K-pop's Tokyo takeover: NewJeans and NCT descend on Japan's capital with pop-up stores

A billboard featuring girl group Blackpink's Jennie in Shibuya, Japan, on June 25 [YOON SO-YEON]

TOKYO — Girl group Blackpink’s Jennie filled billboards in Shibuya along with NewJeans' Hanni, whose latest release, “Supernatural,” with girl group NewJeans played loudly on one side of the street. The group's single collided in offbeat harmony with boy band INI’s “Loud” on a stuffy Wednesday morning in the heart of Japan’s capital city, Tokyo.

Fans were already waiting patiently outside the Line Friends Square shop for NewJeans’ pop-up store to open at 11 a.m., located just a few meters away from Japan’s famed Tower Records album and vinyl megastore. The world-renowned shop had its walls wrapped with pictures promoting INI’s sixth single, “The Frame,” released on the same day.

“We came here at 8 a.m. because we knew there would be a lot of competition,” 27-year-old Ushita Yoshihide from Chiba, who came along with two other friends to the NewJeans pop-up store, told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

The store notified customers to line up starting at 9 a.m. to avoid congestion, but fans were already waiting early in the morning regardless, according to the on-site staff.

The pop-up store came as part of the promotional activities for NewJeans’ Japanese debut single “Supernatural” last Friday, accompanied by two meet and greets with fans at Japan’s largest stadium, Tokyo Dome, on Wednesday and Thursday.

NewJeans fans pose for photos after buying goods from the pop-up store that opened on June 26 in Shibuya, Japan. [YOON SO-YEON]
NewJeans fans pose for photos after buying goods from the pop-up store that opened on June 26 in Shibuya, Japan. [YOON SO-YEON]

“I’m a League of Legends player, so I got to know them through their soundtrack ‘Gods’ (2023) and I’ve been a fan ever since,” Yoshita said. “We’re all going to both days of the meet and greet, but NewJeans is already a big name in Japan even if you’re not a fan.”

Just this month came the news of boy bands Tomorrow X Together, The Boyz, TRENDZ, NEXZ, girl group NiziU and singer Key of SHINee releasing new music in Japan. Boy band BXB performed in the country for the first time, and Korean drama series “SKY Castle” (2018-19) was announced as getting a Japanese remake by TV Asahi.

The geographic proximity of Japan to Korea made the islet country the first stop for Korean stars for decades, starting from the early days of Hallyu, otherwise known as the Korean wave. In the past, only a handful of dramas would be exported to Japan, but now in this contemporary era of K-content, the whole K-culture package is truly making its way onto Japanese soil.

Customers look through products at NewJeans' pop-up store in Shibuya, Japan, on June 26. [YOON SO-YEON]

NewJeans is everywhere

Wednesday marked only the sixth official day of NewJeans’ “Supernatural” debut, but fans already knew the group long ago, thanks to the power of social media and online video platforms.

“I liked them ever since their very first song ‘Attention’ (2022), which I saw through social media,” 26-year-old Osa Kyouji, said. He was wearing a NewJeans baseball cap, which he said he bought through an online shopping mall two months ago. He bought two T-shirts, two umbrellas and some key holders on Wednesday.

“A lot of my other friends also knew about them and said they liked the song,” Osa’s friend, Namiki Ichiro, said. “It’s just so amazing how they’ve only been to Japan three times and they’re already taking over Tokyo Dome. Tokyo Dome is the ultimate goal even for Japanese artists, so I feel proud of them for being able to do so in such a short amount of time.”

The pop-up, which is being simultaneously held in Seoul’s Myeong-dong neighborhood in Korea, features a much-anticipated collaboration between NewJeans and art masters Takashi Murakami and Hiroshi Fujiwara. Items on sale include key rings, cushions, bags, pouches, badges and more, which feature the mashup between NewJeans' signature NJ Tokki rabbit character and Murakami's iconic flower art. The Japanese artist Murakami also created new characters for each member of NewJeans, which have been retouched by the creative team at IPX (formerly known as Line Friends).

Certain T-shirts and baseball caps were only available at the Japanese store.

Customers take pictures at the media art section of girl group NewJeans' pop-up store held at the Line Friends Square in Shibuya, Japan, on June 26. [YOON SO-YEON]

“I’m probably going to spend about 1 million won [$720] in total this week,” said 30-year-old Korean Han Na-rae, who has been living in Japan for 15 years.

Han was clad in the so-called Min Hee-jin look, with the blue baseball cap and striped green T-shirt that the ADOR CEO wore on April 25 during her famed two-hour press conference where she called out the executives at HYBE for mistreating her and the members of girl group NewJeans. Han’s Wednesday outfit was “a tribute to Min’s dedication to the NewJeans members,” she said.

“I’m not spending all that here today because I’ll probably buy the goods at the concert as well,” she said. “I’m going to be very strategic because everything is so pretty. NewJeans’ attention to detail and the vibe that it gets across is really like no other.”

NewJeans immediately topped Japanese music charts with “Supernatural,” including Oricon’s Daily Single Ranking chart and Line Music’s now trending chart. B-side track “Right Now” also landed high on local music charts, according to ADOR.

The walls of Shibuya's Tower Records showing members of boy band INI on June 25 [YOON SO-YEON]

K-pop is also everywhere

NewJeans wasn’t the only star in Shibuya. A day earlier, Tower Records’ K-pop floor was also jam-packed with fans of INI waiting in line for hours to get limited-edition goods, which were only available at the store. A pop-up store for boy band NCT’s mobile game, NCT Zone, was also operating inside the Parco department store, with goods that were only available at the pop-up.

Customers who were present to buy their favorite artist’s albums filled the fifth-floor K-pop hall at Tower Records on Tuesday.

“I’m a fan of ILLIT, Twice and Seventeen,” said 18-year-old Ichikawa Ayaka. She said she has already bought 10 of Twice’s albums and has been to their concerts in Japan in the past, but her Tuesday shopping trip was for her newly found love with Seventeen, she said.

Ichikawa’s friend, 27-year-old Koike Riru, said that she liked K-pop audition programs and was a fan of bands Kep1er and ZeroBaseOne, which both debuted through cable channel Mnet’s shows.

“Audition programs let you pick your favorite before they debut and I feel like it’s becoming easier for me to watch the shows from here in Japan,” Koike said. “Still, I’ve been studying Korean so that I can understand everything that my favorites say straight away, and maybe I'll even go to Korea one day.”

Customers line up to buy K-pop albums at Tower Records' fifth-floor K-pop hall on June 25 at Shibuya, Japan. [YOON SO-YEON]
Posters of boy band INI hung up in Shibuya, Japan, on June 25 [YOON SO-YEON]

Even a pop-up store for a K-pop group’s game can be filled with fans on weekends, according to game developer Takeone Company’s founder and CEO Jung Min-chae.

Takeone Company’s cinematic puzzle-slash-card game, NCT Zone, has been holding a pop-up at the Parco department store since earlier this month, with thousands of people visiting on just the first weekend, Jung told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“The Japanese market has always been one of the major ones for both K-pop and K-games, so with the mashup of the two — in the case of NCT Zone — it’s crucial that we show our presence here in person,” Jung said.

“A pop-up store is more than a place you just buy goods. It allows fans to interact with things that aren’t available online. Then they take their offline experience back to the online space and get a healthy cycle going. Some people can even come and discover the artists, so it’s just crucial all over.”

Visitors fill the NCT Zone pop-up store at the Parco department store in Shibuya, Tokyo. [TAKEONE COMPANY]
Customers waiting in line for the Line Friends Square Shibuya store to open on June 26 [YOON SO-YEON]

K-dramas, K-culture, K-everything

The popularity of K-pop can be seen both as proof of the K-culture influence in Japan, but also the reason for people to learn and like Korean culture more.

“I first came across Korean drama. Then I fell in love with Korean actors,” said 27-year-old Mio, who even answered the reporter’s poorly spoken Japanese questions in Korean, which she had been learning since university.

Her first Korean drama was the famed 2016 tvN series “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God,” featuring actors Gong Yoo and Kim Go-eun.

“K-pop and K-dramas have definitely become more popular these days,” she said. “Not many people around me were interested in either of them 10 years ago, myself included, but these days I talk about my favorite Korean stars and dramas with my friends, and they all have their own favorites too.”

A digital screen showing HYBE boy band &Team in Shibuya, Japan, on June 25 [YOON SO-YEON]
A billboard of boy band Ateez's 10th EP ″Golden Hour: Part. 1″ in Roppongi, Japan, on June 24 [YOON SO-YEON]

More and more K-culture events are taking place in Japan, especially in pop culture, fashion and cosmetics.

A musical version of the 2019 tvN drama series “Crash Landing On You,” which starred actors Hyun Bin and Son Ye-ji, will start playing at the New National Theatre Tokyo starting next month. Korean department store The Hyundai grossed 1.3 billion won in 30 days at its pop-up store at Parco last month, and fashion brand Mardi Mercredi opened its store in Shibuya’s Daikanyama neighborhood on June 1.

“Japan has always been the biggest market for Korea, ever since the beginning of Hallyu,” the Korea Creative Content Agency (Kocca) said in an annual analysis report, released last April.

“Even though the two countries’ diplomatic relationship continues to improve and deteriorate, the reception of Korean food, music and drama is still positive. Consumers continue to watch the latest content from Korea through streaming services, regardless of the diplomatic situation of the two governments, and the perception and consumption of Korean content within Japan is expected to continue improving in 2024.”