Out of Japan: Ecstasy on the cheap with Tokyo's electric geisha

TOKYO - Last year the Education Ministry released the results of a survey conducted by its Cultural Affairs Agency. The idea was to discover what cultural activities Japanese people engage in when not working. About 73 per cent of respondents said that they participated in some cultural pastime. When asked to be more precise, 43 per cent cited karaoke as their 'cultural activity'.

The serious press reacted with a mixture of amusement and shock. Was belting out a few songs through an amplified microphone the spiritual descendant of the tea ceremony, haiku poems and classical Noh theatre?

Was Japan becoming a nation of techno-morons in thrall to electronics manufacturers and video game programmers?

While these big arguments rage, less pretentious academics look at karaoke for what it is - a widespread cultural phenomenon - and question why it has become so popular in such a short time. They have illuminated an interesting aspect of the Japanese character.

'Many intellectuals look down on karaoke because they see no value in it, like pachinko (pinball) or horse racing,' said Takumi Sato, a sociology lecturer in Tokyo University, who has studied karaoke extensively.

'But it is interesting - a typical form of Japanese communication, where the go-between is represented by the microphone, avoiding direct face-to-face communication. People don't have to look at each other at all - everyone can watch the monitor screen.'

Kunihiro Narumi, a professor of enviromental planning at Osaka University, finds a historical root in Japan's courtesan trade.

He claims that karaoke, by helping otherwise shy people to express themselves, fulfils the role held formerly by geisha women at parties.

The geisha would play music while both flattering and encouraging their clients to sing, so 'karaoke can be thought of as a kind of 'electric geisha', in the sense that it draws people together and helps them communicate'.

The word 'karaoke' - an abbreviation of 'kara okesutora', or empty orchestra - entered the Japanese language as recently as 1976, coined by the Clarion Company when they made the first karaoke machines for commercial use. The first use of taped background music to accompany singers in a bar is believed to have been in a snack bar in Kobe in 1972.

Karaoke spread quickly, and with the introduction of accompanying videos in the 1980s, it became a national craze in Japan. Today 80 per cent of the 350,000 bars in the country are fitted with karaoke machines and four fifths of adults say they have sung karaoke. Few business deals are concluded without a night of drinking, singing and raucous bonhomie.

Karaoke's popularity has spread to the young who lack the money for hostesses in bars. To cater for the young market, the 'karaoke box' sprang up in the late 1980s.

These small rooms with microphones and screens are rented by the hour. Drinks are purchased from vending machines, and the atmosphere is more one of an amusement arcade than a nightclub. There are about 10,000 of them in Japan, with over 100,000 'boxes'. The young people who frequent karaoke boxes are not under pressure to consume alcohol. It is young people, 'feeling the ecstasy of their bodies being overwhelmed by technology,' Mr Sato said.

The ecstasy of the electric geisha is relatively inexpensive in a karaoke box - about pounds 10 per hour, compared to pounds 300 upwards for an evening in a karaoke hostess bar.

The makers of karaoke machines are ceaselessly looking for new markets. Karaoke in touring buses is almost standard, and some taxis carry karaoke machines. There are karaoke hot springs for those who like to warble in the tub, and karaoke Walkman models for those who sing on the move. Karaoke is also marching relentlessly overseas.

Pioneer, one of the leading manufacturers of karaoke machines, says there are 14,000 karaoke bars in America and 1,400 in Britain - the highest number in Europe.

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