How South Korea, Japan, and Other Countries Came to Dominate the Pop Culture Landscape

Garrett Hartman


Hollywood is the center of the entertainment universe. The majority of the world’s most popular television, film, and music is created in one city in California, but the content produced is enjoyed worldwide. 


Americans are spoiled when it comes to media – the majority of the media content that is out there is made first and foremost for English-speaking/ American audiences. Media created in foreign countries doesn’t often push its way onto the global stage of pop culture on the same scale as Western productions.


However, the past several years have shown some interesting foreign media gaining viral and international recognition, trumping even the blockbuster films annually broadcast around the world.



The most notable example of this is Netflix’s original series Squid Game. For the unacquainted, Squid Game is a South Korean thriller series released as a Netflix exclusive show in September 2021. The show was an instant hit, with Netflix statistics indicating within the first 28 days of its release that Netflix users had collectively watched the show for 1.65 billion hours, making it the channel’s most watched show. The show was all over the internet, sparking memes and discussion over its dark themes.


It’s hard to recall such a cultural phenomenon. With media becoming more and more diverse and plentiful, and split up between so many different platforms, it’s easy to miss out on some of the most popular shows. I’m too young to remember the day when there wasn’t an almost infinite span of film and TV at my fingertips, but if office satires are anything to go by, there was once a day when network TV ruled, and people would talk about popular television shows by the watercooler. 


But I digress, the point is it is impressive that any TV show achieves that level of cultural relevance now,  and it’s made all the more interesting by the fact that one of the most notable shows to achieve this reign is foreign. However, Squid Game isn’t the only popular foreign show on Netflix; in fact, number three on the same list was the Spanish crime drama Money Heist. A number of the noteworthy shows listed in Netflix’s statistics are foreign, Lupin (French), Who Killed Sarah (Mexican), and Queen of Flow (Colombian). 



It’s not as if foreign TV shows have suddenly sprung up in the U.S. Japanese anime has a long history of viewership in the U.S. However, anime is also growing in leaps and bounds. Netflix has started purchasing anime to be released as Netflix Originals with the anime adaptation of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure’s 6th part Stone Ocean, Komi Can’t Communicate and countless other anime that are being released in Japan and the U.S simultaneously.


Japanese media often has staggered releases, with Western localizations of anime, manga, and games sometimes coming years after their initial Japanese debut. Netflix’s 2020 year in review video stated there was 100% growth in anime viewership on the platform.


There is an increasing Western market for foreign media, and Asian media in particular is doing exceptionally well. Manga (Japanese graphic novels) not only outsold but dominated the comic and graphic novel market in 2021, holding over three-quarters of the market share -- with traditional superhero graphic novels and comics taking under 6.5%. 


While the Avengers may have defeated Thanos, it seems their next fight is to maintain relevance against Demon Slayer’s Tanjiro, and Jujutsu Kaisen’s Yuji.



South Korea is also making strides into the American media landscape. Aside from the Korean dramas that have been making their way onto Netflix, Korean Pop music has also been gaining popularity among American audiences.


BTS is the 7-man Korean group with the most international name recognition. The closest Western equivalent to BTS and K-Pop groups would be the boy bands of the 1990s. Like the Backstreet Boys and N-Sync, groups like BTS have high-production-value shows, with lots of complicated choreography, and are built around the personalities of the performers who are all primarily singers and dancers. 


Back in 2018, BTS became the first Korean group to have an album top the Billboard 200, and a song from the same year, “Fake Love,” debuted at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. For something more recent, a set of four concerts set in Las Vegas in April sold out before tickets were open to purchase for the general public. 



The tickets for all 65,000 seats of Allegiant Stadium were bought up by members of the BTS Global Official Fanclub ARMY. Members of this group pay a yearly fee for opportunities to get early access to content, purchase exclusive merchandise, and can apply to attend exclusive BTS events, just to name a few of the perks listed on their website.


While K-Pop and anime are all the rage, it is important to include the critical success of foreign films of late. In 2020 the Korean film Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture award at the Oscars. This year, the Japanese film Drive My Car has been nominated for the prestigious award.


The growth of foreign media’s popularity poses many interesting questions as to the future shape of media in the U.S. and worldwide. While platforms like Netflix seem content to purchase and serve as a distributor for foreign content, how will American media producers, especially in fields in which they are lagging behind foreigners, try to appeal to domestic audiences? How will questions of media representation be perceived with art created in different nations and different local contexts? How will Western fandoms of foreign works play into accusations of cultural appropriation, insensitivity, and other controversial topics regarding race and culture exceptionally relevant in Western nations? 


Perhaps the dispersion of culture this way will contribute to the erosion of national borders in our increasingly connected world, helping to, as the internet started, form a true global community. Exactly how the media landscape of tomorrow will unfold before us remains to be seen. In the meantime, the increasing access to and popularity of new storytelling – both foreign and domestic --  is an exciting prospect for media consumers.  


Author Bio:

Garrett Hartman is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. He is a California State University, Chico, student double-majoring in media arts design technology and Journalism/PR. A lover of pop culture, Garret enjoys a wide array of film, television, video games, and literature. However, as a drummer in a rock band and an alt-rock enthusiast, music holds a special place in his heart.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Pixabay (Creative Commons) (Korean Culture and Information Service, Wikimedia, Creative Commons)



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