Karaoke in Japan

Summary: In two days we experienced two vastly different karaoke sessions in the country of its origin.

As a karaoke aficionado, I was keen to sing in Japan, the country that gave birth to the worldwide craze. Karaoke (カラオケ) comes from kara, meaning “empty” and okesutora meaning “orchestra” (an empty orchestra; i.e., one lacking a singer).

My oldest brother had sung karaoke with our cousin many years ago in what he described was a tiny bar with only a couple choices in English. I was eager to do the same, and cautiously confident that now, a decade or more after his experience, I would be afforded more song choices from which to choose.

When we arrived at my cousin’s home in Inuyama, I mentioned my desire to sing karaoke with my cousin, but he showed limited interest. He hadn’t sung in many years and it wasn’t looking like he’d be up for it. Oh well, I thought, there will be other cities and opportunities during this trip.

During our first full day in Inuyama, we went for a long walk leading up to Inuyama Castle. The narrow street was lined with shops that sold food, artwork, items for tourists, etc. We kept thinking it was a pedestrian promenade, but every so often a car or small truck would drive up, forcing us to step to the side into the narrow shoulders in front of the shops.

We decided to take a rest and have a snack. Our hosts ushered us into what looked like a closed restaurant and lounge. The door was unlocked, the room was completely empty, and dimly lit. We felt odd going in, but our hosts marched right in and sat down.

In the corner we noticed a bunch of hi-fi equipment, video monitors, and microphones. We were in a karaoke lounge: deserted, unattended, but still up for business. At the base of the equipment console were three or four hand-held wireless devices to search for and queue up songs.

Of course everything was in Japanese, and our host struggled a moment to get to a screen where we could enter artist names, but once there, we found countless old, classic, and current songs. After selecting a song, we’d drop a JPY100 coin into the slot on the karaoke machine, and the song would play with the words displayed on the video monitors.

My cousin got up and sang a Japanese ballad to kick things off. My Mom, my brother, and I took turns singing to a room that was empty except for our party of seven. The English language songs we sang all had the words displayed both in English and in phonetic Japanese katakana.

My brother sings “American Pie.” Note the katakana above each English word providing Japanese phonetic cues

We left having had a good time, but I still marveled at all that expensive equipment in an unlocked, unwatched room.

The next day, after a full day of sightseeing (including our trip to the Sugihara Museum), my Mom and our Japanese cousins were tired, but my brother, my American cousins, and I were still up for a little more adventure, so we set out after dinner, around 8 p.m., to find a bar.

The dark, deserted streets of Inuyama made it seem like it was after 11 p.m. After walking for a good while, my brother spotted a lighted sign and illuminated doorway. There was nothing to indicate the nature of the business, but I cracked the door and could see a bar inside, so we entered.

_DSC0484.jpgThe place was empty apart from the couple working behind the bar. I suspect many of the townsfolk had not gotten off work yet, so we were the “early” crowd. In my basic Japanese, I explained that we were all Americans visiting our Japanese cousins and showed them pictures of our homes and some of our travels. A couple of us ordered beers, and one ordered a cocktail.

The bartender scurried off, perhaps to consult a bar recipe book, collected the necessary ingredients, and mixed the drink. After a while, a local showed up who spoke a fair amount of English, and after conversing a bit, he suggested we sing karaoke. Wireless song search controllers were produced, and after a short, while we found the English commands and were searching for songs.

Making a new friend in Inyama

Our new Japanese friend sang a song in English, and again we took turns, eliciting encouragement during and congratulations after each song we performed. One additional element was featured after every song — one we hadn’t seen the day before (and which I hadn’t ever seen in the US).


A grid of red squares appeared on the video monitor. While we watched, the quality of our singing was rated from 0 to 100%. It appeared that the software judged the singer on intonation and rhythm (something I have seen with some Xbox and Playstation sing-along programs in the US). The higher the percentage, the more of the red squares were removed, to reveal … a pin-up picture of a girl in a bikini. Neither the female bartender nor some of patrons who arrived later found anything untoward about this post-song reward, and after a few nervous laughs, we gamely played along.

So my goal to sing karaoke in Japan was achieved, twice, albeit in two very different scenarios.


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