The Joys of Karaoke

Kamo-shi, Niigata-ken, Japan (2006)

Japan and karaoke—what could be a more natural pairing? As I often tell the undergraduates that I work with, karaoke is a survival skill for a foreigner living in Japan. I don’t think they really believe me. But it is. I don’t know how I could have survived my year on the JET Program, without being able to participate in and make friends through karaoke. It’s the part of the evening where you get to talk to people, break down barriers, make friends. There’s a whole art to it—being good but not too good, picking songs that everyone can sing along to, finding ways to cheer on shy types… (You don’t have to be good at singing to be good at karaoke.) Even in gatherings of people like government officials, karaoke is often part of the evening. For a long time, skits and karaoke were a fixture of the annual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, though they have recently discontinued the tradition. Foreign Policy has this great shot of former Secretary of State Colin Powell at one such event:

Click here to read the article from whence this photo came

Anyway, I’ve collected some great karaoke stories over the years. There was the time that my coworker insisted that I get up on stage in front of a whole restaurant of people and sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” despite my sincere insistence that I didn’t know the song at all (he thought it was appropriate, since I had recently decided to move to the Bay Area). There was the time (actually, multiple times) that I sang “YMCA” while an entire roomful of middle-aged Japanese men danced along. There was the time at my going away party when that quiet guy who hadn’t sung anything for four hours suddenly got up and did an amazing song-and-dance routine, revealing that he actually goes to karaoke booths several times a week to practice his moves.

Good times.

I’m feeling nostalgic, so I’d like to share a few more pictures from karaoke outings, recent and not-so-recent:

Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan (Sept 2010)

Kyoto, Japan (July 2010)

Hiroshima, Japan (Sept 2004)

Of course, this isn’t a phenomenon unique to Japan. The rest of Asia is crazy about karaoke, certainly. And even in the U.S., people have been known to bust out their skills, particularly with the popularity of games such as Rock Band. Here’s a fun shot of my brother doing The Smiths at his birthday party a few years back:

Seattle, Washington, USA (Sept 2008)

And here are some of my co-workers at our customary end-of-the-semester outing:

Berkeley, California, USA (Dec 2009)

One thing that I’ve realized is that I need to learn more Japanese songs. Many of my friends now are either native Japanese speakers or have a pretty high level of Japanese ability, so the number of Japanese songs in my outings has increased quite a bit. However, I don’t particularly follow J-pop, so I’ve resolved to pay slightly more attention to the Japanese music scene in the future (but not too much, I don’t have that much free time). My friend Mike recently introduced my to, which provides a convenient way to listen to current hits in Japan (and Korea as well). At this point, I only really know huge artists like Utada Hikaru. Her latest video is quite cute, actually:

I love the puppets. And I know some anime theme songs, etc. This is one that I sometimes like to sing—it’s from one of my favorite series, Cowboy Bebop:

The music from that series is great, in general. I’m a little concerned about the movie that’s being made, with Keanu Reeves as Spike. But that’s another story.

Anyway, things have gotten really busy lately—I feel like I’m turning out papers and application essays almost every other day, and things are getting hectic with interviews and meetings as well. Better get back to work!