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Karaoke in Japan

Updated on August 5, 2013
Japanese karaoke booth
Japanese karaoke booth

Karaoke is a leisure activity with a reputation for fun, alcohol and making yourself look silly around the world. In America, karaoke usually conjures an image of a bar with a small stage and microphone at the head, requesting songs through a DJ and enduring the horrible musical tastes of complete strangers. Singing in front of complete strangers is no easy task, so downing a good tall glass of "liquid courage" or three is a normal prerequisite - which incidentally makes your singing ability awesome (read: more terrible). Unfortunately, on a Friday or Saturday night, there is usually a crowd of people all ready to clutch a microphone with the hand not holding the beer, and you tend to have only one or two opportunities to show off your musical prowess before the bartender starts to shoo away patrons.

Karaoke in Japan certainly is identical in the spirit of humiliation and booze, but past that can be a different experience altogether. The origin of singing solo to your favorite tunes might not be clear, but the first karaoke machine was invented in Japan around the 1970s, when it soon became popular. The term karaoke is also Japanese (pronounced kah-rah-oh-kay, not care-ee-oh-key), a mix of kara, a word meaning empty, and the first two syllables of the Japanese pronunciation of the English word "orchestra." Today, you can find karaoke boxes littered around train stations and commercial districts in cities, from classy and expensive to cheap and sketchy, and it is a favorite activity for everyone, young or old, for business or for pleasure.

The main difference between typical American karaoke bars and Japanese karaoke boxes is that in Japan, you pay for a small room to sing privately with your friends. The room isn't much bigger than a closet, usually with a booth couch lining the wall, a table in the middle, a phone on the wall to order drinks and food, and the karaoke machine in one corner. After choosing an establishment, you have to register at the front desk and indicate how long you plan to stay. The typical price for an hour of karaoke ranges greatly on the particular establishment, and can also be affected by the time of day. It is possible to book a room for an hour for ¥1000 or less (about ten dollars), but some chains are considerably more expensive - especially with possible requirements to buy a drink, or the option of getting nomihoudai, or all-you-can-drink alcohol. Then, you walk down the halls to find your new home for the next hour or two (or all night, if the music is calling to you), type your songs into a small handheld machine and prepare to sing your heart out.

Don't speak Japanese? Not a problem at many karaoke boxes! Especially in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, karaoke boxes typically have a huge selection of English songs to choose from - in fact, in my experience, the selection was even bigger than that of the American karaoke bar in my hometown! Western music is popular in Japan, from the Beatles to the newest Lady Gaga hit, and the television screen will offer you lyrics in English (with Japanese phonetic spelling above for those who can't actually speak English.) If you are a fan of Japanese music, though, you had best be able to read Japanese, because you certainly won't be offered English pronunciation in return!

The private room style of karaoke not only gives you more confidence and time to sing, it is also an excellent social activity. With food and drinks served right to your room, you get to provide the entertainment yourself, and it is a great way to hang out with friends. Karaoke is also surprisingly popular among business people, who often work long hours and go drinking with co-workers after work to unwind and have fun.

In the West, karaoke isn't going anywhere. There are karaoke machines on the market that you can buy for your own private use, and karaoke video games stocked with fun songs. Japanese style private room karaoke boxes have even opened in some cities in America. With karaoke, we can all feel like the rock stars we know we are - no matter how deep down inside our inner divas are buried!


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