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Japan’s Quintessential Karaoke Culture

July 16th, 2010 by

Like pachinko and vending, karaoke parlors are found on every corner of Japan. Unlike these other forms of entertainment, karaoke is omnipresent around world, enthralling and irritating millions of people with good singing and bad. And with home karaoke sets, everyone can feel like a diva for a song, as it were.

Karaoke

Photo courtesy by dominiekth.


Karaoke is a portmanteau: kara-, which means “empty”, and –oke, from okesutura, or “orchestra”.  While Western karaoke bars often feature a large hall where patrons bravely step up before a crowd of strangers, Japanese-style karaoke features small rooms for intimate groups.

A couch, microphones, a thick song book, television and karaoke machine round out the basic room requirements. For a base hourly rate, groups of people take turns interpreting their favorite songs while listeners nibble on finger foods and sip drinks. Groups can rent karaoke rooms until last call (although some bars operate for 24 hours) and come back as long as they want: there are literally thousands of songs from almost every musical genre. More often than not, there are even a selection of English and other non-Japanese songs to choose from. These karaoke rooms are quite popular, as home-based karaoke runs the risk of complaints from neighbors.

The Japanese have an established tradition of public singing. It’s deeply woven in the cultural fabric – crowds have historically accompanied live folk music with gusto. Karaoke itself is said to originate from Kobe, where a singer was asked to record his performances for corporate retreats. The first karaoke box was built from a freight car in the Okayama prefecture, far away from urban centers so as not to disturb residents (apparently).

Karaoke technology sprang from the simple cassette tape and developed with the compact disc, laserdisc and DVD. Today, salarymen, students and retirees frequently celebrate communal achievements and milestones with karaoke. While J-Pop is a perennial favorite, Japanese folk songs, classic hits and even tunes from The Beatles catalog are popular as well.

In corporate and other group situations, shyness is rarely an acceptable refuge for anyone. As a result, karaoke works very well in corporate team-building exercises and reinforces a wide variety of important social rituals.

Photo courtesy by Matt Ryall:
Some karaoke advice. When you visit Japan, avoid open, public karaoke bars. These establishments are usually a front for strip clubs.

Also, if you’re not musically inclined, choose group songs like “We Are the World”. This way, others can compensate for your shortcomings – unless of course, you’re not intimidated and feel like belting out a solo.

As for the inventor of karaoke, he neglected to file for a patent and forfeited millions in royalty fees.

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