FISTBUMP’s Biggest U.S. Fans

Several months ago Camille began a deep dive into the world of K-pop, short for Korean Pop. K-pop and J-pop (Japanese pop) are essentially Asian versions of boy bands and girl bands that are highly curated, managed, promoted, and adored. When I first learned about them I likened them to New Kids on the Block or Backstreet Boys, but I’ve since realized there’s a whole lot more to the fan culture. I’ve had fun going down the rabbit hole with Camille, and our K-pop experience in Japan revealed that we still have much to learn.

Camille’s favorite K-pop group, and consequently my favorite group, is Stray Kids. They’re 8 adorable guys who can sing, rap, and seriously dance in front of thousands of screaming fans, and then also release social media videos of themselves being ridiculously silly and cute and so so fun. You simultaneously want to see them in concert in a giant arena and then invite them out for milkshakes and a night of bowling because they seem so down-to-earth and relatable.

One of our first K-pop moments in Japan was when Camille encountered a life-size cardboard cut out of the members of Stray Kids in a shopping mall – she may or may not have squealed when she saw it (she totally did).

So naturally, while in Japan we made time for a side trek to Shin-Okubo, Tokyo’s version of Korea town. Y’all. The K-pop boy band scene there was INTENSE.

It’s not enough to have K-pop billboards on the sides of buildings – there are also giant LED billboards on trucks rolling along the streets advertising K-pop and J-pop idols. Store after store stocked nothing but K-pop merch, plastering their walls with posters of beautiful boys and girls, photo cards you can collect of your favorite members and trade at concerts, handheld fans with life-size pictures of the idol’s heads (some in silly costumes) … it goes on.

Stray Kids just celebrated their 6th anniversary as a group, and one store erected this massive shrine to the boys, complete with photos of each member from infancy to stardom. This is the level of fanaticism we encountered.

As the three of us sat in a cafe in Shin-Okubo sipping boba tea and taro lattes, on a whim I googled for local venues offering K-pop shows we could attend. Turns out we were around the corner from Showbox, a K-pop venue offering multiple shows each evening for underground bands trying to break through. This wouldn’t be like seeing a huge K-pop group in an arena, but appealing in its own way for the intimacy of the experience. And who knows – you may see a band that makes it big and you can say you knew them when…

A band called FISTBUMP was scheduled to perform in 2 hours, but it wasn’t clear if tickets were available or how we could buy them. So, we decided to amble over to Showbox and assess the situation. What unfolded was a fun, hysterical, magical night which Camille says was the highlight of her entire trip.

This was also the point of the trip when we felt most like the foreigners and outsiders we were. It was clear from the first moment that rules and protocols were being observed and we were clueless. Unlike other touristy experiences, there was no one offering guidance in English so we were at the mercy of google translate and the kindness of strangers to navigate the adventure.

The venue was a small, two-story building on a side street with double doors to the concert area and, unfortunately, no box office we could locate. Instead we used google translate to ask the people gathered there if we could buy tickets, which seemed to confuse everyone. Finally a staff member pulled out her own phone and typed that we should return at 7:40 before the 8 p.m. show.

We still had no clue if tickets were available, but decided to go with the flow and hope for the best. Lee, sensing this was not an experience tailored to males but happy for us to have the adventure, caught a train back to our rental and left us to our shenanigans. Unsure what else to do, Camille and I bounced around Shin-Okubo for an hour or so waiting for showtime.

Around 7:30, we arrived back at the venue and found four young ladies standing at the door. Relying again on google translate, we asked if they were there to see FISTBUMP. They were!! It was our first sign we were on the right track. As we waited for whatever would happen next, at first I felt conspicuously old next to my teenage daughter and these four other young women. But as we got closer to show time more people arrived, and quite a few were my age or older which both comforted and surprised me.

When the doors opened at 7:40 and we approached, an employee took one glance at us and asked, “First time?”

Obviously,” I wanted to say, knowing we stood out for our Americanness and our awkwardness. We nodded yes, and she handed us a ticket with instructions in Japanese. With the help of google translate we understood that we needed to sign in and then we could attend our first show without a ticket for free.

Now inside, we found a small stage in front of about 50 chairs, and snagged two seats on the second row at the aisle. What completely baffled me though was the behavior of all the women who’d already found their seats, including the older ones. Out came makeup bags, mirrors, and cordless flat irons. They primped. They preened. They giggled. There were about 25 people total in the audience, and all of them (except us) were busily touching up makeup and hair.

There were signs all over the walls forbidding photography, but these women were setting up tripods for their phones and some even had big SLR cameras with telephoto zoom lenses. We could reach out and touch the stage from where we were sitting so these lenses, worthy of an African safari, seemed a bit much – but what did we know?

At 8:00, the curtains parted to reveal one young male singer clutching a microphone stand. To my surprise and unlike most club shows in the U.S., the audience was quiet, but by no means disengaged. As we came to learn, it would be considered rude to yell or scream or do anything to detract from the song about to be sung. He crooned a ballad in Korean while we grinned sheepishly from the second row.

As soon as his song ended, three other band members came to the stage and all the women in the audience stood up, so we did, too. The ladies pulled out their cameras and adjusted their tripods as a helpful woman in the first row turned around and gestured that we could do the same. We raised our phones for photos and video, too. I felt a bit like a person attending a house of worship of a different religion for the first time – everyone else seemed to know when to sit and when to stand and the right motions to make, and we were just trying not to attract attention with any egregious mistakes.

Then the band started to play. The song was poppy, yes, but with more of a rock edge than I expected. The band’s energy was great. The lead guitarist sported blue hair and played a yellow electric guitar covered in graphics of red hearts. The audience knew every word of every song (at least, everyone except us), and even had choreographed fan chants, hand claps and other gestures. Most of them had light sticks that looked like mini light sabers, flashing bright colors from the darkened seats. The song ended followed by an eerie moment of quiet before the polite applause. Then everyone obediently stowed their phones and cameras and lowered their tripods. Recording time was clearly over so we tucked away our phones, too.

Throughout the rest of the hour-long set, we smiled, we clapped, and generally tried to follow along. We loved it. Between songs we smiled attentively as foreign language banter floated past us. Then the guitarist looked right at Camille and said in English, “How are you?”

Surprised, Camille pointed to herself and said, “Me?”

“Yes,” he confirmed.

“I’m great!” she said.

Then the bassist chimed in to tell us we were very welcome. I was glad to hear it – the last thing I wanted was for them to think were were just there as tourists, as voyeurs who didn’t care anything about the music. Yes, we were clueless, but we really wanted to experience the show with them and were fast becoming actual fans.

Throughout the rest of the set, the band members got a bit bolder, often coming up to the edge of the stage by Camille and singing directly to her. I hoped we weren’t angering any of the diehard fans by stealing some of the attention, but thankfully if anyone was annoyed by us they didn’t make it obvious.

The show ended and we filed out with the rest of the audience thinking our adventure was done, but we’d merely reached the halfway point. The women exited the doors and then streamed directly up a set of stairs to the second floor. We had no idea what this was about, but let ourselves be swept along with the giggling tide.

Upstairs we found a room with a long, rectangular table at one end and rows of folding chairs at the other. Out came the makeup and flat irons again. Ladies were chewing mints and applying perfume. People were also lining up to buy something – but what? Only one way to find out so we joined the queue.

Through a series of gestures and some basic English words with the staff, we learned we could purchase a ticket for a meet-and-greet with the members. You could buy individual tickets to meet individual members, or for a bargain, one ticket for all four, so that’s what we did.

Next, a room divider was erected and the band members filed into the room and clustered behind the barricade. The people who’d purchased a ticket to meet all four were summoned into a line.

When it was Camille’s turn, she approached the band behind the barricade and told them how much she enjoyed the show. The conversation options were limited by the language barrier, but the guitarist proclaimed, “You are so beautiful! You are TOO beautiful!” and proceeded to cover his eyes and turn to face the wall.

A staff member was ready with a polaroid camera to snap a photo and the band asked how she wanted to pose. “Um, hearts I guess?” she offered. Click.

Then before she walked away, all the band members held out their hands toward her, palms up. It was a gesture that seemed to demand a response, but what response exactly? Having no clue what else to do, she placed her two hands on top of theirs, one by one. If this was an insane response, God bless them for not laughing.

Over the next 30-45 minutes, everyone else who bought tickets for an encounter had their turn behind the barricade. Those who’d bought tickets for individual members got to request and record short serenades. Everything was highly orchestrated and meticulously timed, and every woman beamed as they came back to sit down after their moment behind the room divider.

“Which is your favorite?” said one middle aged woman who’d just combed her hair again and slathered herself in perfume.

“Ummm … I don’t know,” said Camille.

“My favorite is the singer,” she purred. And then it was her turn behind the room divider with said singer.

Once all the barricade business was done and the room divider was packed away, the guys lined up behind the rectangular table. Cameras came out again, and the singer motioned to Camille to get her camera ready, too. Then for the next 30-60 seconds we experienced the most awkward photo shoot as the members struck various silly poses and the cameras clicked and clicked. When time was called, the singer motioned to Camille to lower her camera, so we did.

Next, we lined up again, this time to have the polaroid signed in what felt like a speed dating session. Each person would sit down across from a band member for about 60 seconds, and when time was called you’d move to the next stool and the next band member until you’d chatted with all four.

While we’d been waiting, Camille had found and followed the band on Instagram, and apparently one of them had noticed and looked up her account. As she sat down with the bass player, whose English was probably the best of the group, he asked, “Are you an actor?”

“An actor?” Camille asked, sure she’d not understood him correctly.

“Yes. I saw on your Instagram that you were in a movie.” That’s when she realized he’d seen postings on her account from a school movie. Although it was no Hollywood connection, he still seemed impressed and wanted to know more about her, how she ended up in Japan and how long we’d be there.

The staff member had called time repeatedly, but the the bassist wasn’t done talking with her. Soon all the other stools were empty as Camille created a bottleneck at the first seat. I began apologizing to the people around me, but no one seemed to mind.

Eventually she made her way along the line until she got to the final band member, the guitarist. He reached out and took her hand in both of his and proclaimed his love. I’m not even kidding. When her time was up, he wouldn’t let go at first. “I love you,” he said, “and I will always be by your side.”

It’s a hallmark of the K-pop scene that idols provide this type of “fan service,” and is surely one reason these groups have legions of adoring and rabid fans. Despite that, I can’t help but think these guys were genuinely excited to have her there, their newest and biggest fan from the U.S.

Once the signing was done, the guys each took a turn giving a parting word to the assembled fans. When it was the singer’s turn, I was touched that he had typed his comments into google translate so he could read them to us in English. He thanked us for being there and said he would “never forget the day that we met.”

Finally, around 11 we all filed outside and the small crowd dispersed. Camille and I raced to the train station to begin our long ride back to our rental, knowing we’d barely make it before the transit system closed at midnight. As we rocked along the tracks, we scrolled through all the photos and videos in our phones, reliving our favorite moments, and marveling at the new connections. I’ll forever be glad we stepped outside our comfort zone and opened ourselves to the experience, and grateful for the kind people who guided us along the way.

Click below to see a compilation of our videos and photos from that night:

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