You might snigger when I say that Karaoke is one of Japan’s greatest exports. And I don’t blame you: when I mention karaoke, you probably envisage some kind of cheesy holiday camp, where parents who have not had a stiff drink in 20 years suddenly find themselves drunkenly staggering up to a stage to delightedly murder one of their childhood favorites, via singing akin to the sound of a drowned cat and a plinky-plonk version of the song that sounds as though it was made on a calculator.
But that is not real Karaoke. Karaoke in Japan is light year’s ahead of that.
First, a little background: the word Karaoke comes from a mix of two Japanese words. The ‘kara’ (空) means ’empty’ (the same ‘kara’ used in ‘karate’, which means ’empty hand’). The ‘oke’ is from the loanword ‘orchestra’, Japanified into オーケストラ, the shortened in オケ, or ‘oke’. Put it together and you have ‘Karaoke’, the Empty Orchestra. This comes from the idea that, during dinner parties in Japan, there used to be musical accompaniment. Enter the karaoke machine, which became a viable alternative to those pesky, expensive real people, providing a synthesized version of a live instrumental (hence ’empty orchestra’). Origins of the humble karaoke machine are disputed to this day, but credit is usually handed to one Daisuke Inoue, who wheeled his machines into bars in Kobe in the early 70s.
But whereas in the West where Karaoke has pretty much stayed in the 70s, Japanese Karaoke is to that what a PS3 is to an Atari: so advanced beyond that as to be a whole different beast entirely.
Firstly, Karaoke is very much a night-out experience: you simply do not do Karaoke sober. It’s often sandwiched between the Izakaya (Japanese Pub) and that dodgy 3am kebab…well, this is Japan, so maybe it’s a Beef Bowl instead (oooh, now there’s a post idea…)
Where was I? Ah yes, well after you and your friends stagger into a Karaoke Building (and yes, entire buildings and businesses are devoted to Karaoke and are numerous at that), then you will be given your own private room: this includes plush chairs, a coffee table, a drinks menu…oh yeah, and a great big TV, a beefy sound system, a wireless song selection system, and disco lights.
Ready to get singing? There are two mics usually, and sometimes tambourines so you can all get in on the act. Most of the wireless secretion things look like fat iPads, and they usually have an English menu too so it’s easy to find the classics (don’t go expecting any Lonely Island just yet). The lights automatically dim, on come the disco lights, and off you go with your Gangnam Style.
Want to order drinks? Your waiter is on the other end of your room’s personal phone: just pick up the receiver, roar your order over the noise of your mates destroying Jailhouse Rock, and they’ll do rest.
All together it’s a much more rowdy, friends only affair (or at most a group of co-workers), less about tongue-in-cheek embarrassment then just drunkenly belting out your favorite tunes in pleasant company. For me, Karaoke itself is only part of the fun: it’s also the atmosphere, the small room, shoulder to shoulder with mates, drinks flowing, voices hoarse, and you vow to sit out the next few to recover until THAT song comes on, and you demand the mic. There’s definitely an element of catharsis in it.
Japanese Karaoke is an experience not be missed. If you get invited to Karaoke when you come here, I implore you, put aside your preconceptions. You will have an awesome time.