Loosely translated, it's an abbreviated compound Japanese word where Kara (karappo) means Empty and Oke (okesutrua) means Orchestra. In other words, karaoke is the music without the lead singer.
So technically speaking, any of the singers you see at clubs, weddings, etc. that are using recorded music to perform with (no instrument, band or orchestra) are karaoke singers. Don't tell them that, though. They prefer to be called track singers, one-man bands, entertainers, etc.
Born in Kobe
It is now widely recognized that the use of karaoke started at a snack bar in Kobe City. It is said that when a strolling guitarist could not come to perform at the bar due to illness or other reasons, the owner of the bar prepared tapes of accompaniment recordings, and vocalists enjoyed singing to the tapes. Even though it is only legend, this might have been the beginning of karaoke, and since then, karaoke has been commercialized and has become popular all over Japan.
New Trends Come from the West of Japan
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.
There is another saying 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.
Since 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 a mecca 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 of Karaoke's Popularity
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.
Having such a custom, 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.
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 radio, request favorite songs by telephone, and the radio station put the songs on the air. Such a system continued for quite a while.
However, it might be unnatural for many Japanese who like singing to only listen to other people sing.
It was then that karaoke 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 soldiers living in a stressful society, there is no other entertainment that can make them feel very refreshed. Consequently, karaoke immediately spread from Kansai all over Japan.
Technological Innovations and the Karaoke Box
Though 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."
Originally in the form of tape of a popular song's accompaniment, karaoke evolved to the compact disk, which can locate the beginning of a song immediately. 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.
Using technological innovations such as the video disk, laser disk, and CD graphics, karaoke has grown to be a major entertainment industry. Family-use karaoke sets have also become popular, making the amusement formerly limited to night spots possible in the home.
However, 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 to the neighbors to sing into a microphone at night.
Seizing upon the opportunity created by this problem, 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.
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.
As these facilities were established mainly to provide places to enjoy singing, they became widely popular among all sectors of the population -- female office workers, housewives, college students, and even high school students.
Karaoke's Unexpected Effect
Since karaoke boxes are closed-door facilities, they became an object of public concern as potential havens for misdeeds among young people. 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.
Now, 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.
It is 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.
It is said that since the popularization of records, radio, and TV, people have become passive receivers of entertainment. The advent of karaoke might help correct this phenomenon and make a great contribution to the history of musical entertainment.