From idol group concepts to catchy songs to impressive visuals, K-Pop and J-Pop definitely have some similarities. However, in many ways, they’re not alike at all. Just take a look at these three surprising differences between the two industries’ audition systems.
1. Getting an agency’s attention
In K-Pop, trainees usually capture an agency’s attention in one of two ways. The first is through street-casting. Some idols are lucky enough to get spotted by casting agents in public, usually catching the eye because of their impressive visuals. That said, casting agents from some companies also scout out performance skills at school talent shows and dance or singing competitions.
Naturally, the other way to get an agency’s attention is by showing up to an audition and wowing them with talent. Many agencies hold weekly auditions and accept pre-recorded audition tapes through email. The biggest and wealthiest companies also hold auditions around the world, from China to the USA.
In J-Pop, on the other hand, the first step is completely different. AKB48 groups and other famous idol bands like Morning Musume first recruit trainees through a questionnaire form.
As an example, the form for STU48 delves deep into each applicant. First, wannabe idols must list all their experience with singing and dancing, from lessons to recitals. Though prior experience isn’t strictly required, it’s likely that preference is given to candidates who already have some skills.
Next, applicants write a short essay on their motivation for wanting to join STU48. In particular, they’re asked to share any memories or fond thoughts about the existing members and explain what they’d like to do if they become a member themselves.
After that, candidates have to share their Twitter and Instagram accounts with the agency—and private accounts aren’t allowed. Then, they’re asked to list their strengths and weaknesses, their favorite things (including movies and celebrities), and their special skills.
Finally, potential trainees have to attach two photos to their application form: one headshot and one full-body shot (selfies and Photoshop not accepted).
2. Auditioning for the part
The K-Pop audition process is slightly different based on whether the candidate was street-cast or not. At SM Entertainment, for example, scouted idols are given private auditions at the company studio. First, they introduce themselves on camera. Then, they take headshots and full-body shots with a photographer. Finally, they’re asked to prepare several songs and dance covers. Everything is recorded, and it must be re-recorded until it’s perfect enough to show the company directors.
Idols who attend regular auditions, on the other hand, compete against dozens (if not hundreds) of other applicants on the same day. At normal auditions, aspiring trainees usually prepare one vocal or rap performance and one dance cover. Often, they only have a few seconds to wow the judges with their skills before the next candidate’s name is called.
Once again, while the J-Pop audition process varies between agencies, it’s almost always very different from how things work in Korea. In AKB48 and its sister groups, for example, the first “audition” isn’t technically an audition at all—it’s more like an interview. During the interview, potential idols are asked a wide variety of questions about their experience, motivation, interests, and more. To impress the judges, candidates need to show confidence and visual charm.
Of course, agencies do need to assess each candidate’s performing talents too. Those who make it past the first interview are then called to attend a dancing and singing audition. In some groups, there’s only one performance audition. In others, like Morning Musume, candidates may need to go through several rounds, each with different judges. Some Morning Musume auditions also ask candidates to perform group songs and attend weekend-long training camps.
Some groups also include an additional audition stage in the form of an online vote, where fans can vote for their favorite candidates before they ever make it into the group.
3. Strict application requirements
These days, many K-Pop agencies are fairly lenient when it comes to auditionee requirements. Companies like SM Entertainment, for example, accept all applicants regardless of gender, ethnicity, or nationality. Some companies also allow applicants of any age, though many do cap the boundary at 20 years old maximum. Aspiring trainees don’t even need to speak Korean, though it’s best to know a little to communicate with casting agents.
However, while almost anyone can apply, all auditionees do usually need to show a high level of talent in singing, dance, or rap if they want a chance of making it through to the trainee stage. In K-Pop, performing skill is of the utmost importance.
With many J-Pop idol groups, applicant requirements can be highly stringent. Morning Musume, for example, won’t accept applicants any older than 17 years of age (with a lower boundary of just 9 years old).
STU48 is more lenient, allowing applicants aged 12 to 22 years old, but they have a lot more requirements alongside that. Aspiring idols who are married, have been married in the past, or have given birth before are strictly forbidden from auditioning. In most agencies, idols will also need to speak fluent Japanese before auditioning and hold Japanese work and residence permits.
But when it comes to performing talents, requirements vary. While auditionees are expected to be good singers or dancers, they often don’t need to be great. The creator of AKB48, for example, once explained that he wants the group’s members to be “unfinished” in terms of skill. For fans, part of the charm includes watching idols grow and develop as performers after debuting.