The lights are dim. Drinks litter the table. People are laughing and talking somewhere in the dark. Suddenly, the TV screen changes and music swells – it’s the opening of  “My Heart Will Go On.” Someone hands me a microphone.

“Ganbatte!” excited voices shout, chuckling, waiting.


We’ve all been there. Karaoke is an integral part of Japanese life, whether at a staff party or with friends, whether you love it or loathe it.

The exact date of the start of the karaoke trend is uncertain, but it is known worldwide to have begun in Japan — in a little town called Kobe, in fact. Go Hyogo! But what has made it as popular as it is today?

I know that back home, karaoke is generally not the most comfortable experience – usually there is a stage on which you can get up and sing in front of a large room full of strangers, or worse, sit and listen to strangers get up and sing on stage. For the outgoing, this can be a good time. For those less outgoing, it can be torturous.

Here in Japan it’s different. You can go to an exclusively karaoke dedicated venue that has “karaoke boxes.” Only you and your party are subject to each other’s skills (or lack of them) in small, intimate, soundproofed rooms made just for singing. I believe this serves the Japanese character quite well – privacy and a minimum of embarrassment.

But why has this trend caught on, and in fact become almost an integral part of Japanese culture? It is my opinion, and that of others, that karaoke is a release from the everyday restraint and reserve that must be displayed in the workplace here. What better way to do it than head to a karaoke box, belt out some tunes, and drink? What happens in the karaoke box stays in the karaoke box.

Also, I think that karaoke can sometimes be used as an opportunity to make a small change to one’s social status. Imagine what a help it would be for the new guy at work to get a reputation for having a voice like an angel. Or for the usually stuffy woman at the office to show off her bad self with a racy song. Or for the foreigner to prove that she is fun and approachable by being game for whatever stupid song that gets thrown at her.

So for those who enjoy karaoke (I happen to be one of them) go belt it out! Try to get the high score! Try to lose the most calories during your next song! (Those machines sure are weird sometimes….) And for those of you who don’t really like being forced to sing when you’re shy or tone deaf or just plain hate karaoke, try to be objective about it. Why not get in there for one song and let ‘em have it? I hear “Louie Louie” doesn’t really have any discernable lyrics – do your best drunken impression of the Kingsmen and let the karaoke culture have you for a moment.

And as for Celine Dion, I got up, and I sang it. I killed it. Because in the karaoke box, that’s how I roll.

What do you think about karaoke?

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