For the love of KARAOKE!

Bruno Cervera on

The first time I did karaoke was in the fall of 1995. I was in high school in Japan, and we went to karaoke in our school uniforms. I was aghast at the thought of socializing in my uniform, I didn’t understand the songs that my friends sang, and I was mortified when I attempted to sing a song in English that I thought I knew but really came out tone deaf instead. It wasn’t a fun time.

Fast forward to today, when I can honestly say that karaoke may be one of the most beautiful activities on the planet. Yes, I am that much of a fan. 

What is Japanese-style karaoke?

Japanese-style karaoke is different than the karaoke you see in American movies or TV shows. It is not the kind of event where one person gets on stage in front of the entire bar/restaurant and belts out a tune. Honestly, the American-style karaoke is not something I ever desire to do; I would never want that much attention from such a large crowd!

In Japan, karaoke venues have individual rooms where you can go by yourself, with a couple of friends, or in large groups. I’ve never been by myself, but I have fond memories of going with just one friend and practicing many songs. One person would sing their song, and the next person would feverishly search for the next song. There is a silent oath that you never talk about the other person’s ability (or lack thereof) as this is considered practice time. You can even cancel a song mid-way if you find that you can’t keep up. This is the time to practice your favorite songs over and over again so that you are ready for the main karaoke event with multiple friends.

What happens at the main event? 

In my humble opinion, the optimal number of attendees is 4-6 people, and the initial duration to reserve a room is 2 hours. Each person gets to sing their favorite songs, and sometimes even attempt a new song they’ve recently heard and want to debut. Most (if not all) locations in Japan offer beverages and snacks, so having liquid courage most definitely helps with the bravery factor. 

The beauty of karaoke is that everyone supports you, no matter if you are tone deaf. The equipment also allows you to change the octaves and speed, so you can adjust it to your needs per song. Sometimes, the karaoke equipment has built-in “scoring” capacity, so you can see how well you did at the end of the song measured in calories burned or other such factor.

1. Karaoke = language teacher

I credit karaoke to be one of my greatest teachers in learning the language. Each song has the lyrics written on the bottom of the screen, and all kanji characters have the hiragana/katakana letters written on top. As long as you have the basic alphabets down, you can master the songs over time. 

For me, personally, I have somewhat of a musical ear since I played the violin when I was younger, but I do feel rather tone deaf when actually singing. I could remember many Japanese songs that were playing on TV, in commercials, on the radio, in train stations, etc., so when it came time to sing those songs in karaoke, I felt that I already knew the melody. All that was left was to master the lyrics, which at the time I learned by renting CDs from the local Tsutaya shop and copying the lyrics. I had an entire binder of copied lyrics, and I studied them feverishly in time for my next karaoke adventure.

2. Karaoke = people connector

I had a friend from California visiting Tokyo, and I wanted him to experience karaoke. So I invited one co-worker who didn’t speak English (but wanted to learn), one co-worker who spent some time in the US, and my American friend (who knew zero Japanese). I convinced them to go just for one hour.

Needless to say, we all bonded over the experience while getting carried away singing Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and other songs I can’t remember now. Upon leaving the building, we were stunned – positively stunned – to realize that it was already morning. How did we lose track of 6 hours?? 

That experience was not an anomaly; it happened all the time, actually. That’s the beauty of karaoke: you have so much fun, that you forget about time. It works even when you don’t have the same language to connect you. Music is powerful, indeed.

3. Karaoke = Japanese culture insider

The remote control for selecting karaoke songs has many buttons on it, and one of them indicates that you can select your songs by year/decade. This is a very important feature for when you are trying to think of the top songs of a certain year, but don’t remember the author or title. I used this often during my practice sessions when I wanted to recall the top hits of a certain year, namely the background songs of TV commercials or theme songs of TV dramas (that I also was addicted to, but that’s a blog post for another day). Many times, the karaoke video that plays during the song shows the actual video of the artist singing, which brings back many memories. 

It is through these videos that you remember what was popular during that time, and this is why karaoke is wonderful in teaching you about Japanese pop culture.

Karaoke Queen

I often joked that I was a “Karaoke Queen,” and my many membership cards might have proved that status. I had an entire section of my wallet dedicated to membership cards for different karaoke venues. In fact, when I left Japan in 2006, I remember ceremoniously giving all of my cards to my former roommate so that she could use the points on it. They were quite valuable to me.

My life is different now, and it’s quite a distance to the nearest karaoke location. I go when the opportunity comes up, but I do miss the real-life karaoke experience in Japan. 

What about you? Do you have any fond karaoke memories? Share on the blog or via your favorite social media!

Photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “For the love of KARAOKE!”

  1. Thanks for sharing this story. I can relate to it in many ways as I had my first experience with Karaoke when I was in China for an internship. Being the only European person in the whole administration building which also served as a place where employees lived as there commute would have been too long. I myself was offered my own room in the building. Kind of weird, and at the same I had a chance to connect with Chinese people in a very intimate way.

    They loved to entertain themselves with Karaoke and we would sit in the conference room and sing. Since I couldn’t read Chinese, they would translate the words for me into Pinyin, a standard romanization system for Chinese which I was able to read.
    I still have the paper with the written words and an English translation. And I can still sing part of the song.
    The songs were very romantic.
    One of my favorite memories of my stay in China.

  2. Ikigai Connections

    Thank you for reading my post, and for commenting! I will also agree on the romantic comment for Japanese songs, too 😉

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