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Introduction: Special Issue – East Asian popular music
and its (dis)contents
Hyunjoon Shin, Yoshitaka Mōri and Tunghung Ho
Popular Music / Volume 32 / Special Issue 01 / January 2013, pp 1 - 5
DOI: 10.1017/S0261143012000505, Published online: 06 February 2013
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How to cite this article:
Hyunjoon Shin, Yoshitaka Mōri and Tunghung Ho (2013). Introduction: Special Issue – East Asian
popular music and its (dis)contents. Popular Music, 32, pp 1-5 doi:10.1017/S0261143012000505
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Special Issue –
East Asian popular music and its (dis)contents
When one of the guest editors of this issue convened a workshop at the International
Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden on 26 November 2008, it was titled ‘East
Asian Popular Music, Small Sounds from Big Places?’. Was it out of ‘East Asian mod-
esty’ for the European audience who were not expected to know much about the sub-
ject? One is reminded of the book from popular music studies scholarship, Big Sounds
from Small Peoples (Wallis and Malm 1984). In this book, which includes case studies
of the music industries of 12 small nations, there is not one chapter about an East
Asian nation. Is this because East Asians are never small peoples or because their
sound is never big in the world of popular music around the globe?
It cannot be denied that East Asia has been an almost forgotten area in the aca-
demic study of the popular music of the English language sphere. Even if you look at
the edited anthology, The Popular Music Studies Reader, which collects together 43
‘classic texts and essential new writings on popular music’ (Bennett et al. 2006),
you cannot find any single article that touches on, let alone discusses, East Asian
popular music. Even in the journal Popular Music, apart from the special issue featur-
ing Japanese popular music in 1991, there have been surprisingly few articles con-
cerning East Asian popular music.
Considering that the region has a huge popular music market (Japan is the
second largest in the world), and that distinctive and rich musical cultures have
developed in China (as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan), Japan and Korea, it is unfor-
tunate that East Asian popular music has been almost invisible outside the region.
But it is not our intention to complain here that ‘our’ music is disregarded in inter-
national popular music studies. We are only discussing the specific conditions of
this underrepresentation. A couple of years ago, one of the guest editors of this
issue suggested that this regional limitation is firstly ‘because most studies about
popular music in Asia had been written in local or national languages’, and secondly,
‘because studies written in English and other lingua franca were predominantly pro-
duced by Western-based scholars and remained outside of the inter-Asian network
of knowledge production’ (Shin 2009, p. 495). It is no accident that two recently pub-
lished special journal issues on Asian popular music (Shin 2009; Brunt 2011) have
connections with the inter-Asia network.
In this special issue, we would add a third point. It has been regarded as com-
mon sense that East Asian popular music, unlike popular music in other areas such
as Africa or South America, is merely an imitation of Euro-American music, and that
East Asia is considered as an area of consumption rather than creative production.
Popular Music (2013) Volume 32/1. © Cambridge University Press 2013, pp. 1–5
1 Downloaded: 21 Oct 2014 IP address:
This kind of view (or bias) is even shared by music scholars, critics and enthusiasts in
the region. Admittedly, on the one hand East Asia has accepted, embraced and
appropriated popular music produced in other areas, while on the other, music pro-
ducts made in East Asia have rarely been exported, but rather circulated and con-
sumed only within domestic boundaries. As a result, these factors contribute to
the invisibility both of East Asian popular music and of its studies.
Yet, due to the market-driven process of globalisation, the development of digi-
tal information technology and the increasing transnational exchange of knowledge,
the situation of East Asian popular music and its studies has dramatically changed
over the last two decades. With the gain in popularity of Japanese popular culture
in the region during the 1990s, the massive success of the Korean wave in the
2000s and the introduction of a market economy in China along with Hong
Kong’s handover in 1997, a new transnational landscape of popular music has
emerged. Now it is not difficult to find a kind of pan-East Asian set of cultural sen-
sibilities based on shared urban experiences in different cities. The advance of digital
technology, in particular the Internet, has brought new ways of listening to music in
relation to other cultural activities, including local/transnational/global fandoms. It
should also be noted that the study of popular culture, or cultural studies, has
been introduced as a new discipline through the process of the neo-liberalist trans-
formation of higher education since the mid-1990s.
Facing and being critical of these transitions, scholars of popular music studies
in and of East Asia have been loosely organised and eventually launched a transna-
tional network called the Inter-Asia Popular Music Studies Group (http://interasia-, an offshoot of the journal Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, and have held
biennial conferences since 2008. Through these processes, an agenda for the continu-
ous exchange of arguments and discussions has gradually been built.
The collection of papers in this special issue therefore follows this agenda,
taking seriously the transformation of both popular music and knowledge pro-
duction in East Asia. In spite of the differences in their nationalities, the locations
in which they work, the music genres they deal with and the various methodologies
they apply, all contributors share more or less the same issues: identity, politics and
globalisation. This does not mean, however, that all the papers try to define these
issues as fixed entities. Take the concept of ‘identity’ for example; no-one assumes
identity to be something fixed or absolute such as ‘East Asian identity’ or ‘Chinese
identity’, but rather they question howa particular identity or identities are constructed
at a specific geopolitical conjuncture in the realm of popular music. How do musicians,
audiences and cultural industries recognise their own national/ethnic/class/gender
identities under conditions where, for the most part, music vocabularies, styles and
forms are borrowed from Western music such as rock, R&B and hip-hop? And what
are the consequences which result from issues of cultural politics?
Imagining that popular music plays a certain role in the terrain of politics, then
how do we understand the concept of ‘politics’ in East Asia? It is, of course, important
to understand politics at a national level, considering the transformation of politics in
relation to economies in the region: the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, the
relationship between mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the unresolved Cold
War tension between North and South Korea, the legacy of Japanese colonialism and
imperialism, the everlasting US political and economic hegemony, and so on. But it
is also necessary to consider the politics of everyday life, the body and signifying prac-
tices with which popular music is more likely to be easily associated than other
2 Introduction Downloaded: 21 Oct 2014 IP address:
economic products. The question then is how we can discuss and connect different
levels of politics and reorganise new understandings of politics through the study of
popular music.
In a similar vein, the term ‘globalisation’ should be understood in a rather con-
tradictory way: it is the process of both homogenisation and differentiation. In terms
of popular culture, while globally dominant cultures such as American popular
culture sweep local cultures away under the banner of a global standard, they sim-
ultaneously accelerate the processes of localisation, indigenisation and hybridisation.
Globalisation is not only a one-way process from the West to the non-West, but it
is often reversed or takes place within/among local regions. It also helps to create
forces of counter-globalisation and sometimes leads to localism or even to (ultra)-
nationalism. Furthermore, thanks to the development of communication and
transportation technology and the rapid flow and exchange of human resources,
information and capital, everything is almost simultaneously taking place in different
locations, and this would add a further twist to issues of globalisation/localisation.
Although it may be difficult to answer all the questions above, the papers in this
issue try to offer new ways of understanding based upon empirical research into
local East Asian popular music. The first paper by Eva Tsai and Hyunjoon Shin is
a comparative study of ‘pop-rock screen’ made in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan
in the 2000s. It shows how gender relations are expressed and constructed differently
in films of rock-pop musicians and their friends in different locations. In the next
paper, Philip Benson looks at the way in which two Asian superstar divas, Tata
Young from Thailand and Hikaru Utada from Japan, changed their public images
and identities when they sang in English in order to enter the US market. Philip
also discusses how fans received these changes through the examination of
YouTube comments on their English songs. These two papers show us how differ-
ences and diversities informing gender issues are regarded within pop-rock scenes
in East Asian countries as well as specifically addressing East Asian questions of
identities in popular music.
The next two papers deal with hip-hop culture from different angles: Noriko
Manabe examines the way in which Japanese hip-hop DJs incorporate Japanese tra-
ditional musical instruments to invent new identities to enter the global market,
while Hae-kyung Um delineates the development of hip-hop in South Korea and
argues about how it has been localised – that is, nationalised – within a South
Korean context. One focuses on the outflow and the other on the inflow of the global
subculture and music. Both examples re-interpret hip-hop culture, which is supposed
to be of African American origin, as both a hybrid and newly invented ‘national’ pro-
duct. However, both papers imply that ‘the national’ should be defined in the globa-
lised world.
Three papers then follow which discuss ‘Chinese’ popular music. These explore
the ways in which the concept of ‘Chineseness’ is changing and being challenged by
the process of recent globalisation, and the way in which political and cultural differ-
ences, negotiations and even contradictions are expressed in popular music. Yui-Wai
Chu and Eve Leung describe how the transition of the Hong Kong music landscape
from Cantonpop to Mandopop comes at the expense of the former’s hybrid charac-
ter, while Anthony Fung regards the success of Chris Li, the champion of the
Supergirl, a Chinese version of the American Idol television show, as the arrival of
the new Chinese pop and discovers the possibility of new politics in her music, lyrics,
gestures and her fandoms. Wendy F. Hsu explores the performances of a Taiwanese
Introduction 3 Downloaded: 21 Oct 2014 IP address:
American musician, Jack Hsu, who plays the erhu, a Chinese traditional instrument,
with a ‘Taiwanese consciousness’ in a Western-style progressive rock band, and dis-
cusses a rather politically complicated question of identity formation for Taiwanese
Americans in a cultural-cum-musical turn. These three papers address the issue of
Chineseness or anti-Chineseness. The focus of these papers can be categorised
respectively as the local sound that used to be huge, a newly rising big and national
sound, and a tiny migrants’ displaced sound.
The final paper, by Martin Roberts, tries to locate a Japanese subcultural music
style of the 1990s, shibuya-kei, within the context of globalisation, challenging nation-
ally bounded music genres. His detailed analysis reminds us that music scenes, in
particular subcultural scenes, have been so globalised in terms of both production
and consumption that we need a new framework that goes beyond national/local
boundaries in order to understand the real situation of popular music today.
In this special issue we do not attempt to define what East Asian popular music
is or might be. In fact, there are virtually all kinds of music genres of the world to be
found in East Asia. The hybridisation of forms (though not a neutral process) may be
a characteristic feature of East Asian popular music, and this is one of the primary
forces shaping its various genres, evolving styles and attracting our interest. The edi-
tors hope that this special issue will make a contribution to the existing problematics
in the study of popular music in the English language sphere, in that it provides not
only information and knowledge of relatively unknown East Asian popular music to
its outsiders, but also offers possible venues for discussing alternative theorisations in
popular music studies.
That being said, it would be futile to raise the question of ‘what the East Asian
“content” in East Asian popular music is’. Rather, we simply want to make one
point: East Asia is becoming a new imagined space for popular culture in general,
particularly for popular music. About 20 years ago, Simon Frith said he then ident-
ified with the Europop of the Pet Shop Boys rather than the Anglo-American sound
of U2, when he talked about the mythical meaning of ‘America’ and ‘Europe’ in the
context of the end of the Cold War (Frith 1991, p. 269). Taking what he said seriously,
should we say that ‘we’, East Asians, identify with East Asian pop idols rather than
Western or Anglo-American rock heroes? But this is simplistic and dichotomous. As
you read the essays in this issue, you will see that the concerns of the consumers and
producers of East Asian pop are far more complicated.
Frith’s article still has a relevant point. As he said, cultural forms of ‘Anglo-
American’ pop-rock are available everywhere in the world. In East Asia, they are
not only readily available for consumption but also easily adaptable to production,
mainly thanks to the accelerated development of technology. There is little doubt
that the Anglo-American hegemony in popular music still prevails and is even
taken for granted, as can be seen in the off-hand usage of terms such as J-pop,
K-pop and Chinese pop. If so, what matters is ‘content’, and that is why people in
national and local governments in East Asia, especially in Japan and South Korea,
are noisily talking about producing ‘content’ as well as promoting (a rather restricted
notion of) ‘creativity’. However, whether the content is distinctively East Asian does
not matter much to the artists, or their fans or the industry.
‘East Asia’ is a cultural construction that is ever changing by the processes of
globalisation, digitalisation and consumerism, as well as the social crisis and cultural
disjuncture brought about by these processes. East Asia used to be regarded as victim
of the world (i.e. the West) throughout modern history, and the same goes for
4 Introduction Downloaded: 21 Oct 2014 IP address:
popular music. But the music industries in East Asia have begun to create ‘our’ con-
tent by utilising the universalised (or naturalised) idiom of pop music. They do not
think it realistic to compete with the world (although some vainly try to do that), but
rather want to produce ‘the best of Asia’.
It is natural that there is both content and
discontent with this recent transformation of East Asian popular music.
By means of disclaimer, what has just been said is a very crude sketch of what
we believe to be the major parameters within which the music industry and relevant
government policies in the region operate. Critical evaluations of these parameters
and other related topics are obviously subject to debate. We hope that the wide
range of themes and opinions voiced in the papers in this issue foster such a debate,
without foreclosing it by either celebrating or condemning the current state of affairs.
If there is anything in common among these papers, it is that the meaning of East
Asia is still contested in the realm of pop culture and beyond, as there is no ‘single’
East Asia, let alone a single world.
Hyunjoon Shin
Yoshitaka Mōri
Tunghung Ho
The editorial meeting for this special issue, held at Sungkonghoe University on 1st
May, 2011, was supported by the Korea Research Foundation Grant Fund by the
Korean Government (MEST) (KRF-2007-361-AM0005)
1. Although there are some books and journals
which cover the music from the region (e.g.
Chun et al. 2004; Matsue 2008), the readership
as well as the authorship are closer to the field
of ‘Asian studies’ than that of ‘popular music
studies’. Another example would be the encyclo-
paedic work(s) edited by three popular music
studies scholars (Shepherd et al. 2005); however,
this could only be introductory due to the exhaus-
tive scale of the volumes.
2. ‘Best of Asia’ was borrowed from the title of a
press conference by BoA, a female pop star from
South Korea, when she made her US debut on
10 September 2008. It was one example of the
‘failure’ of Asian pop stars to advance in the US
Bennett, A., Shank, B., and Toynbee, J. (eds.) 2006. The Popular Music Studies Reader (London, Routledge)
Brunt, S.D. (ed.) 2011. ‘New perspectives on popular music in Asia’, Perfect Beat, Special Issue 12/2
Chun, A, Rossiter, N., and Shoesmith, B. (eds.) 2004. Refashioning Pop Music in Asia: Cosmopolitan Flows,
Political Tempos and Aesthetic Industries (London, Routledge)
Frith, S. 1991. ‘Anglo-America and its discontents’, Cultural Studies 5/3, pp. 263–9
Matsue M.J. (ed.) 2008. ‘Popular music in changing Asia’, Asian Music, Special Issue 39/1
Shepherd, J., Horn, D., and Laing, D. (eds.) 2005. Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. V: Asia
and Oceania (New York, Continuum)
Shin, H. (ed.) 2009. ‘Popular music’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Special Issue 10/4
Wallis, R., and Malm, K. 1984. Big Sounds from Small Peoples: The Music Industry in Small Countries (York,
Pendragon Press)
Introduction 5