By Debbie Howard
One aspect of Japanese leisure culture to which nearly every visitor to Japan is exposed is the ubiquitous practice of karaoke — the practice of singing popular songs with recorded background music — usually involving copious libations and a modicum of self-humiliation.
In my 29 years in Japan, I must’ve been dragged — both willingly and unwillingly — to karaoke at least several times a year. So I figure I’ve done it at least 100 times (if not 200!), in a variety of karaoke outlets, from cheap and cheerful karaoke boxes to small and exclusive Ginza clubs, and recently, even homes.
Enthusiastically in the camp of those who enjoy karaoke, I will even admit to having practiced quite a bit to build up a collection of Japanese-language songs which I‘ve grown to feel I’m fairly proficient at singing (everyone claps, in any case!).
There are a few foreign friends who will indulge my habit, but not many. Most will tolerate it 1–2 times, often as part of a 1-time visit to Japan. On the other hand, I have Japanese friends and colleagues of all ages and occupations who will gladly accommodate me.
I’ve only ever been once in the US, and it was terrible — we (the singers) had to be “up on stage,” and it was quite daunting (although no less terrible in terms of the quality of our performance). Whereas in Japan, the feeling is much more group-centric, with everyone sitting around a small room and simply taking the microphone for their turn. And the crowd is much kinder in Japan, too, where the singing of karaoke is simply a way to cut loose and share some fun with friends and colleagues, and where being “good” or “bad” is not the point at all.
Let’s consider briefly where karaoke has come from as a market phenomenon.
From back in the late 60s (or perhaps early70s officially, depending on which source one uses), karaoke began its rise in popularity, building to a crescendo wherein cadres of pretty drunken salarimen went out together for the purposes of relationship-building after work.
Morphing along with technological advances from cassette tapes to CDs, DVDs, and now on-demand, Internet provided services . . . we’ve seen karaoke’s role in Japanese business and cultural society change.
As of 2017, the All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association cited some 9,300 dedicated karaoke establishments in Japan — down from 14,000 in the mid-nineties. During this period, Japan saw its karaoke-singing population swell to a high of 60 million in the mid 90s, to the current estimated 48-some-odd million. Even so, that’s STILL 1 of 3 Japanese — a statistic any marketer would be happy to hear. The Karaoke market generated over $3,485 Billions in 2017.
Part of the decline in business has been attributed to industry consolidation — with big chains taking over smaller shops. Certainly part can be attributed to years of economic stagnation and lower entertainment budgets. But part is also to the natural saturation of a trend and a movement to the next evolutionary stage, which we are seeing now.
It makes sense that such a big business is not going to give up without a fight…and indeed we are seeing interesting developments in terms of both technology and segmentation, including:
· Targeting young males with single studios in which they can use guitars along with vocals (“One Kara” rooms)
· Duets with strangers
· Rooms that cater to owners and their dogs
· Rooms for families, and Moms with kids
· Themed karaoke rooms (anime heroes, gourmet, etc.)
· Use of karaoke rooms for non”-karaoke uses, such as high school classes
. Implement the use of Karaoke in the hotels, ryokans and tourism bus.
And of course, home systems: I recently enjoyed singing karaoke at a friend’s home via the new Wii Karaoke U by JOYSOUND, introduced in mid-July 2015. It was incredibly easy, using the Wii U GamePad as a music back catalogue, with a free download from Nintendo eShop by the hour, and offering an extensive library of music available via streaming. We literally paid only several hundred yen for one hour of pure pleasure!
Karaoke in Japan is much more than just singing with friends or colleagues. It continues to be an important part of leisure culture across generations, and is evolving into something that means different things to different people.
And I haven’t even addressed the popularity of karaoke in foreign countries, which is rife. Suffice it to say that in the West, karaoke is coming of age (with the recent introduction and proliferation of Japan-style karaoke boxes from London to Washington, D.C.), and in other Asian countries, such as South Korea, the karaoke boom is on!
Whether you love or hate it, karaoke seems here to stay — both in Japan and abroad. I recommend that you start working on your Japanese-language song repertoire today!
First published by Debbie Howard on March 26, 2016, last updated in May 2019.
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