Karaoke is a phenomenally popular pastime in Japan. Really, it’s not hard to understand why. Just think about that most famous of world intersections at Shibuya, the mass of bodies that makes London seem quiet and bucolic in comparison is in a way Japan personified… albeit many times over.
So how does Karaoke fit into this?
There is the simple fact that this is a cheap private space. In a country with an average population density of about 873 people per square mile, where three generations of a family will live together with paper thin walls between them and not bat an eyelid, a space you can rent relatively cheaply, drink cheap beer and snack to your hearts content with your mates long into the night when other Izakayas have shut up shop is a valuable commodity
Karaoke in Japan can be as private or as social as you want it to be. This is because big Karaoke places have rooms, or boxes as they are sometimes known, where one can sing alone to your hearts content or in the company of friends. Thus allowing both a rare opportunity for privacy or the ability to limit your potential humiliation to a handful of friends or sufficiently drunk co-workers.
Also, it’s liberating. While every other aspect of life in Japan may require a level of conformity and groupthink that some of us in the west might baulk at, Karaoke is about letting go of these constraints. You can be salary man by day and J-Rock star by night if that’s what you want to be.
It is a sense a way to recapture your youth in a big way. We all like to think that we’d sing something current, up to date and unassailably cool. But the truth is, that when the beers are stacking up something of your true and once youthful self emerges and unlike in High School, it isn’t shy. My litany of crimes to music within the confines of a karaoke box are now many, including my own attempt at doing Sad Kermit’s version of the Nine Inch Nails classic Hurt as covered by Johnny Cash, various 1980’s rap numbers and the odd *cough* …Springsteen classic… though strangely I regret them not.
Now I’ve been so often I’m beginning to develop minor pet peeves. Mainly that the aging Karaoke videos for any english language songs are a montage of 1980’s Europe, so when midway through singing any song you are likely to be confronted by the horror of a permed woman attempting to solve the same crossword over and over and over again, amid a sea of London Buses, just before a flood of images rotating around the leaning tower of Piza, before finally falling to despair and plummeting into a belly laugh at the sight of San Francisco tram cars.
It wasn’t long ago that the thought of Karaoke made me chuckle and wince in equal measure, but slowly bit by bit, inch by inch its grown on me. Like some airborne virus it’s caught me off guard. Passed unnoticed into my bloodstream and set up shop and worst of all it’s a fan of The Vapors.