Some of his assertions seem pretty dodgy as a matter of fact. For instance, Hou was far from a popular favorite in Japan when Maborosi was made -- though his work was probably being presented in film schools and his films may have been seen and admired by a few cognoscenti.
Hi Michael. I don't have the article to hand, so I can't go back and see specifically what Stephens had to say about this. But my sense is that while not a "popular" director (in that he was consigned to the art-film market), Hou had, in the mid-late 1990s, considerable cachet among Japanese critics and cinephiles. Japan was one of the first places his films were noticed, they were consistently given theatrical releases (not the case in the USA or much of Europe at this time), and starting around that time his films were made with Japanese backing (mostly from Shochiku). A lot of Hou schwag was available in Japan at that time: mini-posters, coffee-table books, and the like. So I think what Stephens is driving at is that Kore-eda, who was certainly in this cinephilic "circle," was latching on to a style that had currency in that context--critical if not commercial.
I'm sure that Kore-eda had a genuine sympathy for Hou's approach. And he wouldn't be the only talented Asian director to assume a "Hou-like" style (there's also Hong Sangsoo, Jia Zhangke, etc.). I think Stephens was implying--and I'd half-agree--that the overall shape of Kore-eda's career makes it appear as though his jumping from style to style suggests opportunism or at least fashionability. I think all his films are made with considerable filigree but in the worst cases (e.g. NOBODY KNOWS, DISTANCE, AIR DOLL) they feel distinctly second-order, much like contemporaneous films by Sophia Coppola.
That said, I greatly admire AFTER LIFE and STILL WALKING, as well as those of his documentaries I've been able to track down.