Like many Japanese, when Natsumi Yara first saw K-pop stars on a DVD, she got hooked.
Now leader of a Tokyo girls group called joa joa, Yara, 25, will get her own chance to shine in the K-pop world.
In the Japan finals of the Korean Song Contest held in October at Roppongi Hills Arena in Tokyo, joa joa won the top prize and a chance to appear at the first-ever K-Pop World Festival in South Korea.
"During the global competition, everyone understood each other through dance, even if we didn't speak the same language," Yara said.
Despite the language barrier, the K-pop music phenomenon rages on in Japan and shows no signs of abating. In three years, the number of participants in the South Korean government's song contest held in Japan has surged seven-fold.
With more and more theaters opening to stage K-pop shows, the expanding popularity of the music is surprising, even to Koreans.
The Korean Song Contest, organized by the South Korean government, started in 2008 to foster knowledge about the country through music. At first it targeted the Kanto area and attracted only 83 entries in its inaugural year.
Qualifiers are now held in six regions nationwide from Hokkaido to Kyushu. This year, 372 groups (586 people in total) submitted entries. In the Japan finals, 21 groups danced and sang in Korean.
"At first there were a lot of people who just seemed to like Korean songs for karaoke. Now, everyone really researches the dance moves and outfits, and their Korean pronunciation is nearly perfect," said Kim Yong-beom, 47, of Hakuhodo Casting & Entertainment Inc., a contest judge.
In October, Sim Dong-seop, 47, became the head of the Korean Culture Center, the South Korean government's cultural publicity organization in Japan. It was his second stint in the group. He said he was flabbergasted at how popular K-pop had become in Japan in his absence.
During Sim's earlier stint at the center in the early 1990s, Korean traditional ballad singers Cho Yong-pil and Kim Yon-ja were the type of Korean singers popular in Japan.
"At the time, I couldn't imagine that young Japanese people would come to like Korean music," Sim said.
K Theater Tokyo, specializing in K-pop, opened in Ebisu in May, where Apeace, a 21-member group of tall, young Korean males, gave two performances in one day.
Apeace was discovered in South Korea by talent producer Kim Kyung-wook, 43, who has developed acts such as super-popular BoA and the all-male group Tohoshinki, both of which performed at NHK's year-end Red and White Song Contest.
Apeace made its on-stage debut in Japan. The remodeled movie theater has only 198 seats, but Kim declared, "My goal is to sell 120,000 tickets in a year."
Ginza K-Place, a Korean-style music hall and restaurant with capacity for 150 people, opened in September. The place is busy on weekends, when Korean singers just getting their start in Japan perform. The ambience inside is chic and stylish to attract adult women.
These days, the area around Shin-Okubo Station in Shinjuku Ward, which has prospered as Korea Town, is a major draw for Korean pop culture fans. There are nearly 10 Korean-style live music venues and restaurants. According to East Japan Railway Co., year-on-year revenues from the station for the April through November period are up 28 percent.
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