When you mention the word karaoke in America, images of an awkward individual, embarrassingly trying to hold a tune in front of unforgiving eyes in a bar or at an event are conjured up. But when you mention karaoke in Japan, the response is “ikimasho” (let’s go).
Karaoke has a long history in Japan and ranks as an extremely popular pastime, often just behind watching television in national surveys. Daisuke Inoue ‘invented’ the karaoke machine way back in 1971 (read GaijinPot’s article of this unsung hero here) and since, karaoke establishments can be found everywhere in Japan from bars, cabarets, and of course, karaoke rooms.
The standard procedure when going to a karaoke room is checking in and showing your club card. Reservations can be made occasionally, but karaoke is often a spur of the moment thing, usually being an after activity to going out to eat or a kind of after party. Not all places require cards, but if they do, you can usually just sign up for one on the spot for free or a very small fee. Foreigners can sign up for cards, too, by the way; I have one in my wallet right now. You tell the front desk how many people and how long you want to rent the room for. There are different packages. Sometimes you just rent the room and sing songs, other times you are required to buy some food or drink. My favorite karaoke chain that is popular in Tohoku is Maneki Neko, which allows you to basically picnic in your room. However, most places will not allow food or drinks. Nearly all places offer all-you-can-drink “nomihodai” (as in alcohol and soft drinks) which definitely improves my singing. Renting a room is usually cheaper during the day, but late at night after a few hours, you can reach the “free time” paradise when the hourly charge is very cheap or basically free.
You enter your room which may be as large as an Internet cafe or as small as a bathroom stall. The room given is usually appropriate for the number of people. Settle into a spot, dim the lights and let the disco begin.
While watching the ANA Cool Japan Campaign promo video, I learned about all the cool things in Japan, including karaoke. But why is karaoke so cool? You are still expected to be polite: you should request one song on the hand-held tablet, then pass it to someone else to choose. You can expect many popular English and even Korean songs because these are popular with Japanese people as well. I often see Chinese, Tagalog, Spanish, or other languages. Karaoke must be cool because anyone can find a song to sing in the privacy of a room with their friends. People will sometimes stay all night at karaoke but they can do much more than sing.
While it is true that some people use karaoke rooms to crash in until the morning train, there is a lot that can happen in the privacy of your own room. Karaoke is the place to scream your head off and party, sing a depressing or romantic song to match your rocky love life, or dance with the music—all easier with light-up tambourines (see picture below) or maracas. Choose one song then let another person choose before you hog the spotlight. Prepare to be yelled at if you start sleeping when someone is singing when everyone else is still awake. And always clap and cheer when someone else is done singing. You don’t need to ask permission when going to the bathroom, even during a song, because you’re a big boy or girl. I was a little surprised to observe that is OK to talk to other friends while someone is singing, but sleeping or forgetting the congratulations at the end of the song are a big no-no. Sometimes when people run out of songs to sing, the karaoke room just turns into a kind of lounge, where merely talking and enjoying drinks or food become commonplace. I’ve even heard rumors of kinky couples using the karaoke room for more than just singing. This, of course, is downright risky considering karaoke room doors have small windows, no locks, and any late orders of food will result in an attendant delivering a surprise to your room.
All in all, karaoke is the place to express yourself and relax in a society that seems to not rest and enjoy life enough, in my opinion. It has a long history that is enjoyed still today by Japanese young and old, and many foreigners as well. And it’s just downright fun. Keep in mind some of the etiquette and enjoy yourself. Ten minutes before your time is up, a courtesy call to the phone in your room (which is also used to order drinks and food) comes. Finish your last song, gather your belongings and bring back the microphones to the counter. Then go get some sleep, you party animal.