Beyond the hustle and neon lights of Shinjuku is Shin Okubo – Tokyo’s Korea town. The narrow streets are filled with Korean restaurants, bars, Karaoke joints, and cafes – but perhaps what makes Shin Okubo really feel like ‘Korea Town’ is the overwhelming presence of Korean Idol culture. It doesn’t take long to spot the shops packed with Korean cosmetics, as well as posters featuring handsome boys and girls, blaring Kpop music .
Shin Okubo is also host to a number of what can best be described as ‘Kpop livehouses’. These are small theaters which import groups from Korea to perform for as little as three months and up to a year. EXP Edition is one such group currently promoting for the next month in a local theatre called SHOWBOX, which is run by a Korean company. They were happy to meet with us and shed some light on this unique aspect of Tokyo.
They also put my contour game to shame.
EXP Edition is a four-member Kpop group with unorthodox beginnings. The group is made up entirely of non-Korean members. Frankie – of Portugese descent, Hunter – from New York, Sime – from Croatia, and Koki – who is half Japanese and was born in Hong Kong.
“We originally started in Columbia University,” explains rapper Koki. “[Visual Arts grad student Bora Kim] originally wanted to create a non-Korean group for the Kpop market and document the process.”
The whole point of the project was to get a group together that doesn’t know much about the Korean wave, so she could mold us into what she wanted.
The training and ‘Kpop education’ process took place entirely in New York and was originally set to last only a few months as part of an art exhibit. But as the boys went viral leading up to the final thesis presentation, they begin performing at art venues in New York. Eventually, they moved to Korea and made their debut on television.
Autocorrect – on the other hand- refuses to believe it isn’t called “Shoebox”
“We were given the opportunity from a company in Japan to come here, promote our album, and try to meet more Japanese fans through this outlet here at SHOWBOX,” adds Koki.
Leader Frankie explains that there are several companies in Japan that invite Korean idol groups to perform at their venues. Within each venue there are around eight to ten groups in rotation at a given time. The groups perform almost every day and the venue usually has around five or six performance a day. He also mentions that the venues have a few loyal ‘superfans’ that stick around and watch multiple groups perform throughout the day.
The boys note that this system doesn’t exist as far as they know anywhere in Korea. Having lived in New York. they liken it to performing on Broadway. The artists perform every day, six to eight times a week, and there are fans who come see the show multiple times.
Everyone is always standing outside looking at our poster.
Every show at this particular venue includes an hour to an hour and a half of performance followed by a fan meeting in the ‘autograph room’ above the theatre.
SHOWBOX displays huge posters of the current resident groups outside the theater, and EXP Edition is no exception – although their unique look stands out from the crowd of Korean boys and girls.
One of these things is not like the other
SHOWBOX has special perks and discounts for their resident artists at a large number of Korean restaurants and bars in the area. The restaurants often play the artists’ music or music videos in the shop in order to promote the group. They also provide artists with dormitory-style housing (aka: bunk beds for adults) nearby. For fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite idol, these affiliated businesses are a good place to start!
If you spend time walking around the Shin Okubo area, sometimes you might be lucky enough to find groups of handsome BB cream’d boys and girls handing out flyers and discount coupons to promote their show. According to Hunter, this is one of the most effective means of getting people to attend the show. The ever present parade of idols is also one of the things that gives Tokyo’s Korea Town its bizarre charm.
Now that’s my kind of parade
These venues have a constantly changing roster of artists and a packed daily show schedule. As a contract with one group is ending, another one is immediately brought in to replace them. The group’s manager notes that it’s “extremely hectic” for groups to prepare unique costumes and performance numbers for shows week to week since many fans come to the show more than once.
This unique ‘Kpop import’ phenomenon is a slightly bizarre and largely unexplored facet of Otaku culture in Japan, allowing Japanese Kpop fans to experience the Korean wave without getting on a plane or shelling out $200 USD to see big groups when they come on tour.
You can catch EXP Edition at SHOWBOX in Shin Okubo until August 10th. The group also has a Vice documentary set to drop this week. While you wait for that, check out their latest music video!