A person would be a fool to look for a single, simple window into the mystery of the Japanese character. But if a person were to insist, he could do worse than take as his window the riddle of karaoke.
Karaoke, you may already be aware, is like a national pastime in Japan. It holds the same kind of prominence in the Japanese social vernacular that happy hour does for Americans, or dinner parties or going to the movies. Karaoke clubs are at least as common as sports bars and cineplexes in the U.S., and they have roughly the same function: to get people out of the house and into places where they will spend lots of money on entertainment with little or no redeeming social value while using their cellphones. But in Japan, as with so many things here, they’ve turned this ritual into an art form, albeit one that seems on its face to be largely devoid of grace, beauty or history.
Most Americans have some familiarity with the phenomenon, whose name they render as “kary-okie” but which is properly pronounced “kara-okeh,” from the Japanese words kara and ōkesutora, meaning something along the lines of “empty orchestra.” Karaoke is widely understood to date back to the mid-‘80s – a decade that gave us many, many things for which we’re thankful only that they’re not around any more – when a Japanese percussionist began creating devices that allowed friends to play recordings of his music sans lyrics at parties so they could sing along. It took a decade or so for the fad to spread west, but once it did, as with most of the things Americans borrow from the Japanese (I defy you to find a “California roll” at a sushi restaurant in Fukui), the original artifact has been Westernized almost beyond recognition.
The differences between the two brands span both the superficial and the fundamental. Nearly all American karaoke takes place in bars, after the clientèle has been hitting the sauce for a while, enabled by a “KJ” or host who plugs in the music choices and provides witty (in the best of circumstances) commentary and encouragement. He’s usually paid to be there by the bar owner, who understands that the money he pulls in on beer from the singing crowd more than makes up for what he spends on the karaoke guy.
In Japan, some amount of karaoke is perpetrated in bars and clubs, but rarely is there a stage involved, or even the attention of the room at large. Instead, patrons use a hi-tech, head-sized remote control to choose which of the umptillions of de-lyrified songs they wish to play on one of the club’s corner televisions, always accompanied by a scrolling display of the lyrics and one of a few dozen breathtakingly banal, generic “music videos,” which feature young, beautiful, fashionably dressed Japanese men and women running through beaches and office parks, looking forlorn, angry, horny, flirty, pensive, rebellious or listlessly constipated, often all at once. In bars, participants sing from their seats or where they stand, passing around the microphone from singer to singer like parents at a PTA meeting. Nor is it free. Japanese people fork over anywhere from ¥100-¥500 (one yen is roughly a penny) to sing each song, in addition to plunking down for their drinks.
But most karaoke goes down in specialized facilities, all seemingly designed to look like Liberace’s bathroom. These buildings rent scores of small rooms or “boxes” by the hour, which often includes all-you-can-drink booze service and a food menu. In these sound-proofed, closet-sized cubicles, each sporting a couch, a table, a TV, a jukebox’s worth of music and personalized pitch control, you and your closest friends can enjoy all the karaoke you want, any way you want.
Here is where the paths of Japanese and American karaoke really diverge. The biggest difference between the two – and this is where I believe an important peeky-hole to these people’s brains lies – is that when you perform karaoke in Japan, you check your irony at the door, assuming you had any to begin with, which if you’re Japanese is unlikely, but more on this in a moment.
This is a distinction that can’t be overstated. In America, for all but the tiniest fraction of participants, karaoke is all about the irony. When we chug a beer, jump onto the stage, and grab the mic, we’re not serious. We don’t honestly intend to try to outperform the artist whose voice has been snipped out of the song. And we’re certainly not there to unbreak our hearts with Toni Braxton. On the other side of the Pacific we use karaoke to engage in a different sort of catharsis: self-mockery, that distinctly, reflexively American form of social inoculation in which we deflect the potential for public embarrassment by smashing the pie into our own faces. It’s a sociological judo of sorts. We want to make fools of ourselves, without which the entire notion of American karaoke – to say nothing of a decades’s worth of network reality television programming – is without purpose. Who wants to stand in a bar and watch talented people sing excellent renditions of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” or Def Leppard’s “Photograph”? These songs sucked to begin with. They are not going to get appreciably better with a different vocalist and some vibrato. Even if you can sing well, in American karaoke it’s a bad idea to take your moment at the mic too seriously. Send an audition tape to American Idol, if you think you warble like a pro. But get off the karaoke stage, please, and take your Van Morrison, your Mariah, and your John Mayer with you.
Japanese karaoke clubs, however, are filled with the earnest faces of people in thrall to their own tortured vocal chords, their eyes aglow with sincerity, their hearts breaking visibly as they sing – badly, terribly, execrably, more often than not – to a mixture of saccharine-slathered Japanese and American pop, classic rock, and movie musical tunes (“Summer Nights,” anyone?). Watching a middle aged man in a business suit relaxing with his buddies after a hard day at the office by butchering “Born To Make You Happy” from his seat at a bar table while the rest of the room ignores him is an extraordinary experience, like nothing you’ll see in America, unless maybe you’re in a Sacha Baron Cohen movie.
It’s a picture, though, that’s emblematic of the Japanese people, as best I can tell. As I mentioned before, the Japanese capacity for irony is practically nonexistent. Comedy in Japan skews to the slapstick and Vaudevillian variety, rather than toward the Americans’ droll, arched eyebrow or the U.K’s deadpan ridiculous. Reality TV shows here, of which there are an infinity, traffic not in the savage mockery of the West – itself a product of our disdain for the unironic quest for celebrity – but in gentle lampooning and self-parody, heavily weighted toward laugh-filled contests of intelligence and mental skill, calling to mind American game shows of the ‘70s like To Tell the Truth and The Gong Show.
The first few times I experienced Japanese karaoke, it was not as a participant but as an audience member – which felt, at the time, more like voyeurism than anything else. Invariably, my American-built earnestness-radar was activated, displaying a target-rich environment. The automated irony defense powered up in response and prepared to deliver a debilitating spray of snark, which is its default setting. Is this something these people really want to be doing in public, I kept thinking, finger poised over the trigger. Shall I just put them out of their misery?
But in the four months I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a marked decrease in my instinct for derision and ridicule. I’ve even spent a few evenings slugging back beers on a couch with friends in a karaoke box, and a few times I’ve caught myself singing Simon and Garfunkle without a hint of irony. It’s a little scary, yeah. I’m out of my element. But I didn’t come to Japan to be the same person I was in South Carolina. Pass the big-ass remote control, punch in Britney, and – God help me – gimme more.