Japan from the inside out

Karaoke: Love it or hate it, it’s here to stay

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 30, 2007

DRUMMER Daisuke Inoue was named by Time Magazine in 1999 as one of the 20 most influential Asians of the century—along with Mao Tse-tung and Gandhi—and received the Ig Nobel Peace Prize from Harvard University students in 2004. Yet he failed to patent his invention, and the business he established to sell it went belly up. Today, he lives outside of Kobe and sells rat repellant devices for a living.

What is Inoue’s claim to fame?

He invented the karaoke machine! Here’s the magazine’s story as it appeared at the time, which contains the astonishing information that it took Inoue 28 years to try karaoke himself after inventing it.

One thing the author fails to mention in the article is the importance of singing in popular Japanese culture. Learning songs is a core part of early education, and most adult Japanese remember the words to songs they learned in kindergarten. Many, especially women, start singing along when they hear them. The longest-running TV show in Japan (Kohaku Uta Gassen) is the special New Year’s Eve singing contest starring a selected list of the most popular singers in the country. Another long-running show is Nodo Jiman, literally “Confidence in (Your) Throat”. It’s broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio from a different location around the country every Sunday and features local people with varying degrees of talent who get the opportunity to show off their singing skills—or lack of them—to a national audience. (And thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can see a clip here.)

Commercial karaoke in drinking establishments started out with a sound system, a set of tapes, and a book of lyrics. Improvements soon began to appear, however, and these included laser disc (now DVD) karaoke with filmed skits accompanying the music and the lyrics displayed on screen as subtitles. Shops sprouted up devoted exclusively to patrons who wanted to sing. Usually a town will have one or more shops that develop a reputation as the one where the talented amateurs hang out, and it can be fun just to go and listen. (Honest!) There are facilities called karaoke boxes where groups can rent karaoke rooms for their exclusive use. These are quite popular with high school students for after school recreation. There is on-line karaoke and a karaoke channel on cable TV. Many people have karaoke equipment at home they use for instant parties.

Most of the Westerners in Japan I know don’t enjoy karaoke very much (including me), which presents a challenge for accommodating oneself to this aspect of Japanese society. The Japanese often invite new foreigners out for a night on the town, and this inevitably means going to a karaoke establishment and being asked to sing. I soon adopted the solution of those Japanese who don’t care very much for karaoke—I settled on one song I liked and could perform reasonably well, and used this as my contribution for the night. Usually only one song is required; more than that is optional.

When I first came to Japan, I hung out with a Londoner who went back to England after two or three years. A few years later, he came back for a visit and hornswoggled two Japanese friends and me into a night of karaoke. He had been practicing in London clubs that catered to Japanese and wanted to show off.

DuetWe wound up in a bar with laser disc karaoke. It was fascinating that the pub’s clientele was rather blasé about seeing two Westerners and two Japanese out together singing, though there were few foreigners in town then. My London friend sang several Japanese songs that he memorized and had down very well. There was no reaction from the other customers. I hadn’t memorized any songs, but sang my contributions in Japanese from the subtitled lyrics shown on the video as the background music played. It is rare for Japanese anywhere to see a foreigner reading their language spontaneously, but the customers in this joint acted as if it happened all the time. In contrast, our two Japanese friends stuck to popular Western songs, and they sang entirely in English. The other customers continued to pay us no attention.

Just as we had decided to call it a night, one of the Japanese guys asked me to sing an American song before we went home so they could hear “what it really sounded like”. We discussed the possibilities and settled on Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. Then I belted out a version at the top of my lungs. It was more shouting than singing.

It brought down the house. Cheers, applause, and rounds of drinks from total strangers! People who had ignored us for two hours all of a sudden wanted to strike up conversations and visit other shops for another round of singing. I’m still amazed whenever I recall that night.

2 Responses to “Karaoke: Love it or hate it, it’s here to stay”

  1. Shingen said

    Personally: love it 😉 (At least the booth-type, rather than the cabaret-style).

  2. jasonpablo said

    i rather throw up.

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