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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea