K-pop: You can thank Google for your new obsession
Girls' Generation performs at the K-Collection In Seoul on March 11.
May 14th, 2012
01:14 PM ET

K-pop: You can thank Google for your new obsession

Google announced last week that it would host a free concert May 21 at its Mountain View headquarters featuring a host of Korean pop music acts such as SNSD (also known as Girls' Generation), DBSK (also known as TVXQ), Super Junior, The Wonder Girls, KARA and more.

You may not know these names, but to a devoted K-pop fan, seeing even one of those bands is a seriously squeeworthy event.

Fans like me would easily pay a great deal to see a show like this. And in many ways, it is fan devotion that is responsible for such an event appearing in the States. A representative for the concert said in a statement, "I think that previous performances by Korean artists were targeted towards Korean-Americans or the Koreans living abroad, but this time its appeal will spread to all fans of pop music in the US."

There's only one message to get out of this: Google believes K-pop has universal appeal. It's been on the rise for a while, though. Last year, a similar variety show sold out Madison Square Garden and sent fans across America into a total frenzy. Girls' Generation was also featured on David Letterman in early February and performed the English-language version of their hit song "The Boys." My friends and I gathered around the television, waiting to see how it would all turn out. And we were overjroyed when the performance met with resounding applause.

My own discovery of K-pop was a slow one. I've been a J-pop fan for more than a decade, but K-pop was a foreign world that I had no idea how to get into. That is, until I saw my first TVXQ video. FULL POST

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The mystique of the Japanese male idol
Takuya Kimura, SMAP member and one of Japan's favorite male idols.
May 3rd, 2012
02:15 PM ET

The mystique of the Japanese male idol

After a 22-year streak of sending pop fans into a frenzy, Japanese "boy" band SMAP debuted their newest single this past week, "Upside-down Sky," which rocketed to the top of the charts immediately. It's not the band's first time there, either - it's actually its 24th time hitting the No. 1 slot, and its second time this year.

Maybe SMAP sounds more to you like the sound of a bug hitting a windshield than the name of a band, but these guys have nailed the boy band formula in a way that few American bands ever have. With 19 studio albums and 45 singles, they are just as successful as a New Kids on the Block or Backstreet Boys, but they have something more: longevity.

"They're ubiquitous," says Eric Allerton, founder of the Japanese culture hub Gaijin Kanpai network. "They work like crazy hosting variety shows, charity events, and they star in dramas and commercials. They're famous because they were one of the first idol groups ever and they've grown up with their fans."

"And now, all the housewives drool over them because they're on TV 23.5 hours a day."

But it's not just SMAP. Its members are a golden example Japan's "male idol" - beautiful people who wear their hair longer, prefer fitted clothing and are even sometimes mistaken for women. SMAP member Takuya Kimura has often worn his hair in a style that is usually considered ladylike, and the fans love it.

While they might not resemble America's heartthrobs, they've got a following in the United States, too. Their fame is spread through magazines at Japanese grocery stores, videos on YouTube and online fan clubs and communities. FULL POST

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Why the U.S. might never catch on to the next big rhythm games
Nintendo's "Rhythm Heaven Fever" was released in the United States, but many popular Japanese rhythm games aren't.
April 20th, 2012
03:29 PM ET

Why the U.S. might never catch on to the next big rhythm games

This week, a Japanese game company announced it is making "AKB48+Me," which features the enormously big-in-Japan all-girl pop group AKB48, and gives the player a chance to rock out right alongside them - as a member.

It's meltdown-worthy for fans of J-pop, but "idol simulation" is just the latest in the long line of games that bring together music and motion - and never made it to the United States.

It's not unusual to find plastic guitars and drums in American living rooms these days. "Rock Band" is massively popular with gamers and nongamers alike, and Nintendo of America recently made a move to localize several entries in its "Rhythm Heaven" series, which has been a beloved franchise in Japan for years. But so far, its 2 million in sales doesn't quite compare to the 75 million in Japan.

American gamers have gotten pretty good at jamming Metallica and Van Halen, but when a Japanese gamer goes into the zone while playing an arcade rhythm game, there are flying hands and speeds that seem beyond human capability.

The truth is that rhythm games were born in Japan, and evolved a bit differently in the United States.


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Cuteness is served: Exploring Japan's maid culture
April 13th, 2012
02:21 PM ET

Cuteness is served: Exploring Japan's maid culture

In America, a woman dressed as a maid can mean one of two things: She's here to clean your house, or she's dressed in a costume. The latter is considered sexy, while the former is anything but.

In Japan, however, the maid costume is a symbol of something entirely different: It elicits an immediate reaction. The Japanese culture has so much love for maids, in fact, that an entire culture has developed around them. Rooted in Japan's love of cuteness, it's not at all uncommon to see women dressed as maids in the streets of Akihabara, handing out fliers to promote the shops there.

And of course, otaku have a special soft spot for maids.

There have been many stories in the American news about "maid cafes" (also known as "cosplay restaurants") in Japan, which originated there in the early 2000s. At the maid cafe, the staff is exclusively made up of young women who wear maid costumes and serve their clients. The menus often feature desserts with cute decor, and maids will visit your table to decorate your food with cute designs or draw hearts in your coffee foam before they deliver it. These have become increasingly popular in recent years, and they have popped up all over the world, even in America. Tokyo is so glutted with them that even "best of" maid cafe lists have been published.

The heart of the maid cafe experience is about an intimate, safe relationship, but a subdued one. For instance, the maids refer to their clients as "masters" or "mistresses" when they welcome them to the cafe. Depending on the location, services besides basic table service are available, such the chance to play video games with the maid or take a photograph with her and have her decorate it by hand for you. The latter normally costs an additional fee, as most maid cafes forbid photography inside, but these are allowed in special cases. FULL POST

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An otaku lost in superhero territory
"The Unwritten," by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, is a Western comic book with manga reader appeal.
April 10th, 2012
12:09 PM ET

An otaku lost in superhero territory

Where do I begin to read an American comic series? Do I have to start at the very beginning?

These are thoughts that run amok in my brain as I stand in the comic store, a place I love to go because of its naturally nerdy trappings. I've been going since I was about 14, actually. You'd think by now I'd be well-versed in what comic book series I like, but in fact, I'm not.

Every time I go, I wander the shelves looking at titles people tell me are good, but still feeling not quite right about making the investment and walking home with a book in hand.

A few years after I started wandering into comic shops, I discovered anime and manga and felt that I'd found my calling.

Manga is not afraid to take pause. It's alright with long silences and time spent to contemplate, just like most of Japanese media is (Haruki Murakami's work is a good comparison). While manga looks cute and innocuous, it still has a courage that I believe Western comics once lacked. It invites readers to form long relationships with the story's characters, to look deeply into them and look into ourselves in the process.

Before discovering manga, I thoroughly searched my comic book store for inspiration. Although I liked the iconography of American superhero comics, I wasn't compelled to read them. I tried "X-Men" and "Excalibur," but neither ignited my passion in a way that made me want to go back and read more.

That didn't happen until I discovered "Sandman," one of the few comic series I faithfully read from the first issue to the last. I was drawn in by the Dave McKean covers first, unlike any art I'd seen before. But Neil Gaiman told stories the way that no other comic book did - he forayed into fantasy worlds, speaking a language that made perfect sense to me.

So I knew that the Western comics I could love as a manga devotee were out there. But I still felt lost about how to discover them. FULL POST

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