Japanese Karaoke: What Is It, How To Do It, & The History

You’ve probably heard of karaoke. Maybe you’ve even been to karaoke night at a local pub or bar. And perhaps you’ve wondered – how does Japanese karaoke differ from the favorite nighttime pastime you’ve come to enjoy?

In this guide, we’ll look at what Japanese karaoke is, how to do it, and explore a bit of its history too. Read on…

What Is Japanese Karaoke?

Karaoke originated in Japan. Today, it's a fun recreational activity embraced worldwide, especially in Asian countries.

If you’re familiar with karaoke in any capacity, then you already know the activity consists of singing songs to musical accompaniment and synchronized lyrics displayed on a screen.

Musical accompaniment may be true to the original tune, but in some cases, you get a simplified MIDI version (which can be harder to sing to).

At karaoke night, no one is expected to sing well, though some people do inevitably pull off great performances. And that is part of the fun too.

Karaoke may be enjoyed by people of all ages, though many establishments in Japan are for people 20 and above since they serve alcohol (the legal drinking age in Japan is 20). Karaoke can be and is enjoyed by natives and tourists alike.

Karaoke bars are usually open from around 11:00 AM in the morning all the way to 3:00 AM the following late night.

Where in North America karaoke night is usually a public affair, in Japan it is often more private. So-called “karaoke boxes” (or karaoke booths) each come with their own karaoke player and microphones and can accommodate small parties.

There are, however, some establishments in North America that have private karaoke rooms too. And there are some smaller establishments in Asia where patrons sing in front of everyone. These are often serving a male-dominated clientele, at least in Japan, mind you.

Typically, you’ll be able to find an array of English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean songs in the karaoke system. You will also find an array of Western songs, including those that became popular in Asia but never stood a chance in North America, for whatever reason (you might be surprised).

Another attraction of the karaoke box, of course, is the food and drink. There is usually staff on site to take your order, but things have naturally become more efficient with modern technologies – with ordering tablets, buttons that alert reception to come to your room, or phones that connect you to reception.

Fundamentally, there is no major difference between karaoke in Japan, North America, or the UK. But there are some nuances well worth learning about, especially if you don’t speak the language or happen to be going with colleagues. So, let’s talk about how to do Japanese karaoke.

What Is Japanese Karaoke?

How To Do Japanese Karaoke

The best way to do Japanese karaoke is with friends. Going alone isn’t much fun, and it’s always nice to be around people who know how Japanese, as well as how the system works.

Plus, if you don’t speak Japanese, while the receptionist will try to help you as best, they can, they may have trouble understanding you.

Practices can vary from one establishment to another, but this is generally how things should unfold once you arrive at a karaoke center:

Proceed to the front counter. The receptionist will greet you and ask you:

  • Whether this is your first time at their establishment. You may need to fill out a simple form if it is your first time visiting the place of business. You may also need proof of identity – driver’s license, passport, or otherwise.
  • How many people will be joining you.
  • How long you plan to stay (how many hours would you like to purchase?).
  • Whether you’d like to place your first food and drink order.
  • What karaoke player type you’d like to use (if they have multiple).

You should then be assigned a room based on the size of your group. A tab will be created, which will establish start and end times. You can then go to your room and enjoy yourself.

When you’ve reached your end time, you can return to the front counter and choose to extend your stay or pay for the time booked.

How to karaoke Japanese style

How To Use The Karaoke Player

Most karaoke centers have multiple types of karaoke players. They will vary in terms of interface, sound options, and most notably, song selection.

The latest hits will almost always be included, and of course, you will be able to find some popular classics too. The back catalog is where there is usually the most variance from system to system.

In Japan, the establishment’s selection of Japanese songs is bound to be more developed than English-speaking songs. That said, at one point in history, Japan very much patterned itself after the U.S., and for that reason, you will find a surprising array of American songs – some you would not expect to be known in Japan!

Fortunately, nowadays, karaoke players are all digitized and relatively easy to use. And depending on the player, you’ll be able to select from multiple languages (including English).

There should also be a catalog in the room indicating the selection of songs, along with relevant codes you can punch into the system. Having made your first selection, the song should begin playing in a few seconds with a video clip and on-screen lyrics.

If you select more songs, they will be added to the queue and played in the order they were keyed in. This is the most efficient way to keep the night of fun going!

Of course, if you need to delete a song entry, you should have that option. And in most cases, you will have controls for music volume, microphone levels, tempo, and pitch too.

Karaoke with friends in Japan

If You’re Going To Karaoke With Work Colleagues

The “respect the elders” culture of Japan will be well-known to anyone who has stayed in the country long term.

Japan is more international than it once was, and in the last decade or two, the country has been modernizing in a variety of ways. That said, their traditional honor and respect system still seems to apply in schooling and employment situations especially.

If you’re going to karaoke with work colleagues, especially managers or bosses, it would be wise to observe certain formalities.

Seniority is effectively the name of the game in Japan, and if you are younger than most, or even just younger than one or two colleagues joining you, ensure that you:

  • Always let the more senior in the party sing the first song. Even if they ask you to sing first, refuse and let them be first in line (unless they order you to sing first, in which case, you’re up!).
  • If a senior chooses a song for you, sing it without question, even if you don’t know it.
  • Always let the more senior in the party drink the first drink. Even if you’re going to “cheers” (kanpai) together, ensure that your seniors are drinking first before your lips touch your drink.
  • Always let the more senior in your party have more. Let them sing more, drink more, and eat more than you do. Go out of your way to ensure they do.
  • Don't go home before your boss.

If you live in Japan, you probably know to observe these practices already, but just in case.

The History Of Japanese Karaoke

Late night fun in Japan

Karaoke has a relatively short history. Who knew?

It would not exist as we know it today if not for three men, detailed below:

  • Electronics factory owner Shigeichi Negishi was apparently the first to have invented the karaoke machine in 1967. He enjoyed singing over his favorite songs on the job and thus had his head engineer connect a microphone amp and mixing circuit to the eight-tape decks they were producing at the factory. Subsequently, he attempted to lease the machine to bars, but they couldn’t compete with local guitarists and decided not to move forward with the project.
  • Kobe musician Daisuke Inoue also sensed an opportunity in 1971 after being overbooked by clients. He decided to record instrumental tracks in keys that were easy for clients to sing and offer them backing tracks for events he couldn’t personally attend. Eventually, a coin-operated machine was created. It gave patrons the ability to sing for a few minutes. This event played a huge part in kicking off the karaoke craze as we know it today.
  • In 1975, Filipino inventor Roberto del Rosario would invent the Karaoke Sing-Along System. While there may have been machines before his, Roberto del Rosario was the first to patent the karaoke machine.

The term “karaoke” means “empty orchestra” in Japanese. Karaoke tracks are effectively instrumental backing tracks featuring no vocals, so the implication is relatively obvious. It’s almost as if describing an orchestral performance without a melody (just a chord structure), leaving room for someone to fill that gap.

How Much Does It Cost To Karaoke?

Singing karaoke in Japan

This will vary from one establishment to another. Charges are typically on a per-person, half-hour basis, at 100 yen (roughly $1 USD) during off-peak hours, and 400 yen (roughly $4 USD) during peak hours.

That means if you’re part of a party of five spending three hours at a karaoke center during peak hours, your calculations would be as follows:

(400 yen x 6 half-hour blocks) x 5 people = 12,000 yen (or 2,400 yen each)

Of course, this does not include food or drink, but not bad for a night out, don’t you think?

What Is Japanese Karaoke? Final Thoughts

Whether in Japan or in other parts of the world, Karaoke is meant to be fun and enjoyable. Certainly, Japan is a more community-minded country than most, and if you decide to do karaoke in Japan, you may need to show your manners. But it’s generally not difficult or tedious if you understand their culture.

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