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What killed the karaoke stars?

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During the “Japanese miracle” era, karaoke was a routine in the salarymen's life, as naturally as doing countless hours of overtime. It has been slowly dying for the last 20 years, and one could even argue that, in fact, it is all but dead. The causes of its demise might not be so obvious.

From its early days in the 1960s, until the mid-1990s, the karaoke industry followed an exponential growth, along with the country's GDP and the size of Japan's huge working class. As of 2011, karaoke room usage (counting each individual getting past reception) in Japan is just below 40 million a year, according to the All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association and Japan Productivity Center. It may still seem like a lot, but it's a 30% decrease from its peak, before the economic bubble burst in 1990. As expected, manufacturers have seen the same trend in their sales.

One exception, Daiichi Kosho, which is the top manufacturer and operator of the Big Echo karaoke chain, has been able to keep its total sales slightly upward by offering a range of highly innovative products and by putting efforts into diversification. But in large part, it's due to the company's overseas operation in South Korea, where karaoke lounges are still booming.

One has to think of karaoke as something more than a music box with a microphone. Outside Asia, and especially in North America, it has suffered something of an “import deformation,” where it has been turned into something more or less cheesy. True, nowadays karaoke has become cheesy. But up to the mid-1990s, it had evolved into something quite sophisticated in Japan.

Following its debut, it rapidly grew out of bars and clubs. Multi-storied karaoke centers began to pop everywhere in major cities, offering cozy lounges equipped with the latest ultra high-tech devices – and the complimentary bar service. Luxury restaurants and hotels added lavish karaoke lounges to their concept.

During Japan's rapid growth period (between 1970-90), the office karaoke meetings were the norm for any work-related social gathering of the dominant working-class. Low-level as well as top-tier business relationships were nurtured over the melancholy of enka music or the latest hits. It was a place to nurture the "kohai-senpai" relationship, and a mandatory activity for team building – or more accurately, “office-family” building. It was an instrument serving society's innate need for social cohesion. More than a simple leisure, karaoke was an activity fully embedded in the intricate Japanese work culture.

Some employees would literally become karaoke stars within their company, not because of their vocal skills, but for the amount of effort they put into entertaining their colleagues. Being a karaoke star was quite demanding. They were called upon to cheer the crowd and set the ambiance; a duty for the sake of the meeting's success, thus proof of one's devotion to their employer.

Flashy neon lights of karaoke centers still brighten the urban landscape of today's Japan. But their once prestigious working-class patrons have deserted their rooms. In fact, its image has become quite the opposite among the post-bubble generation, often referred to as the “lost-decade” generation – the unlucky bunch that entered the workforce after the end of the bubble era in the 1990s.

On my last evening out at one of Tokyo's Big Echo spots with a group of Japanese friends, I shared my observations on the apparent decline of karaoke lounges. “We see karaoke-going as more of a kitsch, even loser activity,” said Kyoko, a 30-something full-time office lady. “Most places are awful, and smell of cigarettes and greasy food,” added one of her colleagues. “We go there as a last resort, like, if we miss the last train or something." "Or with foreigners,” I added. She nodded, laughing.

It is true. Just in the last decade, most karaoke centers, despite their owners' best efforts, have been turned into smoking shacks for wasted salarymen, or low-budget hotels for sleazy couples. The ones still decent are frequented mostly by tourists or non-Japanese. So then, why this decline?

The country has been through major sociological changes since the end of the 1990s. Amid the country's enduring economic malaise, Japan has witnessed a huge sociological shift: the disappearance of its middle-class and the eroding of core work values. Hordes of salarymen and office ladies dedicating their life to the company is not so much the portrait of the Japanese labor as it used to be.

Thus, the lost decade generation don't share the same enthusiasm regarding the office life as their predecessors. The lifetime employment system is all but gone. The sense of belonging to one's company – if they actually have a decent job – is low to non-existent.

At the office, they just don't feel like they're part of a family anymore. Some die-hard aspects of the Japanese workplace code of conduct can still be observed, but after-work meetings have simply become a boring chore at best. A shabby karaoke room is the last place they want to be, going only out of pure obligation. The group mentality has yielded with individualistic behavior becoming prominent.

Karaoke was a natural extension of this office-family culture that was so uniquely Japanese. Under this concept, we can affirm that it is dead. As for the industry as a whole, the numbers show that in Japan, it is slowly dying. To say it will disappear completely would be an overstatement, but its best days, though, are all but gone.

Sadly, the karaoke stars have retired as well.

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

24 Comments
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got me some fond memories of the ol' box still go to them here in LA!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The group mentality has yielded with individualistic behavior becoming prominent.

Dem's pretty strong words, Mr. Tremblay-Slater. "Yielded?" "Prominent?"

Not sure if you and I are living in the same Japan, but in the one that I inhabit, group-thought/behavior still reigns supreme. Sure karaoke's losing its luster, but it ain't got nothing to do with group/individual dynamics.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

I would actually argue that the boom times of karaoke were actually abnormally. During that bubble period, people had lots of money and afford to go out a lot more than they do today. With the current situation, I expect the statistics for karaoke to bottom out, some stores might close but it will continue. Coming off a boom period of course there will be casualties, but that is expected but that doesn't mean it is dead. The predicted demise of karaoke is quite premature in my opinion.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

@ben4short: I think the group mentality has become an echo of the past. It is still something you observe more in Japan than say North America. But a shift has occured.

@LiveInTokyo: I agree, as in my conclusion "To say it will disappear completely would be an overstatement, but its best days, though, are all but gone."

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Your article sites Daiichi Kosho but no other corporation? Your conclusion, or opinion, is foregone. Did you state what a "star" is?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@stlater

"An echo of the past?"

C'mon now, man. I think you may be confusing wishful thinking with reality. Either that or you're extrapolating a "shift" based on one or two examples you may have come across. This is a dangerous and faulty practice. I can assure you, based on my extensive dealings with over fifty Japanese companies, big and small, Kanto and Kansai-based, that no such shift exists. The pressure to conform to the wishes of the group, and the percentage of those who submit, are as great as they were say, twenty years ago.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I loved your article, ctslater. Thank you.

When I get together over beers with friends who have been in Japan since the boom times our conversation often turns to then-versus-now comparisons. Surprisingly, I don't think any of us have ever mentioned how after-work karaoke has become something of a rarity. The skiing and golf fads of the day somewhat mirror that of karaoke in terms of people's thirst for more active lifestyles back then. Ski trips used to involve long queues in lift lines awaiting crowded slopes -- not anymore.

During Japan's roaring 1980's (akin to America's Roaring '20s) and up to the early 1990's after the stock market crash karaoke was often the third stop after high priced business entertainment with colleagues that started with a somewhat extravagant meal followed by a session of heavy drinking of beer, inevitably followed by sake, then by whiskey, then by...

I think the popularity of karaoke back then was somewhat a reflection of the unbridled optimism and exuberance of the day. People in Tokyo were manically upbeat, positive and would spend large wads of cash today for there was more to be made tomorrow. Ironically, a major social dilemma in the news almost daily was challenges posed by 'hitode busoku' (the labor shortage) -- along with 'kokusaika' (internationalization) as many Japanese companies scrambled to hire fresh university grads from abroad.

How times have changed in just two short decades.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Who here has used a karaoke box in lieu of a love hotel?

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I like a bit of karaoke. Never did before coming to Japan, but now a couple of hours with some mates or colleagues is a blast. and if the karaoke is a bit cheeky that works too. Good Japanese invention. Not sure i agree it is on the wane.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Man it must have been fun here in the 80s.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Dying out?!?! Say it isn't sooooooooooo!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Only ever been into one karaoke place, the type with small rooms and a BIG TV with mics, etc... didn't do much singing heh

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think it was a nice way to socialize with japanese people, the big problem now is that the youth people are preferring to live in their own shell and not wanting to live for a company..

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@combinibento guilty as charged, but found out the hard way that some Karaoke-kan's have cameras in the rooms, so ya might want to be careful hah

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It is becoming a lost art and it takes brain-power to be a good speaker or singer. I would blame poor diet (brain), poor motivation, and finally economics.

(shocking) Tag-Team Dream Karaoke Session: Junichiro Koizumi and Me doing S Club Juniors "One Step Closer" -just to show the young people out there "we still got it"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGY1hUWC8CI

I am starting to see more of a Rock Band (game) thing going on -Jam session style karaoke with instruments. You have the dance group karaoke thing also. Disco

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is a rather odd article, Mr Author, you try to make several claims about modern Japan that just dont hold up. Firstly Karaoke is still popular and fun for a lot of people. Just because it may not be AS popular as it was does not mean it isnt fun and isnt enjoyed. Next, group sharing is far from over either in Japan or elsewhere. It is a fine way to further life and to enjoy sharing. Not really much to say past that. Thanks for a good effort but you might want to use fewer absolutes and just report on things and share an interesting topic...

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Dying out? Maybe it's not as popular with the office culture as it once was, but there are still lots of karaoke boxes lining the streets around my area and you sometimes have to wait to get a room on a Friday and Saturday night, so I'd say they're still pretty popular.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I'm finding it harder to find contemporary Japanese songs to sing. Back in the 90s, there seemed to be a lot more songs that I could actually sing (and liked). It may be my imagination but they were a bit clearer and had catchier choruses/melodies thus easier to sing. (Perhaps all people who get older say this.)

But could it be that the music styles have changed so that many people now listen to different genres of music and harder to sing songs? It seems that more people listened to the same pop songs back in the 80s/90s.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Karaoke manufacturers are tiny compared to major record labels and even they are struggling to cope with the pirates. Any manufacturer who makes all their catalogue available in unprotected mp3G is digging his own grave. Sure, the good and legit CD+G's and KJs will be happy about it, but far happier will be those who simply go and download it for free and there will only be more and more of them. If illegal downloads put the manufacturers out of business, it will pretty much kill karaoke as an industry. How long into the future will bars and clubs want a CD+G's and KJs who's most recent song choices are 5 to 10 years old?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Juan Carlos Barbosa PadillaFeb. 01, 2013 - 12:00AM JST

I think it was a nice way to socialize with japanese people, the big problem now is that the youth people are preferring to live in their own shell and not wanting to live for a company..

I agree. The methods of motivating the next generation have changed, and many companies (including the one I work for) are having a h*ll of a time trying to figure out what motivates the young ones these days (other than cash). I agree with the author though, that Karaoke will probably not die completey in Japan.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Karaoke dead? Nonsense. You are just hanging out with the wrong crowd, that's all!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I don't know if Karaoke is dying or, if it is, why, but I certainly hope it's true.

My favorite music is jazz and old rock but I have fond memories of drinking in small clubs (called "saron") back in the 60's with popular and enka music in the background. That came to a screeching end (and I mean "screeching" literally) in the 70's when the saron become "snack bars" and karaoke was introduced as a way to squeeze a little extra cash out of customers by charging them to annoy each other.

The end of the awful noise would be great news, indeed.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Good to see that "smoking" is a major reason reason why these places are no long so "kakko ii". Smoking is the bane of life here, and really should be banned from ALL indoor spaces. For a zillion reasons, not the leaast that it is unappealing to a large number of customers who know the difference between life and death encouraging situations!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

40 million customer visits in 2011 (and you can assume the majority of them are by multiple-visit customers). Down from the peak of around 51 million customer visits 20 years ago. I'd be interested in what the year-to-year numbers were before declaring the form of entertainment "all but dead". Two data points over an approximate two-decade span can hardly be used to show a trend.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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