I remember showing “Gangnam Style” to my Japanese friends and coworkers only a few weeks after it was uploaded to YouTube in July. While, like millions of other viewers, I thought the video was best thing to come out of YouTube since Charlie the Unicorn, I was surprised to find that most Japanese people I showed it to would just stare at the screen and mumble a disinterested “hmmmm.”
Were they seeing the same video I was? Did they not notice the horse-riding dance and the rhythmic pelvic thrusting in the elevator? Were they deaf to the addictive melody and blind to the tongue-in-cheek sexual innuendos? I mean, come on people: he’s screaming at her butt.
At the time, I thought maybe I just had dull friends. But after over 400,000,000 views, numerous international media appearances, an American record deal and still only minimal sign of interest from Japan, I’m compelled to think that there is something about PSY and Gangnam Style that the Japanese are simply unable to accept.
But what could that “something” be? It’s not like Japan has traditionally rejected K-pop—just the opposite, actually: Korean artists like TVXQ and Girls’ Generation have ranked high in Japanese music charts numerous times over the past few years, and many Japanese websites and magazines have even been following PSY during his international rise to fame. It would seem strange, then, that PSY has yet to debut in the Japanese market.
As it turns out, he tried. Back in August, PSY’s Japanese record label, YGEX, announced that PSY would release a slightly-modified Japanese version of “Gangnam Style” called “Roppongi Style” in late September. After the original song exploded in popularity overseas, YGEX decided to stick with the original Korean “Gangnam Style,” but still aim for a September Japanese release.
However, a few weeks before the scheduled release, an announcement was posted to the YGEX official site stating that the September release was “mistaken information” and PSY’s Japanese debut was indefinitely postponed.
While it’s likely the major reason behind this was PSY’s decision to sign to successful American record label Schoolboy Records, anti-Korean sentiment over the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands dispute, which had reached a high in late-August, may have also played a part.
A Japanese television industry representative offers his insight while speaking with Yahoo! Japan:
“PSY had already begun to be featured on Japanese morning variety news programs back in July, but the reaction from viewers was horrible. This was right around the time when Japanese media were under fire for over-promoting K-pop while attitudes toward Korea were souring, and the reason K-Pop became so popular in Japan in the first place is because Korean artists are known for being beautiful, so PSY looked completely out of place on screen. Even if he debuted in Japan, I don’t think he would have sold very much.”
So, political tensions aside, Japan doesn’t like PSY because he’s not beautiful enough? But isn’t that what makes “Gangnam Style” and the whole craze it’s inspired so refreshingly great? PSY’s humble appearance and goofy performance have succeeded where all the perfect proportions and tiny skirts have failed, and the world adored him for it.
A glance at the comments in the same Yahoo! article suggests that’s not how the Japanese Internet masses see it.
“Oh, he doesn’t have to come to Japan. We don’t want him here,” reads the most voted-up comment, in response to YGEX’s decision to postpone PSY’s Japanese album release.
Others confirm the theory that PSY just doesn’t meet Japan’s beauty standards, writing: “Watching an ugly middle-aged man desperately wave his hips around is sad,” and, “I’m glad he’s not coming to Japan. I’d get sick from seeing that on TV.”
That can’t be the whole side of the story; after all, Japan had no problems with Susan Boyle. But then again, she’s not Korean.
Most people, however, just seem to be in denial: “The only reason his video has become this popular is because Koreans are sitting at their computer pressing F5 to refresh the page and add to the view count,” charges one commenter. “The sight of a chubby Asian wearing sunglasses and surrounded by beautiful girls was probably funny to Westerners. That’s why he’s popular,” posits another.
Yet another user throws down the gauntlet for PSY, saying, “I’ll recognize he’s the real thing when he starts playing to sold-out shows at huge venues in America.”
Actions speak louder than words; are you up to the challenge, America?