Unifying power of karaoke

I’m usually against stereotypes. I do not like the idea of judging an individual before getting the chance to interact with them properly. However, there is one stereotype that even I, a Japanese-American, am powerless against… Japanese love karaoke.

Karaoke catalogue
Photo by kayoubi_

There are karaoke boxes all throughout Japan, mostly located near train stations and in big cities. Majority of the time they filled with young and elderly people a like. It is a good way to relax after school or work and blow off some of the day’s stresses. But why hasn’t karaoke’s popularity boomed in the Western world as it has in Japan? What is it about karaoke in Japan that makes it so special?

The most noticeable difference between Japanese karaoke and Western karaoke is the structure. In Western karaoke, participants stand up on a stage in front of other bar patrons and sing their (drunk) hearts out. In Japan however, karaoke patrons are assigned a booth (depending on group size), completely separated from strangers and alone with their friends. Hence the difference in names; karaoke bars in the west, and karaoke boxes in Japan.

Not surprisingly, this plays a huge factor in karaoke’s popularity. Knowing that the only people who will hear them sing are their friends, may allow the Japanese to participate without hesitation. In addition, the dark and intimate setting provides the singers the feeling of being able to hide, while many Westerners succumb to ‘stage fright’ knowing that complete strangers will judge them. This leads to probably the biggest difference between Japanese karaoke and Western Karaoke—ideology.

The ways in which the Japanese and the Westerners view the idea of karaoke are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Where Westerns tend to view karaoke as a talent contest for the vocally gifted, the Japanese focus on participating and giving a sincere effort. This can be viewed through the many talent shows that exist, such as American Idol or The X Factor, both of which look for a new star and spend the first couple of weeks ridiculing those of lesser talent. Where as in Japan, although their actual singing talents are questionable, some Japanese music artists’ albums are able to sell in the millions.

Japanese people do not care if you are a skilled singer or not. They only want you to participate in the fun and enjoy yourself. Karaoke is a good bonding experience. Not only are you in a small setting, where you are able converse with everyone in the room, you are able to show your true self without the fear of being judged based on your singing abilities.

Shimatachi summarized the difference between the ideology of Japanese karaoke and Western karaoke in Japan Pop!: “[...] karaoke must be seen as a positive social development. In short, the Walkman isolates and the boom box domineers—but karaoke unites.” 1.

Obviously, Shimatachi wrote this article in a time where people used Walkmans and boom boxes, but the message remains unchanged. Walkmans, or more recently mp3 players, keep individuals isolated from each other and encourage introverts; boom boxes, or more recently American Idol, encourage the separation of the talented and the less talented.

The success of Japanese karaoke boxes is contributed to the combination of structure and ideology. The unifying power of karaoke to bond and connect with others around them overpowers any fears and embarrassments an individual might have, a leads to an awfully fun Friday night!

  1. Shimatachi, H. (2000). A karaoke perspective on international relations In T. Craig (Ed.), Japan Pop! (pp. 101-105). Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe.

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Gregg Muragishi is a graduate from the University of Southern California. Gregg has also studied abroad in Japan at Tokyo International University (東京国際大学) in Kawagoe, Saitama. As a fourth-generation Japanese-American, he is on a continual journey to rediscover and reconnect with his family's Japanese heritage.

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  • http://twitter.com/LeafyTangram Leah

    I’ve come to the same conclusions about karaoke in Japan and the US. I wish we had karaoke boxes here – I’d be way more up for karaoke then.

    • Gregg Muragishi

      Yeah, when I ask my US friends if they want to go karaoke, they just give me a weird look. I am sure you can find some karaoke boxes around where you live! 

      Thanks for reading & commenting! 

      -Gregg Muragishi 

  • http://profiles.google.com/shadowpal2 Déjà D’être

    Boy boy am I lucky here California. About…8 months back, my Japanese friend showed me a Karaoke box here in the Silicon Valley. He claims himself that it’s almost like his home country as they regularly keep updated with songs, wonderful customer service, being able to order food, and etc. Of course…I guess it’s primarily because the owners are Japanese haha. 

    I really love it and agree with everything said here. It is a wonderful bonding/social experience. Of course I do find it personal as well because it really does have a psychological effect in cooling down your brain and calming you down from the stresses of daily life. 

    And the other reason why I just love it so much is because I can practice my Japanese reading skills. It’s perfect and something I would definitely do every weekend…when I get to drive that is haha.

    • Gregg Muragishi

      We Californians are very lucky! There are lots of karaoke boxes around here too. But the price is so expensive compared to Japan! 

      Thanks for mentioning the Japanese reading practice. I forgot to mention it in the article. You’re right! Karaoke helps with reading a lot, especially reading speed. You’ll probably learn a few more kanji as well! 

      • http://profiles.google.com/shadowpal2 Déjà D’être

        I heard it is expensive compared to Japan! But luckily there’s a deal that runs from 10am – 2pm everyday in where all I have to do is pay $1/hour. So $4 for 4 hours!

        I can understand the timing to be quite…unfortunate for those who work, and those who go to school. But there are college students near by who adjust their schedule accordingly so they can get some relaxation before a midterm I guess hahaha.  But there’s always the weekend for everyone to enjoy!

  • http://www.authorsmania.com/ Research Essays

    Hi…

    Nice post and really you have done a great job its really helpful for me i have lesarn a lot of new things from this post.
    thanks for sharing

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    Don’t forget the extra-unifying effect of nomihoudai karaoke, where you get to drink as much as you want (read, “can”) for two hours for a fixed price.  It definitely improves the quality of everyone’s voice.  A guaranteed good time that you’re sure not to remember.

  • http://twitter.com/jseb_92 Seb

    nice post ^^

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