Especially in front of a bunch of strangers… Which leads many (in western countries at least) to wonder — why the hell is karaoke so popular in Japan?
Karaoke was invented in the 70s by a Japanese guy who used to put on the entertainment at parties. He saw the potential after being asked to provide music for people to sing along to during parties (this is a highly condensed version of the story :)). Since then, it quickly spread around Japan, the Philippines, as well as nearby Asian countries, and has become a super popular staple of entertainment in those regions. But why?
When karaoke came across the sea, it was adapted for the European and American (and Australian!) cultures — we tend to like to do things big — and we like to go out to pubs and clubs. The idea went from entertainment to exhibitionism… and the relatively private Asian karaoke became the quite public western adaptation — placing the karaoke machine on a stage in a public venue such as a pub.
While it’s true that many people lose their inhibitions when they get drunk, a stronger truth is that not a lot of people really want to get up on stage and sing in front of strangers — no matter how much they’ve consumed. And of those that aren’t drunk, very few are extroverted enough to get up on stage and bust out a tune. As a result, it’s not hard to understand why karaoke never became popular outside of Asia — although it has become a relatively common choice for hosted parties and work events.
On the other hand, in Japan, at least 50% (estimate – likely a greater percentage) of people enjoy karaoke on a semi-regular basis (i.e., once every few months). Hitokara, a word that refers to people that like to go do karaoke alone, is also becoming increasingly popular. When I lived in Tokyo, we tried to go to karaoke at least once a month, and often found ourselves singing up a storm as often as once a week in our “on” season — but what’s the difference? Why is it so good??
Well, it’s simple really. Privacy and service. Only in a karaoke box, which is (relatively) soundproofed, can you really let rip — regardless of the terrible sound you’re making. Only in the box, with only your friends and a closed door, can you really let go of your inhibitions and just have fun. And only in the box, which has a phone on the wall with a direct line to the kitchen, can you order all of the food and drinks you require, without having to get up from your seat. It’s truly remarkable.
Considering the three obvious advantages listed above, it should be rather apparent why karaoke is so much more popular in Japan (at least). But in reality, there are so many more reasons to love it… For one — it’s pretty cheap. You can hook yourself up with karaoke and all-you-can-drink alcohol (no kidding) for about $10/hour per person (depending on the time of day). Yep, it’s that cheap, and it’s THAT awesome.
Karaoke books contain about 30,000 songs — of course, in Japan, many of these are Japanese. Probably about a third (but likely less) are in English. But a third is still 10,000 songs – even if it’s half of that, you have quite the choice ahead of you. And with the ability to queue as many songs as you like ahead of time, the fun never ends — we often spent more than 5 hours at a time in karaoke booths.
Finally — think about how many people there are. Most often, when I went to karaoke, there was only about 4-5 of us, as opposed to a room full in pub-style karaoke. With this many people (or fewer), you can have a hell of a lot of fun — instead of getting the chance to sing only one song, you can sing many in a night! And the drunker you get, the more duets and group sing-along’s you’ll perform… it’s a grand experience!
Of course, occasionally you’ll go to a large karaoke party, with 20-30 people… These parties can be difficult to get off the ground (as most people are a little more hesitant to start off when sober and in front of more people than they are used to… and likely don’t know so well), but once the beer starts flowing, the songs start pumping.
I could go on and on about karaoke. And I guess I already have. But my point is — don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. I went to Japan with no desire to sing at karaoke. My housemates forced me into a booth within 4 or 5 days of me being there, and it probably took no more than an hour to get me to sing… something (whatever it was) — and I haven’t let up since. In fact, karaoke would have to be one of my favourite past-times (after video games, of course). I haven’t yet done it alone, but I’m open to it — and I have done SingStar and Rock Band on my own at home (for several hours at a time)…
Yes — you do need to enjoy singing, and you at least need to have an average knowledge of music — but that’s all you need. If you ever find yourself in Japan (or any other country with Karaoke booths), try it — you’ll most likely like it.