It’s another icy winter’s night at the hot springs resort, on the banks of the Tokachi River in the wilds of Hokkaido, but upstairs in the hotel lounge the lads are feeling no pain.
The sake is flowing freely, the spotlights are panning across the empty stage, as the 40 or 50 mainly middle-aged revellers, pink-faced and perspiring after their plunge in the communal baths, wait for the entertainment to begin.
There is one big difference between the audience at the Tokachi-gawa onsen and resorts elsewhere in the world. Here, there are no paid professional entertainers – the audience is the act, and you couldn’t beat them back with sticks.
With a digital back-up band booming from the Bose speakers, and the words scrolling across a TV monitor, the older men queue to take the stage to croon heart-rending enka (traditional ballads), couples serenade each other with love duets, odd, cute teenage OL (Office Ladies, as they are called) belt out the words to the latest TV soapie theme.
It’s a scene that is repeated every night of the week in hundreds of thousands of venues – from grand hotels to tiny bars and purpose-built booths like freight containers – the length of Japan. From the snowy mountain wilderness of Hokkaido to the remote tropical islands of the Ryukyus, it seems impossible to escape the din.
Welcome to the world of karaoke – a mongrel contraction of the Japanese word kara (meaning empty) and the English “orchestra” -which last year achieved the international legitimacy of being included in Webster’s dictionary, along with sushi, samurai, futon and tsunami.
Since an office worker first entertained the customers in a Kobe bar in 1972, karaoke has swept Japan, and is now a booming export. According to Takanobu Yumoto, editor of the quarterly Karaoke Business magazine, about 80 per cent of the 380,000 bars in Japan have karaoke machines.
Japan’s Education Ministry last year included karaoke in its annual”cultural white paper”, after discovering in a survey that almost half the Japanese population attends a karaoke night at least once a year. It beats watching TV and is, in fact, second only to eating out as Japan’s favourite leisure activity.
In fact, teachers at some progressive schools are using karaoke versions of Beatles hits to teach their students spoken English, giving rise to the alarming possibility of a generation of Japanese speaking with a broad Liverpudlian accent.
In Tokyo, there are karaoke taxis where office workers can sing a duet with the cabbie while circling round on the Shuto expressway. There are McDonald’s with karaoke, coffee-shops, and jaraoke places where you can sing along while eating okonomi-yake, a sort of pancake. Passing tour buses throb with off-key choruses.
Among the more bizarre groups cashing in on the boom is the Zuikoji Buddhist temple in Osaka, which has shifted a statue of the Lord Buddha to install a karaoke theatre, complete with stage lights and a smoke machine where the priests and their congregation can get into something a bit more lively than the sutras.
Purpose-built karaoke venues have been multiplying since the first one opened just eight years ago, in a converted railway carriage at the town of Okayama. Now there are 11,000 of them – more than 120,000 cubicles where groups of up to a dozen friends can party on in private, singing their favourite hits.
Some of the venues are Cecil B. de Mille extravaganzas, fitted out like desert islands, Space Invaders, dinosaur parks and weird themes.
The chain of 400 Big Echo venues, operated by karaoke billionaire Tadahiko Hoshi’s Daichi Kosho company, claims to attract 18 million wanna-be pop stars a year – a bigger crowd than Tokyo’s Disneyland can draw.
To keep the trade up to date with the latest developments, Mr Yumoto’s company organises an annual karaoke trade fair, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors from Japan and neighbouring countries.
Here, a dozen groups and solo singers cavort on sound-stages, showing off the very latest in high-tech gadgetry, including electronic songbooks in 10 languages.
The hottest thing in karaoke is a system called ISDN, a sort of pop-song superhighway, which links central “libraries” holding 10,000 or more digitalised karaoke videoclips with almost anywhere in Japan, via fibre-optic cables.
Other stands display karaoke for your car; a dating service which can be plugged into karaoke machines; and a drive-in karaoke parking station where huge speakers in the roof blast your car about.
There is everything from special meal-microwaving machines to breathalysers- “Go home, do not sing,” it says when you get into the red.
The industry is calculated to be worth $24 billion a year, and is one of the few growth areas for Japan’s ailing electronics manufacturers – principally Pioneer, which is engaged in a karaoke war with Victor and Sony to defend its dominance of the market.
The question no-one seems able to convincingly answer is why it should have taken off among Japanese, who are thought by most Westerners to be the most modest, diffident and conformist of people.
Mr Yumoto’s explanation is hardly flattering: “It’s because Japanese have a very low degree of cultural awareness. In other countries, people are used to going to a park, a theatre or a movie, but not here. Japanese don’t know what to do with their spare time, so they do karaoke.”
Robert Harris, a Japanese / American DJ on Tokyo’s top-rating J-Wave radio station, thinks the reasons for karaoke’s success are social. “Like Andy Warhol said, everyone’s going to be famous for 15 minutes. The office workers go to a bar and have a drink and they get to shake off their shy selves and become extroverted; for a few minutes they are the centre of attention, not just a tiny cog in a wheel.
“It is very cool with kids, even students at the bright universities like Keio. Why? Because it’s so crowded in Japan, they live at home and have nowhere to meet their friends – with a karaoke box, for a few hundred yen, they can have their own space, a little privacy.”
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Thursday 10 November 1994
Section: Travel and Leisure
Word count: 1126
1. Cab duets … in Tokyo there are karaoke taxis
2. Where office workers can sing a duet with the cabbie while circling round on the Shuto expressway.