Skip to main content

What is K-pop and J-pop (part 1) J-pop roots REMIX

J-pop was propelled in the 1990s and 2000s by female singers like Okinawan-born Amuro Namie. Photo by Avex Group Holdings, Inc.

What is K-pop and J-pop (part 1) J-pop roots REMIX

Jayson M Chun,
University of Hawaii – West Oahu

First posted March 23, 2023; Updated April 26, 2024

What is J-pop? What is K-pop? These are surprisingly hard questions to answer.

What is J-pop? What is K-pop? These are surprisingly hard questions to answer. 

Easy answer: the J in J-pop stands for “Japan” and represents pop music sung in Japanese and created in Japan. Similarly, the K in K-pop stands for Korea. This is Korean pop music made in Korea, sung in Korean, and performed by Koreans.

J-pop enjoyed great popularity in East and Southeast Asia in the 1990s. Although it peaked in global popularity in the 2000s, it can still count loyal fans worldwide through its association with Japanese anime. Thus, millions of fans know J-pop songs which serve as opening theme songs to anime, such as the megahit “Idol”(2023) by Yoasobi, which was the opening theme for the anime Oshi no ko (2023).

On the other hand, K-pop idol groups like BTS, BLACKPINK, and TWICE command international popularity.  Aja Romano, in an excellent must-read introduction to K-pop, notes that while K-pop includes a wide variety of artists and musical styles, what most people in the United States think of as “Korean pop music” is usually Korean idol pop, the most popular form of exported Korean music. (I suggest  “My Soul” by 3rd Coast as a personal favorite example of indie non-idol Korean R&B).

K-pop and J-pop are national genres. This labeling reflects the Korean origins and content of K-pop, and Japanese origins and content of J-pop.

I wish it were that easy.

Why do we call American pop music “pop” and not “A-pop”? When we listen to Rihanna, from Barbados, one of the best-selling female music artists of all time, do we call her music B-pop? Do we brand the music of Justin Bieber, a Canadian native, as C-pop?


TWICE is hard to categorize as K-pop or J-pop since five members are Korean, three are Japanese, and one is from Taiwan. 

What defines the nationality of K or the J? The members? The music? One of my favorite groups is TWICE, created by Korea-based JYP Enterprises. Of the nine members, nearly half hail from outside Korea: three from Japan, and one from Taiwan. TWICE has released Japanese versions of their hits such as “TT -Japanese ver.-” (2017) and Japanese-language original songs like “Celebrate” (2022). They speak in Korean when on Korean TV, and use Japanese when on Japanese TV. TWICE also released an English language single “The Feels” (2021). 

Adding to the linguistic confusion, Korean mega-group BTS has released Japanese language versions of their hits like “Blood, Sweat, Tears” (2016), as well as English language songs like Dynamite (2021).

Are these K-pop groups? 

So, one should look at these terms K-pop and J-pop as national labels that describe different aspects of what I call the Pop Pacific,” a transnational pop culture involving the US, Japan, Korea, and other parts of Asia. What we call “Korean” K-pop or “Japanese” J-pop is heavily influenced by the United States (due to the outsized role the US played in these nations after 1945).

This ambiguity between the definitions of K-pop and J-pop can lead to arguments if, for example, one tells a Korean that there is very little Korean about K-pop. After all, these genres are a source of national pride in both Japan and Korea. Psy, the creator and singer of the worldwide viral  hit “Gangnam Style” (2012) performed at a South Korean presidential inauguration in 2013. Why are the Japanese roots of K-pop such a sensitive subject in Korea?  The tragic and contentious history between Korea and Japan which includes Japan’s traumatic forced assimilation policies of Koreans during the era of colonial rule (1910 – 1945) makes this a touchy subject.


J-pop as the roots of today’s Asia popular music

Remote video URL

Yamashita Tatsuro’s “Sparkle” (1982) is representative of early J-pop: a sleek urban sound that appealed to sophisticated Japanese urban youth.


A bit of history of the terms J-pop and K-pop may help our answer. By studying the rise of J-pop in the 1990s, one sees the shared roots of K-pop and J-pop. J-pop artists, who aimed mostly at the domestic Japanese market, provided the blueprint for K-pop artists, which K-pop companies built upon while making music for the international market. As Dal Jin-young (2020) points out, Japanese popular music was influenced by Western music, and K-pop was influenced by Japanese music while simultaneously being influenced by American music.

The Japanese radio station J-Wave invented the term J-pop in 1988 to describe the music the station played: Western sounding dance music sung in Japanese, with some English words. J-Wave functioned as a bilingual station with DJs fluent in both Japanese and English and aimed at an urban middle class listener, who preferred Western sounding music rather than the prevailing kayōkyoku (Japanese-style pops) or enka (so called “traditional” Japanese music). According to Ugaya Hiromichi, advertisers also pressured J-Wave to play more Japanese songs.[1] As a result, early J-pop was mainly Western sounding Japanese songs by musicians that were in vogue, such as Yamashita Tatsuro (music that aficionados would call “city pop” today).[2] This music also appeared during a time of rising nationalism, when companies used the term “J” to define a product’s identity as Japanese, such as JR (Japan rail), JT (Japan Tobacco) and the J-league (football league). The English term “J” in this manner created a hybrid term, indicating a “Japanese version of something trendy.”[3]

Remote video URL

Although it came out in 1993, “Seppun” by Original Love is another song that has the sound of early J-pop of the late 1980s


By the mid-1990s, the Japanese media regularly used the term “J-pop” to describe a wide range of Western sounding pop music with Japanese lyrics, from idols to rock bands, and broadened in definition to become a term indicating a national label of something transnational. But, J-pop became more than a simple 1980s imitation of Western music. J-pop brought in innovations from previous Japanese popular music acts of the 1950s and 1960s. Watanabe Misa, a woman of mixed British-Japanese ethnicities involved in promoting musical acts for American bases, and Johnny Kitagawa, a Japanese American who came to Japan as a U.S. government interpreter in the early 1950s, pioneered many of these innovations. For example, many J-pop artists were idols who could sing, dance AND act (at least to their fans) just like 1970s idols. A jimusho (entertainment agency) trained and managed the J-pop idols, who often joined the agency as youth and had their living expenses paid for by the agency. The idols had to adhere to a strict code of conduct to maintain a clean image. J-pop jimusho skillfully used media such as TV commercials, and music shows to promote the artists, and to also build a sense of parasocial interaction (a sense of closeness the audience felt with the idol). Official fan clubs organized by the jimusho guaranteed customers for album sales. In this way, J-pop built on the musical heritage of 1960s to 1970s Japanese popular music.

The Divas and Japanese women

Remote video URL

Hamasaki Ayumi’s “Evolution” (2001) represented peak J-pop, with her charisma, sleek production values, and popularity in Japan and Asia.


The growth of J-pop in the 1990s, was powered by a trio of female singers: Hamasaki Ayumi, a high school dropout who ran off a string of Eurobeat hits, Amuro Namie, a Okinawan with mixed Italian American ethnicities, who became a fashion icon for her fans, and Utada Hikaru, a Japanese American from New York and daughter of a famous producer and Japanese enka singer. These singers represented what I call the “Golden Age of J-pop” which lasted from 1990 to roughly 2011, in which J-pop incorporated influences from all over the world, and became popular throughout Asia. And all three singers showed the various faces of J-pop: Amuro as an exotic entertainer from Okinawa, Hamasaki as a strong willed but vulnerable young woman, and the multicultural Utada, graced with American cool but able to connect with Japanese audiences.


Remote video URL

Amuro Namie, from Okinawa, parlayed her exotic mixed ethnic background and stage presence to become one of the top J-pop divas of the 1990s until her retirement in 2018. (Amuro’s official YouTube channel disappeared in Nov 2023)


Remote video URL

New York-born and raised Utada Hikaru’s “Automatic” (1999), which sold over 2 million copies, shows the global appeal of peak J-pop: American sounding music adapted to the Asian market.


The rise of these divas needs to be located in a global context. In the 1980s, Madonna led a revolution in gender roles. She blended raw sexuality, strong feminism, and provocative lyrics, showing that she was in control. Her performance of “Material Girl” (1984) singing about the joys of consumerism for women shocked elders and gave young women worldwide a new aspirational model. Other singers followed, with a blend of sexiness, independence, and occasional vulnerability. However, one should not overstate the influence of overseas singers in Japan, since domestic sales have always outstripped foreign sales since 1966.

There is also precedent in Japan for strong female singers in the 1970s and 80s, who broke the mold of the sweet innocent idol singer, such as Yamaguchi Momoe, with her feminist anthem “Playback part 2”(1978). But Japan’s economic crash in 1991, saw the emergence of a new woman in what I call “Post-Bubble Japan”. 

The recession did what laws were unable to do – open Japanese businesses to women. While still grotesquely underrepresented by western standards,  talented women were able to enter companies in entry-level management jobs. Thus, women became powerful in Japan as consumers and also as artists. With economic power, they looked for mature artists willing to assert their own femininity, sexuality and power. All three divas were known for taking control of their image and writing their own songs.

Size of J-pop market


Hamasaki Ayumi in concert, April 2007

Singers like Hamasaki, Amuro and Utada represented the monster that was “J-pop”. With the growth of the record industry, J-pop became less a music genre and more of a commercial ecosystem to sell music. By 1998, just 10 years after the debut of the term J-pop, the Japanese music market doubled in size to 607.5 billion yen, 2nd largest in the world, only after the United States.

Journalist Ugaya Hiromichi noted that by the mid-1990s, J-pop had evolved into a media ecosystem encompassing a wide range of styles. Key to the rise of J-pop in the 1990s was the CD, set at minimum $25-$30 an album. Although expensive compared to CDs outside of Japan, this ensured that any Japanese album would make lots of profits. Next to promote the artist, the artist appeared on music tv shows, and the song itself was used, when released, as commercial songs for other products and TV drama themes. Thus commercials and dramas promoted the song, and the song promoted the product. Money came from sales of hard copies of the song itself, or from fees from the artist or song appearing on televised ad campaigns. To guarantee an audience there were fan clubs, with paid membership to guarantee fans for sales and concerts.

This ecosystem proved wildly successful, and led to the Golden Age of J-pop. This transnational sound was identified with Japan. It began to be consumed in mass quantities overseas in Asia due to its universal sound and “Japan cool”. Although Japan had entered a recession, its middle class urban lifestyle was still seen as aspirational to the rest of Asia, through Japanese dramas, comics, fashions, and exported consumer goods like cars and electronics. The worldwide anime boom of the 1990s and early 2000s also brought many anime J-pop songs into homes throughout the world.

The end of the golden age of J-pop

Remote video URL

By the 2000s, the diva-driven J-pop charts were increasingly dominated by bouncy idol pop groups like Morning Musume. 


Although on the brink of worldwide popularity in the 2000s, J-pop outside of anime songs never did spread far beyond Japanese borders due to the failure of Japanese companies to adapt to the digital world. Japanese companies prioritized the easier profits of the domestic market instead of overseas expansion. Instead, K-pop from Korea became the music that took Asia and the world by storm in the 21st century especially by 2011 when Korean acts achieved mainstream status in Japan.

Remote video URL

By the late 1990s, K-pop had emerged in Korea but still largely resembled J-pop idol groups as seen in “To my boyfriend”(1998) by Fink.L


In my opinion, very little distinguished K-pop from J-pop by 1999, as Korean popular music turned into a genre that strongly resembled J-pop idol music. Groups like H.O.T or Fink.L used the same J-pop formula of good looking idols, who could dance and sing. 

However, Korean companies, needing to market internationally, built upon the J-pop legacy and used innovations such as digital marketing to make K-pop distinct from J-pop, at least visually if not musically. The 21st century and rise of digital media will mark the divergence of K-pop and J-pop, and help us to understand how to define these genres: as media ecosystems that sell artists in their own unique way. Japanese companies stuck with the tried and true formula of physical sales and broadcast media. After all, Japan was the world’s second biggest music market and a profitable one so the focus of their promotion efforts was on the domestic market. On the other hand, Korean companies, with a much smaller market, aimed at the international market, and decided to work with the emerging digital streaming platforms. Stay tuned for the next blog post to see what happened as a result of this divergence.



[1] Ugaya Hiromichi, “Jポプとは何か?” (What is J-pop), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2005.

[2] Mori Yoshitaka, “Q&A session, “ (presentation, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hi, February 13, 2023).

[3] Carolyn S. Stevens, Japanese Popular Music: Culture, authenticity, and power. Routledge: New York, 2008; Mori Yoshitaka, “J-pop: from the ideology of creativity to DiY music culture,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 10, Number 4, 2009



Add new comment