Pandemic muted karaoke in Japan, but sound of music is back

Pandemic muted karaoke in Japan, but sound of music is back

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

Since its birth in 1971, karaoke has been a favorite pastime not just for locals of all ages, but also for tourists visiting Japan. Before the pandemic, you could never pass a busy street at night without singing accompanied by music pouring out from bars and karaoke boxes. The tempo and lyrics might vary depending on the region, but karaoke has been a universal tune for all.

Karaoke has been a favorite post-dinner activity for my family and friends. We would huddle into a karaoke box, which has private rooms to sing our hearts out with only ourselves as an audience or go to a karaoke bar.

In Japan, depending on the venue you choose, the price for karaoke varies. At a karaoke bar, expect to pay anywhere from 200 to 300 yen ($1.50 to $2) per song. At a karaoke box, you’ll pay about 1,000 to 1,500 yen per hour per person for a private room.

My wife and daughter prefer a karaoke box where they can sing to their hearts’ content without being bothered by others. My 86-year-old father, on the other hand, prefers his regular karaoke bar with others over glasses of sake. In either case, I would usually enjoy karaoke for one or two hours with them after dinner.

Some karaoke lovers even enjoy going alone to practice their vocal skills. In Japan, karaoke is for everyone, even those who prefer to go solo.

If you’re planning to try karaoke on the mainland, check out the karaoke box chain discounts offered for daytime use, extended hours, or overnight hours. Senior citizens often enjoy daytime discounts to socialize with their neighbors and salarymen use the overnight discount when they miss the last train. I can’t remember how many times I enjoyed the overnight discount while waiting for my morning train.

But like many fun activities, COVID-19 put a damper on karaoke in Japan. Prior to the pandemic, Japan boasted about 364,000 karaoke machines and 47.5 million people sang along to the lyrics at karaoke establishments every year, according to the All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association. The industry was a multibillion-yen enterprise that was halted overnight as the government mandated bars and karaoke boxes to close for COVID-19 prevention.

For years, karaoke was off the menu for many of us. Now that things are starting to normalize, I have noticed that there are still less people enjoying karaoke and less spots to go do karaoke these days. Before COVID, I would always have to wait in a long line for a karaoke box to be available. But now, I can reserve a box easily without waiting for long time.

While the karaoke industry struggles to adapt to the changes and the slow return of its customers, the tune of karaoke remains enduring for locals and tourists alike. 


Okinawans’ love of Karaoke is true, but not for everyone - Stripes Okinawa

Growing up in the 80s, karaoke was popular. Hanging out with other kids, bowling and karaoke were our go-to choices. Though this was before Round 1 existed on Okinawa, you’d usually find bowling alleys, karaoke boxes and arcades close to each other, meaning we’d spent hours enjoying all. This did not change from my elementary school and middle school days in the 80s through my high school and college days in the 90s.

When it comes to the songs we liked to sing, there was a shift in trend. In the 80s, songs by boy bands and young female singers were quite popular. Back then, there were many primetime TV shows dedicated to such idols. In the 90s, pop groups were all the rage. Songs from trendy TV dramas depicting love stories of young white-collar workers in Tokyo were especially popular.

While my classmates loved to recount each episode of such TV shows just as much as to sing the songs, I found it hard to join the conversation because my family was not into that sort of entertainment.

Every time kids around me had fun singing new songs on the chart or talking about recent episodes of popular TV shows, I felt awkward, leading to my mixed feelings about karaoke. There was also a pressure among my peers to avoid singing songs from the same musician and from singing anime songs or mellow love songs, which further discouraged me from participating. I guess I was not alone because some kids around me were busy working hard at school with not much time to dedicate to following pop culture.

Today, I won’t willingly go to karaoke with my friends or coworkers. To be clear, I think karaoke is fun even though I’m not really good at it.

Nonetheless, karaoke is hard to avoid if you live in Japan as it remains one of the most beloved entertainments in this country. Even a person like me faces opportunities to hold a microphone from time to time.

On Okinawa, karaoke boxes are by far the most popular way to get to singing. If you like a crowd, you can also find karaoke bars around Gate 2 street by Kadena Air Base and Kume District of Naha City.

While on the mainland, salarymen will frequent karaoke boxes while they wait for the morning train, on Okinawa some salarymen on the island would do the same but with the need to drive or to use daiko can take away from the fun. On the other hand, karaoke is a popular social activity for friends, families and tourists. There are plenty of karaoke boxes on Okinawa just like on the mainland. When it comes to the love of singing on the island and mainland, I don’t think there is a big difference.

Though it may not be my favorite activity, checking the top karaoke song charts from time to time remains a hard habit to break. And, just like I did when I was young, I continue to prepare for another karaoke party that I will not be able to escape from.


Karaoke boxes and bars

Karaoke box
These are shops with private rooms have a sofa or two, tables and karaoke machine. Some of the rooms even have a stage and disco lights. If you’re in a large group of friends, coworkers or family, this is a great option to enjoy a few hours singing to each other in private. Some of the big chains include Karaokekan, Joysound, and Manekineko. Prices, discounts and memberships vary by chain, so search online or ask a Japanese friend for help to find the best deal.

Karaoke bar
This option is a little more public and similar to doing karaoke at a bar in the States. Karaoke bars serve alcohol, have a karaoke machine and sometimes even a stage. Even if you come alone, you can enjoy karaoke with others and drink a beer or sake. Buy a karaoke ticket (usually 200 – 300 yen a song) and wait your turn to sing on stage. Don’t forget to applaud after others have their turn belting out songs. Since karaoke bars serve alcohol, only adults 18 and older are allowed.

A bit of karaoke history & the man behind it all
When Daisuke Inoue, the man most credited for inventing the karaoke machine, accepted the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 at Harvard University, his rendition of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” won him a standing ovation. The invention has been doing the same for others for more than 50 years.

The businessman and musician from Kobe, Japan, used to perform in a band, often accompanying audience members and clients who sang popular songs at parties. When his band was a no-show at one party, he supplied a client with taped accompaniment – a “karaoke,” or empty orchestra.

It was a huge success. Seeing its potential, he invented the 8 JUKE in 1971 by combining a guitar amplifier, a tape player and a timer that drives the player for 5 minutes when you insert a 100-yen coin. Then, he started leasing the machine out.

The machine has helped so many people who wished to sing in public like a professional singer realize their dreams,” said Shiro Kataoka, managing director of All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association. It was enthusiastically accepted by bars and individuals and soon spread across the whole nation.

In addition to the 2004 Ig Nobel Peace Prize “for inventing karaoke, thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other,” Inoue was named one of “the most influential Asians of the 20th Century” by Time Magazine along with Emperor Hirohito, Mao Zedong and Mahatma Gandhi in 1999.

More importantly, however, his invention continues “to teach the world to sing.”

Tips for ensuring your singing hits all the right notes

- Most karaoke systems are either DAM or Joysound. Some boxes have both and will ask your preference. Joysound has a bigger song catalog, scoring and ranking. DAM offers better acoustics and videos. The employees at the box will suggest the better option for more English or British songs.

- Choose a golden ratio: When using a private room, set the machine’s music level (Music: 22; Microphone: 25; and Echo: 18). This is the sweet spot for an epic performance.

- Nab a deal: Karaoke can get expensive, so opt for daytime hours on weekdays to enjoy extended free time for a great price at the karaoke box. Also, check the discounted prices for overnight use. Weekends tend to be more expensive and can sometimes double the price of the standard fee.

- Karaoke party your way: Manekineko, a popular karaoke box chain, allows customers to bring in their own food and drinks to their rooms. This can be a real cost-saver.

- Most popular karaoke box chain ranking: 1. Manekineko 2. Shidax 3. Jankara. However, a different chain, Karaokekan, has the largest number of shops in Tokyo with 116 locations as of 2023.

Japan alive with latest sounds

The use of karaoke machines took off dramatically when Karaoke on Demand was introduced in 1992 and has been soaring ever since with newer and newer innovations.

Karaoke on Demand transfers data from a remote central server via a broadband network to karaoke terminals instantly, providing access to a huge number of the newest hits with high-quality acoustics, according to Shiro Kataoka, managing director of All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association.

“The latest broadband communication model can provide about 200,000 songs, including 19,000 American and British songs in English,” he said, adding that English-language songs are the most popular worldwide. Full access to the system is limited to Japan due to licensing and copyright issues.

“The newest model is equipped with sophisticated key control, echo (effect), vocal-guiding and volume-control functions that help even an awkward singer to enjoy a variety of songs,” Kataoka said.  “It is accompanied by attractive video stories on a monitor to enhance the audience’s enjoyment.”

Other functions allow you to repeat or fast-forward songs while singing, alter your voice tone and incorporate various sound effects so you can practice. You can even create a demo CD, according to Kataoka.

Currently, only two makers manufacture all the karaoke machines in Japan, Daiichi Kosho’s DAM and XING’s Joysound. The same songs are often arranged differently by each maker, so you had better remember which brand has your favorite version.

Kataoka credits the global use of home-karaoke machines to Japanese trade company employees. “They have taken home-karaoke machines to their assigned country and sung native songs to enhance relations their local counterparts,” he said. “Thanks to them, karaoke has spread virtually all over the world.”

Speakin’ Japanese

- Let’s go to karaoke! = Karaoke ni ikimasho! カラオケに行きましょう!
- Are there karaoke rooms available? = Aiteiru heya wa arimasuka? 空いている部屋はありますか?
- How much is it for an hour of karaoke? = Ichijikan ikura desuka? 一時間いくらですか?
- Pick a song. = Kyoku wo erande kudasai. 曲を選んでください。
- Do you want to sing a song together? = Isshoni utaitai desuka?  一緒に歌いたいですか?
- Is our time up? = Mo jikan desuka? もう時間ですか?
- Should we pick free-time? = Furiitaimu ni shita ho ga iidesuka? フリータイムにした方がいいですか?
- Let’s order a drink from the menu. = Nomimono wo menyu kara tanomimasho. 飲み物をメニューから頼みましょう。
- Microphone = maiku マイク
- Karaoke room = karaoke ruumu カラオケルーム
- Model (of Karaoke) = Kisyu 機種
- Key = kii キー
- Is there a new model of karaoke machine available? = Atarashii kisyu wa arimasuka? 新しい機種はありますか?
- I prefer DAM to Joysound. = Joisaundo yori Damu no ho ga suki desu. JoysoundよりDAMの方が好きです。
- The key is too high for my voice. Can you make it lower a bit? = Kii ga takasugimasu. Sukoshi sagete kudasai. キーが高すぎます。少し下げてください。

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