What I Like About Japan #2: Karaoke Bars

Chaos in Print

One thing about the Culture Shock! Japan book that my company told me to read that is turning out to be true is the fact that just about every party and night of drinking inevitably comes to a karaoke bar. Now, I probably know what you’re thinking. “Mark? Out on a night of drinking?” Well, most of my coworkers are a pretty subdued crowd. “A night of drinking” for us generally just means the Chinese restaurant up the street. If you want to go drinking, you’ve got to find the folks who work for our distinguished competitors. Now they’re a drinking crowd. But that always proves to be a problem for me, as I’m one who likes to go to the karaoke bars and sing as loudly and badly as the next person, but doesn’t need the liberating effects of alcohol to do it. So, karaoke for me is turning into a rare and special occasion, and generally comes after several hours of just saying no to the request, “C’mon! Have just one beer!” But the benefit to this, by the time we get to karaoke, I’m the only sober one, so they’re just too drunk to complain about my bad singing.

Now, at my first time at karaoke, I was a little taken aback. Like most of you reading this, I’m sure that when you think of a karaoke bar, you think of a smoky old roadhouse with a stage in the corner and a karaoke machine off to one side. You make your request to the person running the machine, and then get up on the stage and sing your song, with your drunken friends cheering you on and drunken strangers booing you off the stage. Well, that’s not how it works in Japan. Japan is the country that invented karaoke, after all, and I must say that they know the right way to do it.

If I had to make a comparison to something North American, then I would have to say that a Japanese karaoke bar is more like a motel than an actual bar. You walk into the place, and you walk up to the front desk. Karaoke bars charge by the hour, so you have to tell the clerk how long you’re planning on staying. If you’re like most of my drinking buddies, then usually you go for the “until dawn” special. Once you’ve paid your money, the clerk will escort you to your room. It’ll be a room just large enough for you and your buddies. On one end of the room is the karaoke machine itself. It’s a big screen TV, and when not displaying the song you are singing, it displays food you can order and songs that you could be singing. Most of the room is dominated by a large table, and there’re seats all around it, much like a booth in a diner. (Which is why the proper term for these rooms is “booths.”) Sitting on the table are your microphones, a phone book, the remote for the karaoke machine and a menu. The phone book is actually the song catalogue, where you can pick the songs you want to sing. Once you’ve found the song you want, simply punch in its six-digit code on the remote and hit “enter.” You’re up next. Getting a little thirsty? Or perhaps got the munchies? Just grab the menu. Once you know what you want, just grab the phone on the wall. It’s a hotline to the front desk. Place your order, and in a matter of moments, the clerk will be knocking on your door with your food and beverages. It couldn’t be simpler! I’m sure you’ll agree that the huge benefit of this is that you only have your drunken friends cheering you on, and none of the drunken strangers booing you off.

Now that you’re in your room with your buddies and you’re on your way to getting drunker, it’s time to start singing. If you’re like most karaoke frequenters, then perhaps you’ve got a few standards in place. These are the songs that you tend to sing every time you go to karaoke. I, myself, have two songs which are becoming my standards. Firstly, as I soon learned, you can never go wrong with the Beatles at karaoke, so I’ve latched onto A Hard Day’s Night. My other standard is a much more recent classic: Pretty Fly (For a White Guy) by the Offspring. There’s no special technique to that one, just yell into the microphone. But, for the Beatles, however, you have to put more of an effort in. Keep it more subdued. I actually try to do a good job with A Hard Day’s Night. Truth be told, I’m just working my way up to Can’t Buy Me Love.

And that’s one of my little secrets. I have goals at karaoke. There are songs I’m working my way up to and songs that I hope to be good enough to sing someday. I feel lucky enough to have accomplished my three big goals so far. The first goal was to finally find a place with a good selection of country music. And, at long last, I managed to. My first tip-off was the picture of the cowboy on their sign. So when my drunken crowd pulled into that place, the first thing I had to do was sing Hard Workin’ Man by Brooks & Dunn. As the evening drug on, I managed to butcher If the Good Die Young by Tracey Lawrence and Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares) by Travis Tritt.

Goal number two was a little easier to achieve. Being a lifelong fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic, it often distresses me that there seems to be no Weird Al at karaoke. So, I started thinking to myself, “Well, I am a lifelong fan. I could probably pick a song that Weird Al has parodied, and sing Weird Al’s lyrics from memory!” So, I did. When the people in my group started groaning “Oh, man, who picked Like a Virgin?” I got up there and sang Like a Surgeon. Only problem was someone had to explain the joke to the non-English speakers in the crowd. But I don’t care. I did it. Next up is finding a karaoke place with the Kinks’ Lola so I can sing Yoda.

Goal number three was quite simple: Sing the Theme from Shaft. That all goes back to the classic Simpsons episode where the family goes to a sushi restaurant with an adjoining karaoke bar, so Bart and Lisa sneak into the karaoke bar and sing the Theme from Shaft. Sadly, though, most of the people I was with at the time weren’t familiar with the Theme from Shaft, so they got a little annoyed with the 10-minute long intro followed by the 30-second song. But still, they knew enough to scream out “Shut yo mouth!” when I came to the part that asks “Who is the cat who’s a bad mother –. “

So I don’t have much in the way of karaoke goals right now, except to find a good selection of Barenaked Ladies so I can belt out If I Had $1000000. But you never know what you’ll find at a karaoke place. One time I went and it blew my mind to see a wide selection of Disney songs. I tried to sing The Bare Necessities but lost my way during the spoken word part. If I ever go back to that place, I’m most definitely choosing Under the Sea instead. I’m just more familiar with that one.

And that, if I had to give you one piece of karaoke advice, is the advice I give to you. Always choose a song you know relatively well. If you can do more of it from memory than by reading off of the machine, then you’re halfway there. Trust me, the songs that I’ve bombed on are the ones where I only know the first two lines. But, that’s the good thing about going with a lot of drunken friends. They don’t seem to notice. If only I had friends who could do it without getting drunk! You just know I’d be doing it every week then. I have a song in my heart, and I must sing it to the world.

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