The basics of Japanese karaoke

The basics of Japanese karaoke

Karaoke is truly one of the gifts Japan has given to the world. You may not think so when you're in a bar in Wyoming listening to some guy you don't know work his way through a 10-minute Tool song, but if you've ever experienced the real thing in Japan, you know that it's one of the best ways to spend Saturday night.

Japanese karaoke
Photo by jscatty

Aside from being a quintessential part of the 'living in Japan' experience, it's also a huge part of Japanese culture. It's a popular form of entertainment that you find everywhere.

The empty orchestra

The word karaoke comes from kara (空 – empty) and oke, which is a shortening of okesutora (オーケストラ – orchestra). The machine provides the empty orchestra and you provide the singing. The origins are obscure. A popular legend says that it originated in a sunakku (スナック – snack bar) in the early 1970s when the musician booked to play didn't show up. The owner put on the tunes and everybody sang along. Another story credits Daisuke Inoue with inventing the first karaoke machine. He was a popular singer and some of his fans requested instrumental recordings of his songs so that they could sing at home.

Box vs. bar

The karaoke machine spread like wildfire throughout Asia and eventually around the world. Where I grew up, there are karaoke bars everywhere. You give your requests to the MC and when your name is called, you go up on stage and blow everybody away with your rendition of 'Total Eclipse of the Heart.' Friends and strangers alike get to cringe at your butchering of your favorite songs.

In Japan, it's all about the karaoke box. A karaoke box is a room that you rent with your friends by the hour. It's only your group and you have total control over what's sung. The great thing about the karaoke box is that you don't have to listen to the horrible singing of strangers. You only have to hear the horrible singing of your friends.

Friends karaoke Japan
Photo by JoshBerglund19

You can order food and many places offer nomihoudai (飲み放題 – all you can drink paid by the hour). The room is equipped with a TV that plays ridiculous videos and there's a controller that you use to program your own tunes. Even your Japanese friends won't be able to make heads or tails of the controller and you'll spend the first 20 minutes of your karaoke time puzzling over it.

There are still snack bars where you can find octogenarians crooning their favorite enka (演歌 – traditional-style Japanese ballad) tunes, but most younger people prefer the convenience of the box.

As I see it there are five main rules of karaoke in Japan.

  1. You don't need to sing well. Don't get hung up on trying to actually hit the right notes. It's all about having fun with your friends and choosing songs everybody likes. Of course, it's a group activity.

  2. Don't hog the mike. This is considered rude and annoying. Even if nobody's calling up the next tune and you want to do Appetite for Destruction in its entirety, pretend to look for songs in the catalog or sip your drink. This is the Japanese practice of yuzuru (譲る – surrender; in this case, letting others go first).

  3. Don't join in unless invited. I'm constantly guilty of this and was really surprised to find out that it was considered rude. I mean, doesn't somebody have to sing the Richie Sambora part in 'Wanted Dead or Alive?' Instead, wait until somebody hands you the mike – then you have no choice but to join in.

  4. There's no such thing as being too drunk to sing. I've seen old men in snack pubs who couldn't stand but they could hit those high notes in 'Danny Boy.'

  5. Don't try singing 'Take Me On' by Aha either seriously or ironically even if you're absolutely sure you can hit the high notes. Okay, this isn't a rule of Japanese karaoke; I offer it myself.

Do you know of any other karaoke rules? Please share!