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Karaoke – its history and evolution

In order to appreciate karaoke, it is important to get to know the history of this maybe strange but immensely entertaining social phenomena.

According to karaoke scene magazine, originally, the word ”karaoke” was only listed in the Japanese dictionaries.  Today you can find it in the latest edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, which is published in England.  Of course, The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the most distinguished and formal English dictionaries.  This proves to many karaoke enthusiasts that their favorite persuasion is now widely spread, throughout the world, the Eastern parts of it as much as the Western.   

Karaoke is a usual form of entertainment for Japanese business people.  After very long work day – sometimes as much as a 22-hour one -- they’d drop into a bar with colleagues after work, have a drink, and enjoy singing popular songs to the accompaniment of karaoke machine. Karaoke was invented approximately  20 years ago, and has become firmly established in Japanese society, going far beyond just a temporary boom, entertaining businessmen and regular folk alike across the country and outside of it.

The dj:

"KJ" stands for Karaoke Jock or Karaoke Jockey. KJ’s are the people that run Karaoke events.

Where did the word come from?

The word ”karaoke” is a Japanese abbreviated compound word: "kara" comes from "karappo" meaning empty, and "oke" is the abbreviation of "okesutura," or orchestra.

The way it works in the real world, a recorded popular song consists of vocals and accompaniment. Music tapes in which only the accompaniment is recorded were named "karaoke."

The karaoke enthusiasts will tell you that It is now widely recognized that the use of karaoke started at a snack bar in Kobe City.   As the karaoke legend has it, a strolling guitarist could not come to perform at the bar due to illness and since the owner of the bar had prepared tapes of accompaniment recordings random vocalists – patrons of the bard – started singing to the tapes. This story is not confirmed but since it’s beginning 20 years ago karaoke has been commercialized and has become popular all over Japan.


First of all, there is a saying in Japan that "New trends come from the West of Japan." Japan’s first supermarket and sauna were established in the Kansai area, and Kansai has successively created unique businesses and products such an instant noodles or automated ticket gates. Especially among the cities in the Kansai area, Kobe features an original urban atmosphere.

Another saying that is quite popular in Japan is that "Fashion comes from Kobe." It is said that the fashion of young women is recognized first in Kobe and becomes popular in Tokyo later, so fashion magazines have to keep an eye on the women in Kobe.

When Kobe Port was opened to international trade in 1868, on the eve of the Meiji Restoration, Kobe has been leading the way towards international exchange, and many foreigners have come to live in Kobe. Western-style residences in which foreigners used to live are located in Kitano-cho, where a jazz festival is held every year, showing Kobe to be the place for jazz fans. In addition, many foreigners participate in the "Kobe Festival," known for its parade enlivened with samba rhythms and dance. Such musical leanings may lie behind the birth of karaoke.

The background:

It’s true that the Japanese like parties. From ancient times, a party become enlivened when someone started singing and the others kept time with hand-clapping, making the atmosphere more cheerful. It has never mattered whether the person sings well or not. Even if he sings out of tune, it can spark laughter and make the party more lively.

This is w wonderful custom and the Japanese are generous when they listen to other people sing, and can easily sing in front of others without feeling reluctance. This also seems to be one of the reasons that karaoke has been largely accepted in Japanese society.

The phenomenon of karaoke was born in a night amusement quarter at the end of the high economic growth period. Until then, customers used to listen to popular songs via wire broadcasting, request favorite songs by telephone, and the wire broadcasting company put the songs on the air. Such a system continued for quite a while.

It is important to note it might be unnatural for many Japanese who like singing to only listen to other people sing.  This is precisely why karaoke – and its tradition of sharing the spotlight -- appeared on the scene. Holding a microphone and singing a song to the accompaniment of an "orchestra," you can feel like a professional singer. If other customers give you a big hand, you feel all the happier. Karaoke has thus stimulated people’s desire to sing. For corporate employees living in a stressful society, no other entertainment that could make them feel more relaxed seemed more worthy of attention. Consequently, karaoke immediately spread from Kansai all over Japan.

Technological innovations:

Despite the fact that karaoke was at first an entertainment mainly for business people, it has grown to be a nationwide amusement, thanks to technological development and a new business called the "karaoke box."

Karaoke originated in the form of tape of a popular song’s accompaniment but eventually karaoke evolved to the compact disk, which can locate the beginning of a song immediately.   In karaoke bars, this development also made possible the enhancement of video scenes to create an atmosphere suitable to each song, displayed on a TV monitor along with the words.  Part of the fun is watching the videos as well – they’re often very ”cheesy”: a man with a mullet and a woman in the eighties garb walking on the beach, holding hands, gazing into the sun.

The evolution of karaoke incorporated technological innovations such as the video disk, laser disk, and CD graphics, karaoke has grown to be a major entertainment industry. Also, family-use karaoke sets have also become popular, making the amusement formerly limited to night spots possible in the home.

It needs to be said that there is an obstacle to this end of the business: since most Japanese houses stand close each other and are still built of wood, with poor soundproofing, it would be very annoying of the neighbors to sing into a microphone at night.

This is precisely why early entrepreneurs created the karaoke box, a roadside facility containing closed-door insulated rooms for singing. They are advertised as a place where you can sing to your heart’s content. The first karaoke box appeared in 1984 in a rice field in the countryside of Okayama Prefecture, just west of the Kansai area. It was built from a converted freight car.

Ever since then, karaoke boxes have been built on unoccupied grounds all over Japan, and in urban areas, karaoke rooms, which consist of compartments made by partitioning and soundproofing rooms in a building, were introduced and set up one after another.

With the establishment of these entertainment venues and their popular spread as well as people’s demand, they became widely popular among all sectors of the population -- female office workers, housewives, college students, and even high school students.  Eventually the trend traveled overseas and it is not uncommon to stumble upon a row of karaoke bars in places like New York, Chicago or Toronto, Canada.

The success:

Because karaoke boxes are closed-door facilities, they eventually became an object of public concern as potential havens for misdeeds among young people. But people who stand behind karaoke, say that on the other hand, however, since not a few families enjoy singing together in karaoke boxes, the karaoke box also plays a role as a place for family communication through singing. This is important at a time when generation gaps and family breakups are a nationwide concern.

This is perhaps why the karaoke boom has spread abroad, enjoyed not only in Korea and China but also in Southeast Asia, the U.S., and Europe. Since karaoke displays the words and scenes of a song on a monitor, it has also been attracting the attention of countries trying to improve their literacy rate, as a good educational tool.

Some say that it likely that karaoke, the entertainment industry born in a small night spot in Kansai, will continue to make further strides in both technological development and popularity.

Critics argue that the popularization of records, radio, and TV makes people passive receivers of entertainment. The advent of karaoke might help correct this phenomenon and make a great contribution to the history of musical entertainment.  Besides, everybody dreams of being famous and karaoke, to some extent, creates the illusion that you are.