. This contrasts with the image of the Korean woman, dominated by a male-dominated Confucian society.

If you found this interesting, please look forward to part 2

What To Be When You Grow Up

Pilot. Hair dresser. Football player. Princess. After some time, you start to think about your future for real. What are the dream jobs? It’s funny that these differ from one country to another.

In Belgium people aim for the highest wage. Prestige is not so important as in Asia, but some jobs has a status that is somehow culturally stereotyped. For example, studying medicine guarantees a prosperous future. There’s no way doctors can be poor or unemployed. Especially specialists’ income is high. Of course they have to work hard for that. Studies alone take 6 years, after that you can have 2 years of training for GP or 4 to 7 years for specialisation. The ethical aspect of medicine is of course appealing too. Follow up is lawyer. If you’re blessed with an excellent memory and some eloquence, law studies shouldn’t be too hard on you.

“I heard your son is so smart. Then he’ll become a doctor or a lawyer, isn’t it?” Her son will probably get a job, but it’s a fact that he won’t be paid most anymore. On a ranking of 15 best paid professions, lawyers rank 13th and doctors aren’t even mentioned. Well-off are managers, engineers and scientists.

Not so very attractive is the job of a civil servant. Especially municipal or government officials have the image of boring, slow and lazy men, spending their time staring with glazed eyes at a mountain of documents piled up on their desk. Obviously, the civil servant has been made fun of in numerous jokes (What’s the busiest day for a civil servant? Monday, because he has to tear off three sheets of the almanac).

How big can the difference with Japan be? Only the best students get this prestigious job.

Top officials work every day from early in the morning to late till night, very often under high pressure. When students are asked what job they would like to do most, the answers are 1. civil servant, 2. post office clerk, 3. bank clerk. Although officials are held in the highest regard, their wage (approx. 6,328,000¥/year) doesn’t reach a comparable summit. Software designers for example, earn 23,000,000¥.

Why the high prestige? Probably it has something to do with the examination system. Imported during the Heian period (794-1185) from China, it still exists today. This bureaucracy structure selected the bright minds of the country (although this was only reserved for the elite) and gave them legislative power. Together with politics and business, bureaucrats form the so-called “iron triangle”, who, according to Chalmers Johnson, governs Japan. After retiring around the age of 53, they comfortably settle in a high-ranked business position. This phenomenon is called amakudari (天下り), ‘descending from heaven’.

And what’s about the doctors? A possible explanation could be that healing people required touching dead bodies and blood, what made, and still make to some degree, a strong taboo in Japan. Take the whole issue about the stigmatized burakumin for example. Although, it has to be said that traditional Japanese medicine was not about surgery or dissection like in the West. Japanese doctors treated patients external by prescribing herbs. This originally Chinese medical system is called kanpō igaku (漢方医学). By the time Western medicine arrived, doctors could resort on a respectable reputation. Therefore, they were never really expelled from society because of their “impurity”.

The same respect for civil servants counts in South Korea. Here’s not government official, but teacher a dream job. After high school, central examinations are taken, and the 0.8% best scoring pupils aim for becoming a primary school teacher. There’s an Confucian explanation for that: out of the 44 professions Confucius distinguished, teaching is on first place. In 2005, South Korean teachers earned 234% of the BBP, the highest salary in their profession worldwide. Barack Obama tried to raise respect for teachers by telling that “In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders.”

South Korea is famous for its obsession with education. After school hours, kids stay till 10 o’clock to study or go to cram school (hakwon 학원). At least 80% of the graduated high schoolers goes to university. On the day of the university entrance exam, traffic is diverted around exam halls, and Seoul has a flight restriction to not disturb students in their concentration. Police cars even give those who are running late a ride.

We can trace this obsession back to the Koryŏ period (918–1392) when the examination system (kwagŏ 과거) was established in order to select the officialdom. There were three kind of exams: one for Chinese literature and poetry (chesul-ŏp), one for Chinese classics like Confucius (myŏnggyŏng-ŏp) and one for technical knowledge, like science (chap-ŏp). The last examination was traditionally regarded as for the lower standing. Therefore doctors were not be found among the aristocrats but among commoners. The prestige of literary ability exceeded by far those of the practical professions.

Doctors and lawyers in Belgium, public servants in Japan, teachers in Korea. Useless to say that Japanese Studies aren’t mentioned  anywhere. Although it’s doubtlessly the most interesting thing to do…

Facts for Fun

– in Belgium, doctors work at their own office (GP’s) or at the hospital. In Japan, all doctors work at the hospital. If Japanese people say: “I’m not feeling well, I think I’m going to the hospital,” it may sound ridiculously dramatic for Westerners: we only get hospitalized in case of emergency. On the other hand, straightly translating “Let’s go to the doctor” into Japanese is quite absurd too.


– Belgian wages, Japanese wages : research by university of Kyushu, Korean wages

– Johnson, Chalmers A. Japan: Who Governs?: The Rise of the Developmental State. New York: Norton, 1995.

Belgian minister of Education visits South Korea 

Korean obsession with education