Japan has given much to world culture. Kimono, anime, sushi and ikebana are just some of the words that have become so well-known abroad they don’t even need translating. But one pastime has come in the past few decades to represent Japan perhaps more authentically than any other activity — and that’s karaoke (or as English speakers prefer to pronounce it, “carryokey.”) Chantez ce soir avec le karaoke! Das Karaoke erfreut sich in Deutschland immer wachsender Beliebtheit! Ciao amore per karaoke! And so on, in every language from Finnish to Farsi. The magical machine that for better or worse encourages people to think they can sing may well be this country’s most successful cultural export ever.
And its popularity overseas has been nothing compared to its standing here, the land where someone first dreamed up an apparatus that would play the musical accompaniment to a song minus the vocals, letting would-be Elvises and Madonnas step into the spotlight. (Its precise origin is disputed, but all sources seem to date it back to the early ’70s, most likely in Kobe.) At its peak, according to the All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association, the number of people visiting Japan’s karaoke establishments was almost 60 million. That’s as many people as live in Britain or Thailand today.
But here’s the problem for the brave little sing-a-long machine: That peak came in 1994. It might be hard to believe, since karaoke bars and boxes are still as thick on the ground as cherry blossoms in April, but the number of customers has dropped nearly 20 percent in the nine recession-darkened years since then, and the number of karaoke outlets has fallen by 16 percent. Unfortunately, the association’s spokesperson predicts even quieter times ahead for the once-booming pastime, at least in Japan.
Industry observers appear united in their belief that the sagging economy is the main reason for karaoke’s recent gradual decline. After all, they argue, karaoke evenings are expensive, especially when you factor in the drinks that many people need to help them get up and sing in the first place and the snacks they need afterward to help them calm down. In the post-bubble era, karaoke is an obvious extra for a cash-strapped family man to cut back on. After a while, a chain reaction sets in: Custom dwindles, outlets close, manufacturers find other things to make and the downward trend continues.
But there’s reason to think that karaoke might have faded out anyway, recession or not. It is the nature of fads, even the biggest of them, to be ephemeral — and karaoke is nothing if not a fad. Despite manufacturers’ attempts to graft it onto older but longer-lasting technologies like the car and the television, as well as newer ones like the personal computer and the cell phone, karaoke hasn’t been able to overcome the perception that, in new-millennium terms, it’s a pretty old-fashioned form of entertainment. Remember the jukebox, that icon of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s? It’s all too easy to imagine the karaoke box occupying a similar historical-cultural niche as an icon of the ’80s and ’90s.
Now, at the very end of karaoke’s happy, raucous heyday, we pause to consider how this makes us feel. No doubt about it, one impulse is to get up right now, grab the mike and wail a nostalgic song full of regret for all those unrepeatable evenings of silliness and bliss. We’re thinking the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love” or better yet, “Sakura, Sakura” (ever a convenient metaphor for transience) or, best of all, a rousing rendition of practically anything at all by Abba: “Can you hear the drums, Fernando?/ I remember long ago another starry night like this/ In the firelight, Fernando/ You were humming to yourself and softly strumming your guitar.” Stop it. We can feel the tears pricking already.
Then again, admit it, isn’t there a tinge of relief mixed in with the feelings of nostalgia? No longer will the shy, modest and tone-deaf among us be forced to make fools of ourselves because the boss wants it, or because that’s what a good salaryman “does,” or because everyone else at so-and-so’s retirement party is urging us to, a little too drunkenly for comfort. For every person who shares the belief of Japan’s official karaoke queen, Ms. Yumiko Fujii, that karaoke is “like a vitamin pill for the heart,” there is surely one who has been brought close to a heart attack by the very prospect of singing in public.
So, as with much else in life, the pending demise of karaoke has both its downs and its ups. But let’s look on the bright side. There will always be places to sing. As the American band Incubus once put it (albeit in a rather different context): “Thank goodness for the bathtubs and suds!”
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