In a culture where matcha tea ceremony and karaoke singing coexist, visitors to Japan are often astounded at the country’s strange blend of ancient and modern. Having already conquered the West, karaoke sing-along still reigns supreme in its homeland, Japan.
Nearly 50 years ago the first karaoke machine hit the market. It was invented by a Japanese man who had no idea that his hobby interest would become one of the biggest global entertainment coups of the century.
After gaining a strong following in Japan and her Asian neighbors throughout the 1980s, karaoke at long last burst onto the scene in the U.S. and Europe and has grown in popularity ever since. Now a mainstay at bars and nightclubs in cities around the world, the innocent little karaoke machine lets anyone play part-time rock star and dream the dream of stardom.
For the uninitiated, and even for old hands at karaoke, here’s a quick take on the birth of the trend, a listing of the most popular songs for “amateur stars,” a few basic rules of karaoke etiquette, essential terminology for enthusiasts, and the hottest karaoke spots in Tokyo for those headed to Japan anytime soon:
- Karaoke enthusiasts in Japan span all age groups. Group singing was quite popular in the early part of the last century; and today’s older folks flock to karaoke to sing the traditional Japanese folk songs and ballads.
- Self confidence is not a common quality among Japanese adults, who tend to think and act more comfortably within a group. Some say that the overwhelming popularity of karaoke has brought an entire generation of Japanese out of their shells.
- The urban legend in Tokyo is that karaoke was invented when a singer didn’t show up for a gig at a local bar. The owner was at his wit’s end to entertain the assembled crowd, fearing a bad spate of negative publicity for his establishment. He decided at the last minute, so the story goes, to offer free beer and then fired up the juke box, which happened to feature a popular instrumental song. The happy crowd began singing folk lyrics to the music and the concept of karaoke was born.
- Early machines were nothing more than juke boxes with special lyric-less songs by popular artists. It was up to the singer to keep in time with the music while reading lyric sheets from a book.
- If your Japanese friends call you a juhachiban, that means you are a one-song karaoke singer. Likewise, a hitokara is a person who sings karaoke alone in a special Japanese invention, the “solo booth,” a soundproof area the size of a large closet where shy singers can practice until they get good enough for public performance. The literal translation of the word into English is “alone+karaoke.”
- Movie-oke is the new trend in Tokyo nightspots. These high-tech gathering places allow patrons to “appear” in their favorite movies, singing popular songs that also were featured in the films. This cutting-edge form that combines film and karaoke is already catching fire in Southern California, Philippines, and Thailand.
- Even in Japan, the most popular karaoke songs are English ones. But looking at the phenomenon from a global perspective, the ten most popular karaoke songs of all time are Rock and Roll All Night, by KISS; Don’t Stop Believin’, by Journey; The Gambler, Summer Nights, I Love Rock and Roll, Let It Go, Roxanne, Born to be Wild, Sweet Caroline, and I Will Survive (in reverse order of popularity).
- One of the most popular Japanese karaoke songs is called Kimi to Itsumademo, by the “Japanese Frank Sinatra,” Yuzo Kayama. Learn the words and music online before going to Japan and you’ll be a celebrity among your Japanese friends. It’s an easy song to sing and has a cool, romantic speaking part in the middle. Karaoke aside, it is one of the best-selling Japanese songs of the modern era, featuring a high “hummability” factor.
- As with all things Japanese, there is etiquette to learn. So it is with karaoke in the Tokyo hotspots. If you decide to join the fun remember to choose only one song at a time. There are a lot of people in Tokyo, so being patient and taking one’s turn are valued character traits. Do join in with groups who ask you because the Japanese way of karaoke involves plenty of group songs. Finally, don’t talk or get rowdy while someone else is singing. Believe it or not, the Japanese actually listen to each other in karaoke bars and clubs, unlike some of their Western counterparts.
The Best Karaoke Bars in Tokyo
If there is a karaoke capital of the universe, Tokyo is it. Several of the big gathering places for karaoke are world famous, and at least one has featured prominently in a Hollywood movie (that would be Karoke Kan, where Bill Murray sang in the film Lost in Translation).
Topping the list is the aforementioned Karaoke Kan. It’s in Shibuya, where tourists can get an authentic taste of Tokyo nightlife.
In the Ginza shopping district, ask anyone to point you toward Big Echo Karaoke. Featuring both Japanese and English playlists, the place seems to be a favorite of local Japanese business people and the over-25 crowd.
The Lovenet features some of the wildest and most intricate sets of any karaoke club in Japan. One room is a replica of the Milk Bar from the film, A Clockwork Orange, while another allows singers to sit in a hot tub while belting out their favorite songs. The Lovenet is in Roppongi and is a bit pricier than the other clubs on this list.
Shidax is another Roppongi karaoke club that offers cushy leather chairs and ultra-comforts for weary wannabe rock stars. Locals and tourists love Shidax for its 70s decor themes and infinite song selections.
Karaoke, matcha tea, and high-tech computer components are three of Japan’s signature “exports” to the rest of the world. Whether karaoke lives on as a stalwart of the contemporary entertainment scene is uncertain. But there is no doubt it has already made its mark on the global culture in ways that were never imagined when the first machine appeared way back in 1971.