Western songs out, U.S.-influenced K-pop in as listeners come to ignore nationality

Japanese, who previously favored musical artists from the U.S. and Europe as part of their admiration for Western culture, are increasingly tuning them out.

Instead, South Korean K-pop songs, which have an ambience similar to those from the West, are increasingly popular with those who are looking for something beyond domestic J-pop music.

Yet J-pop too is gaining momentum thanks to strong melody lines that spread on social media, making the competition even harder for Western artists. Even songs by Taylor Swift, whose shows in Tokyo made headlines in February, do not rank high in sales in Japan.

“I’ve stopped listening to Western music,” a 23-year-old graduate student told Nikkei recently. “It just happened naturally as I was keeping up with the trends.” He now listens to K-pop songs while commuting or at home. His Spotify playlist is filled with songs by K-pop groups like NewJeans and IVE.

In 2023, not a single Western entry made it to Apple Music’s annual list of the top 100 streamed songs in Japan. Even with online streaming and CD sales combined, Western music that ranked in Billboard Japan’s weekly Hot 100 chart accounted for a mere 0.3% in 2023, compared with 29.8% in 2008, according to a recap of the weekly charts by Nikkei.

K-pop groups like NewJeans, pictured at the Billboard Women in Music Awards in California on March 6, are increasingly popular in Japan.   © Reuters

Swift’s “Anti-Hero,” released in 2022, was able to top Billboard’s U.S. weekly charts in both 2022 and 2023 but never climbed higher than No. 34 in Japan.

In contrast, as K-pop’s presence increased, K-pop songs accounted for 14.2% of the annual top 100 songs in Japan in 2018 and for the first time surpassed the ratio of Western ones, which stood at 8.8%.

“K-pop has complemented demand for Western songs,” said Ko Matsushima, president of the Japan-based music marketing company Arne. Indeed, many K-pop songs are incorporating English lyrics and other elements from Western music as more and more American producers get involved in their production.

Moreover, Matsushima says, Japanese songs as well are increasingly going viral on TikTok and then becoming massive hits. Songs by artists like Ado and Yoasobi frequent the top-10 charts. “As a consequence, Western songs are getting pushed out of the charts.”

For earlier generations, “the demand for Western music stemmed from the [Japanese] admiration toward the West and their music,” said Nobuhiko Kakihara, an executive officer at Universal Music Japan. “Nowadays, people are listening to music without caring much about which country it comes from.”

Years ago, Western artists like the Beatles used to capture the hearts of young Japanese as objects of admiration. Western music continued to be popular into the 1990s, influencing mainstream Japanese artists to create songs with a similar sensibility.

But this admiration has faded as psychological borders blur. Young Japanese don’t care much about artists’ nationality anymore and listen to what is trending on social media, or simply types of music they already feel comfortable with.

The Japanese market is unique in terms of the types of songs that are popular. According to Universal Music’s Kakihara, the songs that are preferred tend to be easy to follow, with impactful melodies or repetitive phrases. Rap music, which often ranks high in the U.S., has struggled to attract listeners in Japan, where melody is given greater importance, he said.

The Japanese duo Yoasobi’s vocalist Ikura, right, and composer Ayase in 2023.   © Kyodo

Comparing the “speechiness” of songs, a measurement created by Spotify to analyze how many words a track contains, songs popular in the U.S. tend to include more words than those in Japan. They are also shorter. The average length of the top 100 songs in the U.S. in 2023 was approximately 3.2 minutes, while the average in Japan was just under four minutes.

Also notable is that while streaming now accounts for 90% of the U.S. music market, CDs and other physical media still make up 60% of sales in Japan. This is partly because of strong demand for CDs that come with purchase bonuses such as admission to meet-and-greet events where you can actually shake hands with the singer.

Music labels are striving to come up with new marketing ideas. When Swift visited Tokyo in February, Universal Music set up numerous banners in the middle of the trendy Shibuya district reading, “Taylor Swift, welcome to Japan!” and played her songs through speakers on posts lining the main shopping street.

Banners reading, “Taylor Swift, welcome to Japan!” are seen in Tokyo’s Shibuya district in February. 

Using Western songs for Japanese TV series and films is another tactic. A song by the U.S. rock band OneRepublic will be used as the anthem for “Kaiju No. 8,” an anime series due to be aired in Japan from April.

The number of young Japanese going to the U.S. and Europe to study has decreased in recent years, prompting concerns that people are becoming more inward-looking.

But as far as music is concerned, youths now are simply less conscious of physical borders and listen to whatever they want. Many listen to songs used as background music on TikTok videos without even knowing who the artists are or where they are from.

Chances are, a Western song could one day again click with the Japanese audience and suddenly create a buzz. You never know.