Singing along is as old as human culture. Sitting around the fire, hot food bubbling away, the drink flowing and voices raised in song and merriment is a key human experience, in my humble opinion, and something that enriches our time on Earth. Obviously in the post-modern world such experiences are harder to facilitate than they used to be. Not for lack of resources but rather as a result of our lifestyles. So, in lieu of the tribe gathered around the bonfire on the eve of the autumnal equinox, we have karaoke and you can have it almost anytime you want here in Japan.
Let’s begin with a note about pronunciation. In the English speaking world karaoke is pronounced Karry-Oh-Key but in Japanese it is pronounced Kah-Rah-Oh-Kay. The word has two distinct parts: The first is kara, which means open. It refers to the fact that the songs are missing the lead vocals, this portion is open. The second part is -oke which is derived from the word orchestra. The “Open orchestra” plays songs with the lead vocal portion left open to be filled by the eager karaoke goer.
Karaoke is the very definition of popular in Japan; end of year Company parties frequently descend into karaoke caterwauling contests; gaggles of teenagers descend into J-pop maelstroms of sweet and sexy songs in mid-week-mid-afternoon singing sessions with their friends; retired ladies and gentlemen serenade their twilight years away from midday to midnight any day of the week; families spend some quality time together to listen to their kids chirp away to their favourite Anime theme; and fun-fuelled foreign tourists go arm-in-arm with their new Japanese “best friends” to get a slice of the real Japan. I can not recommend it enough. However, if your experience of karaoke was anything like mine before I came to Japan I feel it is worth realigning your expectations.
Back in Europe when someone said ‘Do you want to go to karaoke?’ I have to admit to shuddering at the prospect. It usually meant going to a bar with a small “stage” in the corner, a few spotlights that could incubate eggs at fifty paces and Lotto-like odds of getting access to the single microphone. These were the dens of the divas of the working class and they protected their lairs like lionesses. Even if you managed to get a chance to sing, anything less than pitch perfect could leave you open to vilification after your last refrain had been sung. Karaoke in Japan is different. Whereas venues akin to what I have described exist, politeness means you will at least have an audience who will not be baying for your blood before you’ve reached the first chorus and more recently these have become very classy places to frequent. Many have proper dance floors, high quality audio and immaculate stages. However, this is not the norm. Karaoke generally goes on in karaoke boxes for the eyes and ears of your nearest and dearest.
A karaoke box is essentially a soundproofed room. It is one of many in Karaoke establishments, each with its own television, seating, table, microphones, remote controls and intercom so you can order more food, more drink and more time. Modern karaoke is sung amongst one’s friends. It is smaller, more intimate and more fun.
If you come to Japan I heartily recommend you try out some karaoke here. It is inexpensive and a great way to let off some steam (its cathartic nature is something that really appeals to many Japanese patrons) and I guarantee everyone will be firm friends after you’ve finished. It really brings people together. Go on, unbutton that shirt, pull up the mic and give us your best.