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After a decade in the karaoke business, lounge owner Kagura Muto has heard her share of sour notes. But business of late has been a different sort of flat.

Under the white-hot spotlights at her bar, a retiree cuts loose a raucous, rough-on-the-ears rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Nary a soul is here to clap.

“Ten years ago, this place would have been packed with 20 people,” Muto complained after punching in the off-key crooner’s next song. “Now nobody wants to sing. It’s all because of the bad economy.”

Considered by many Japan’s most insidious export since Godzilla, karaoke blossomed into a global, multibillion-dollar business after its 1971 inception by a Japanese rock-and-roll drummer who can’t read a note of music.

Fanatics rave about its “health” benefits, drunken crooners consider it the great social leveler and the uninitiated find it hard to resist — at least once. Karaoke has become as universally recognized as Mount Fuji, and singalong soundtracks provide alter-egos for millions of Sinatra wannabes from Laos to Las Vegas. But in the land of its birth, karaoke buffs are singing the blues.

Japan’s decade-long economic slump has spurred a five-year slide in both karaoke bars and singers. Some of the biggest karaoke firms are quitting the business, while others are trying ever zanier gimmicks to win back fans — from erotic music videos to karaoke for the car.

Fans decry the decline of the only pastime that lets tone-deaf crooners indulge their inner Madonna.

“Karaoke can’t die,” said Yumiko Fujii, crowned the country’s No. 1 songster at the All-Japan Karaoke Throne Battle in November. “It’s really too bad people are spending less money on it. Karaoke’s like a vitamin pill for the heart.”

Karaoke’s decrescendo began with the collapse of the bubble economy. Soaring bankruptcies and record unemployment forced a budget-strapped public to cut back on quite costly karaoke nights.

The number of customers peaked in 1994 and has tumbled nearly 20 percent since, according to the “Karaoke White Paper” released in October by the All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association. The number of places to sing has plunged 16 percent as more shops go belly up.

Still, that leaves 48 million Japanese inflicting their voices from behind the microphone — ample evidence karaoke is far from its final refrain.

The average Japanese goes singing 10 times a year, and thousands enroll in karaoke classes. Several karaoke channels are standard fare on cable TV. Train stations are still surrounded by neon-lit karaoke palaces where bosses, underlings, families and friends belt out tunes in smoky “boxes” with sticky floors and throw back beers.

But industry officials warn the downtrend has just begun and is taking an increasingly bigger bite out of the 873 billion yen-a-year business.

“The karaoke boom is over,” said Shirou Kataoka, director of the trade group. “If Japan’s economy doesn’t recover, neither will karaoke.”

Giga Networks Co., a major maker of karaoke machines, was among the first to leave the field. It said selling downloadable ringing tones for mobile phones is more profitable.

Tokyo-based Clarion, the first to mass market karaoke equipment in the 1970s, followed suit. Its karaoke sales had tumbled 50 percent over the last 10 years.

Karaoke is also a victim of a passe image.

“Nowadays, young people would rather spend their money on mobile phones,” conceded karaoke’s inventor, Daisuke Inoue, 62, who compares karaoke’s sliding fortune with the Japanese fads for bowling and billiards that boomed then faded.

Underscoring the trend, “Evening Hit Parade,” a must-see Saturday night TV show for years that featured celebrities and pop stars singing their favorite karaoke tunes, was recently scrapped by NTV.

Karaoke is trying hard to freshen its image. Some machines now calculate on screen how many calories a singer burns, or play music-tailored workout videos to have people literally sweating as they sing oldies. Others gauge pitch, tempo and singing prowess. The “applause” button also has injected pep.

Toyota, in tandem with several karaoke firms, has developed karaoke for the car. And toy maker Takara scored a hit with e-kara: Equipped with a snap-on, credit-card-size song cartridge, the 5,980 yen e-kara microphone plugs into any TV, transforming it into a song-box.

Priced at just 5,980 yen, it’s a recession-proof alternative to karaoke bar tabs that easily run triple that.

Then there’s dial-a-song. Just ring up the karaoke hotline on your mobile phone and download the latest hits to serenade innocent bystanders. Taito Corp. is working on a karaoke machine that will automatically “fix” a singer’s voice to smooth out noxious notes.

For the hard-core crowd, all that is just a diversion. They’ll keep singing no matter what because karaoke is more than a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. Grand champion Fujii has a case of trophies to prove it.

“I practice singing every day in the car,” she said before belting out a gale-force song in a cramped room decked out with signature spotlights, lounge chairs and a full spread of french fries, squid rings and shrimp chips.

“My husband only sings after he’s had a couple drinks,” she said. “The thinking is completely different.”

For Fujii and countless others entering contests every year, karaoke is a world of flashy clothes, soft-focus videos and structured etiquette: always ask before barging in on someone else’s song and keep clapping under control.

Dressed in her best karaoke finery of knee-high leather boots and low-cut, black velvet dress,

Fujii delights in letting loose with the high notes. Staring at the ceiling, she sways her arm like a snake charmer in a world all her own.

“I like singing just for myself,” Fujii said. “When I sing, I feel like the local star.”

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