Karaoke Boom Turns High-Tech
VISITORS to the Anchor Military Singing Bar in Japan might be shocked to see a sample of the latest in karaoke.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead of emoting such favorites as ``My Way,'' the amateur Japanese singers at Anchors take their pick of propaganda songs from World War II. As battle scenes with Zero fighters flash across a backdrop, a customer can don an old military uniform, wield the microphone, and belt out tunes of imperial glory.
Such nostalgia for war days, however, is only one of many permutations and reverberations that the karaoke business has undergone since its debut in Japan nearly two decades ago.
New uses and technologies, especially advances in digital electronics, have helped karaoke to roar along to ever higher popularity, especially in Japan and East Asia.
In the United States, karaoke's popularity has kept pace but lags behind that in Japan, according to Pioneer Electronic Corp., maker of laser-disc machines that display a song's lyrics with a video image.
``According to some, many Americans aren't good at singing because music is not a compulsory subject of education in the US,'' states a market-survey report on karaoke done by Pioneer. ``It may be for this reason that many more people than in Japan refuse to sing when they are requested to do so. However, this will change as karaoke permeates.''
To spur more Americans to pick up a mike, Pioneer plans to build a chain of some 500 rental rooms for karaoke across the US. Such commercial establishments for private singing became a big hit three years ago in Japan, where they are known as karaoke ``boxes.'' Pioneer's first such ``Star Factory'' opened this year in Chicago.
``People think karaoke is popular only among Asians,'' says Atsuhi Ota, a marketing manager with Pioneer Electronic Corp. ``But we want white people to enjoy it, too.''
Translated literally as ``empty orchestra,'' karaoke started out in Japan with just the basic equipment of a microphone, recorded music without words, and an amplifier, usually one with an echo-chamber function to help bad singers croon like budding Sinatras, at least to the ears of their friends.
Karaoke has become a way of life to the overworked and group-oriented Japanese, who like to relax into the wee hours at some 350,000 special singing ``bars.'' To work on their performances, fledgling songbirds flock to some 100,000 ``boxes,'' or karaoke rental sound booths. An estimated 6 million people in Japan sing karaoke every day at such commercial establishments.
FOR the Japanese, karaoke is a way to drown one's sorrows, relieve stress, impress clients, make friends, or enjoy a moment in the limelight as an individual with or without some talent, experiencing vicariously the thrill of stardom. Bars are popular as after-hours watering holes for Japan's ``salarymen,'' but the biggest users of the boxes are women in their 20s.
``Every Japanese, except young children, has tried it,'' says Mr. Ota, who surveyed the karaoke market in 1992 for Pioneer. ``The Japanese aren't very good at communicating, so we sing to each other to express our emotions.''
The government's Leisure Development Center ranks karaoke as Japan's fourth most popular pastime. Two magazines in Japan are dedicated to the industry.