Japan's cultural reach through pop culture such as anime and fashion have intensified globally. But another recent globe-circling trend I can't overlook is the surge of so-called Hanryu power--South Korean entertainment.
Over the last couple of years, K-pop idols from the South Korean music industry are making drastic breakthroughs, leaving Japanese idols far behind.
For example, last year, when I stopped by a shop selling idol-related goods in Taipei, where live performances by Japanese artists are held year-round, the amount of goods on offer was about 70 percent South Korean versus 30 percent Japanese.
But this autumn, the ratio widened to 9-to-1, based on my observations. On top of that, half of the Japanese goods were those from the two-dimensional world, or anime characters.
A similar trend is seen in China and Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam and Thailand.
Additionally, at a number of cultural events abroad such as Japan Expo, whenever I seek the source of girlish squeals, I almost always find my way to a booth showing music video clips of South Korean idols.
I can't help but wonder how Japanese idols perceive this trend.
I interviewed Ai Takahashi, who recently "graduated" from the pop group Morning Musume after leading the group for more than four years. She was a member for more than 10 years and held a farewell concert at the end of last month at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan.
There're two reasons why I wanted to ask her about the trend.
First, in the summer of 2009, Morning Musume attracted about 4,000 people to a concert in Paris despite a relatively high ticket price of 30 euros (3,000 yen), proving the potential of Japanese idols to expand activities overseas.
Secondly, I was at the Paris concert and deeply touched by the quality of their performance. Since then, I've followed Morning Musume concerts as a writer. Watching the group for years, I'm always astonished by Takahashi's exceptional talent--her outstanding performances can be said to embody how a Japanese idol should be, as well as her leadership skills.
"Relatively speaking, South Korean idols have a stronger desire than Japanese idols to make their groups eternal, I think," Takahashi said. "A Hanryu star's passion for global success is stronger [than that of Japanese stars]. That's something Japanese idols don't care about enough.
"Since the direction that Hanryu idols are going is the same as everyone else in the [South Korean] entertainment business, it may be easy to work toward the goal together," she said.
Takahashi's comments can be applied to the current Japanese economy, enterprises and the attitude that Japanese people have toward overseas markets.
Whenever I go abroad, I feel the respect and adoration that people overseas have for Japan. Such feelings seem to have been sparked by anime and then spread to have taken root before Japanese even noticed them.
I'm frustrated Japan has not fully taken advantage of the situation because of its inflexible approach toward international markets. This inflexibility seems to reflect the nature of Japanese as a whole--they frequently travel abroad but, in reality, cannot adapt themselves.
So how can Japanese idols do business overseas? Takahashi's comments seem to point out a crucial principle.
"I want more people overseas to know about Japan's appeal and music. I believe there's a sound unique to our music. If there's a unique appeal of our music, we should exploit it overseas.
"There must be many things that can only be created in the atmosphere of the Asian or Japanese [pop culture industry]. For example, the fact member's heights in a Japanese idol group vary can be seen as unique to Japan," Takahashi said.
Through the interview, I was glad to know Takahashi's view was the same as what I've thought after traveling overseas many times.
Japanese culture can stay as it is. What's important is how to disseminate it globally.
When I ask young people in China why Hanryu idols are so popular in there, I always get the simple reply: "Because they come here."
Go global--that can be Takahashi's next goal, and I hope Japan pursues it as well.
Yes, Jpop. You can stay as you are. You just have to go out more. Now, give me my Arashi Around Asia tour again. Stop by my country, please. Or Triple A. I'll start saving now :P