( “Sunset over Shinjuku” by Joi )
When things seem sufficiently enlivened, the chief raps on the table for attention and suggests that singing begin. Everyone claps in agreement, and someone calls out Mr. Ono’s name. Clapping erupts again, and he stands, sings a brief folk song, and then sits down amidst much applause. The chief calls next on Kato, another of the younger men, who because he is a bit of a wiseacre, is regarded as the black sheep of the group. Kato makesan excuse, drinks a full glass in one swallow, makes more excuses, but fails to stand and sing as requested. An awkward silence follows. Everyone sympathises with Kato’s embarrassment, but he must sing like the rest, for the solo performance is an integral part of office parties…finally ready he hurries through a popular song and sits down amid thunderous applause, obviously relieved. Then everyone in the group takes his or her turn singing a solo. With much giggling and handholding two women pair off in a duet. One young man sings a song filled with taboo sex words disguised rather transparently as puns in the midst of an otherwise innocent story. Another offers a rendition of a soulful ballad. The deputy who told the funny story ties his necktie around his head in the homespun manner of folk dancers and proceeds to sing and dance an exaggerated rendition of an old folk song…Finally, the chief, in a polished and charming manner, sings a traditional song and then its modern counterpart. (p. 75)
Sounds like a typical night out singing karaoke with the boss and colleagues in Seoul or Tokyo in 2008, yes? Actually that passage was written in 1968, ten whole years before the first karaoke machine was even invented, and if that doesn’t convince you of “an historical basis for karaoke, as well as “a connection with an ethos perhaps characteristic of Japanese society”, then probably nothing will.
Probably my readers – generally a knowledgeable and Asia-savvy bunch – don’t actually need convincing, but then I’m quoting Bill Kelly in his chapter entitled “Japan’s Empty Orchestra: Echoes of Japanese culture in the performance of karaoke” in this 1998 book and, as he points out, actually neither of the above are most commonly presented as reasons for the phenomenal success of karaoke in Japan. In a moment I’ll get into those other reasons and then his critiques of them, but first, I argue that karaoke is actually much less Japanese than he thinks, although ultimately this doesn’t detract from his arguments.
How Japanese is Karaoke Really?
As Kelly acknowledges and I’ll get to, karaoke is now enjoyed in a very diverse number of ways and by many different age groups, but for now let’s focus on the kind alluded to in the opening passage, probably the most stereotypical and enduring image of it.
( “Shinjuku Kabuki-cho Crossing” by heiwa4126 )
Now, having work-related drinking practices that sound sooo much like the experience of karaoke, but which predate the invention of it by ten years, certainly make a pretty convincing argument that its roots and the reasons for its ultimate popularity need to be understood in its Japanese context. As too does the fact that it’s been the machine rather than the culture that has been exported, and indeed I don’t think readers need to be told that singing on the stage at your local pub isn’t quite the same.
So far, so good. But for someone whose PhD was on comparing karaoke culture in Japan and the UK, that he doesn’t mention that Korea has exactly the same karaoke culture is a glaring omission, and I wonder if it’s yet another case of Japan being so much in the limelight that its neighbor in the shadows gets overlooked? Regardless, I wouldn’t go so far as to call karaoke Korean because of that, as all too many Koreans are all too happy to do. But he does mention how karaoke first started in seedy drinking establishments in the Kansai region before becoming respectable, and if I had the opportunity to ask then I’m sure he’d agree that this means that this particular kind of karaoke is firmly anchored in salaryman working culture…but then Korea has always had more salarymen than Japan, despite the association of the word with the latter.
Ultimately, Japanese people’s and Koreans’ love affair with karaoke is much less tied to supposedly eternal, unchanging elements of the culture of either country, but more to specific workplace practices that are under threat in both countries (see this recent sexual harassment case, and what I’ve written here, here and here too). Because of this, although “salaryman karaoke” is still an integral part of life in this part of the world, I think we may well have already witnessed its heyday, and not before time too.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for karaoke for fun, just not the forced sort that my adult students used to sleepily rant to me about in our morning classes, but which they could never refuse for the sake of office politics. But having made my point, why is karaoke of any form so popular in both countries? This is the best and most interest part of Kelly’s chapter, and for the rest of his post I’ll go through his debunking of common theories. In Part Two coming later in the week, I’ll go over his own conclusions.
( Source: unknown )
According to Kelly (p. 77), among those reasons most often cited for Karaoke’s huge success in Japan are that it:
satisfies a widespread love of singing;
satisfies a desire to emulate favorite singing stars and is this a means of fantasy fulfillment;
is an effective way to relieve stress;
serves as a forum in which individuals act strategically for their own political ends; and
is a medium for communication or, as one informant explained, a social lubricator among people who find conversation and the discussion of issues difficult
Obviously all of these have been cited to greater or lesser extents for almost all forms of karaoke in Japan, not just the salaryman sort. This is how he replies to each (pp. 77-78):
A love of singing may be cited as a possible reason…but does not elucidate its particular manifestations in Japanese society; nor does it account for the many who, despite an aversion to singing in front of others, nevertheless take their turn at the microphone.
Numbers two and three are both closest to the explanation I proffered myself years ago as a Korean newbie, which was that Koreans are ordinarily so restricted and confined in their daily lives that they needed an socially-acceptable outlet where they get let it all go. Again, not incorrect in some instances, but a completely inadequate explanation by itself.
( Source: unknown )
Kelly does acknowledge that star-emulation has been a strong motivation for young people’s interest, and in 1998 he was beginning to see a huge increase in the numbers of specialized karaoke rooms and booths in response, a trend that if anything has only accelerated since. But as for stress release:
Although karaoke mayserve as a panacea for stress release or as a forum for self-expression for many participants, those shy or embarrassed about singing karaoke may find it more a source of stress and anxiety. For those who enjoy singing [or performing], karaoke may serve as an arena for self-expression, but even in such instances it is a forum which is socially prescribed….for those less predisposed to perform publicly, the prospect…may provoke fear or even terror, but seldom an outright refusal to sing. [Most] opt for the momentary humiliation and embarrassment…rather than upset what has been termed the ‘superiority of togetherness.’
The office politics role of number four has also been confirmed:
A young businessman in Tokyo noted that when, what and how well one sings, how one responds to the singing of others and, perhaps more importantly, where one sings with respect to colleagues and seniors as individuals circulate to and from the karaoke stage, can serve to enhance one’s political effectiveness on such occasions.
Sure, but this might give the erroeous impression that karaoke rooms are modern dens of courtly intrigue. They’re not, and – to be clear – when I said that my adult students told me they were “forced” to spend late nights drinking at “song rooms” (노래방) for the sake of office politics, they meant more that they simply wouldn’t be thought of as a team player if they didn’t attend, not that they also had to get involved in anything like the above too. And Kelly dismisses the above explanation by saying that:
…such strategic maneuvering seems to be limited to those so inclined and is but one aspect, rather than a generalized, distinguishing feature, of karaoke.
And his rebuttal of the fifth reason is relevant to that too:
Finally, as a medium for communication, karaoke serves as a somewhat formalized forum, the rules of which are understood by all, for the mediation of interactions between participants….The result is highly predictable but, most importantly, a comfortable forum for social interaction in which recognition of and adherence to the implicit rules serves to preserve a non-threatening atmosphere. It is therefor a “safe” activity which poses little or no threat to the “harmony” of relationships between individuals or between individuals and the rest. In this sense, it conforms to the need of the occasion by providing a democratic forum in which each member is expected to do his or her part and, in so doing, to confirm his or her commitment to the collectivity.
Well, that’s more a (necessary) restatement of reason number five than a rebuttal per se. But here it comes:
( Source: unknown )
Karaoke detractors argue that karaoke effectively stifles communication by formalizing any interaction. The noise level, combined with the time spent choosing songs, singing and acknowledging the efforts of others relegates conversation to the periphery.
Ultimately, is salaryman karaoke any more noble, any more bonding, then the simple act of getting completely drunk together without music? I’d argue that it only appears so at some considerable distance from the dingy reality. Its ultimately very telling that so many employees would much rather be with their families or in bed, and have to be coerced into participating into what is supposedly one of the good points of Japanese and/or Korean culture. Like I said, karaoke for fun is indeed a good point, but the kind discussed here decidedly isn’t for the majority of its participants, and that begs the question of who and why has chosen this particular aspect of East Asian society to promote to the rest of the world.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll discuss Bill Kelly’s own explanations for the popularity of karaoke when I’ve analysed them properly in part two at the end of the week!