Karaoke is one of the most iconic aspects of Japanese culture. After a long week of work, there is no better way to unwind than belting out some of your favorite songs in a karaoke booth. The power of singing is well understood by Japanese people. Go to any major train station in Japan and you’ll be sure to find a range of different karaoke parlors to choose from.
Karaoke is short for “karaokestura”, meaning “empty orchestra”. Before the invention of karaoke as we know it, this term was used in the Japanese entertainment industry to refer to backing tracks that singers use when they cannot arrange a live band accompaniment.
There is some debate surrounding the true origins of the modern karaoke machine. A number of inventors in the late 1960s and early 1970s independently created rudimentary sing-along machines similar to the karaoke machines we know today. However, one musician from Kobe, Daisuke Inoue, is most popularly credited as the true inventor of karaoke.
Music has always played an important role in Japanese nightlife, and during the postwar era, singalongs with a live band became common. Inoue specialized in leading singalongs for groups of salarymen celebrating or entertaining clients. His popularity increased until he became overbooked, and he began recording backing tracks for clients he could not personally perform for. In 1971, he commissioned a coin-operated machine to play these tracks and began renting the machines to local nightclubs in Kobe.
Unlike earlier machines which used commercially available instrumental backing tracks, Inoue recorded his own backing tracks at different keys to make it easier for clients to sing along. His karaoke machine also included reverb to help mask singers’ mistakes. The initial reaction to the machines was lukewarm, so Inoue began paying hostesses to sing on them, and this helped the karaoke craze begin to take hold in Kobe. By the end of the 1970s, karaoke had spread all around Japan as major electronics manufacturers like JVC began making their own versions of the machine.
While karaoke was originally sung in front of a room full of people in a bar or nightclub, private karaoke booths have become the most popular form of karaoke since they first appeared in the 1980s. A karaoke establishment will typically have ten to twenty private booths, each with their own unique style of decoration. In each room, there is a phone which you can use to order drinks or food to be delivered to your room. Many karaoke parlors also feature a self-service ice cream machine.
However, it’s still possible to sing karaoke in public bars today. Snack bars, or “sunakku”, often feature a karaoke facility which is used by both the customers and bartenders. This can be a great way to break the ice with locals and hear some classic Japanese karaoke tracks in their natural setting!
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