Of all the forms of contemporary Japanese entertainment that have reached international audiences, perhaps the most unique, and surely the most ubiquitous, is karaoke.

The word is a portmanteau of shortened versions of the words for empty (kara) and orchestra (oke), creating karaoke, or “empty orchestra.” This poetic phrase well describes what are simply music tracks, shorn of their lead vocals. It is in those empty places that the magic – or, let’s be honest, the train wreck – happens. In those spaces, amateur singers of all levels are able to sing lead on their favorite songs, with the full backing of that “empty orchestra.”

Karaoke was introduced in 1971, when Daisuke Inoue, a professional drummer in Kobe in Kansai (western Japan), figured out a way to offer instrumental tracks without a vocal. He did this, he said, at the request of many of his clients, who wanted to be able to sing along to his music even when he wasn’t performing.

Inoue did not do this to make money, and that’s a good thing, because he never did: The musician/inventor didn’t know much about patents, and never got one for his invention. Instead, the karaoke machine as we know it has been registered to the Filipino entrepreneur Roberto del Rosario, who patented it in 1975. To be fair, many Filipinos had long enjoyed what they called “music-minus-one” singalongs, and brought such innovations to Japan in the mid-‘60s. So the notion was in the air by the time Inoue “invented” karaoke.

But Inoue remains famous and honored in Japan, and karaoke has since become a standard global entertainment option, in homes, in bars, even in cabs. Karaoke has been sung in remote truck stops and at birthday parties – even at music festivals such as Knebworth in Britain, where in 2003 singer Robbie Williams led the biggest karaoke event in the world, with 120,000 singers taking the lead vocal, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Karaoke remains a crucial part of contemporary entertainment in its homeland. For a nation of people widely thought to be restrained and undemonstrative – and who largely are – the Japanese turn out to be passionate singers, and Japanese parties have traditionally featured singalongs.

Karaoke Microphone

Many Japanese are also quite happy to sing to themselves, and that inclination led to the next big development in the world of karaoke: The karaoke box. These commercial establishments introduced the concept of separate, small, soundproof rooms, or “boxes,” where singers, alone or in small groups, could sing to their hearts’ delight without disturbing the neighbors. The boxes also accelerated the commercial development of karaoke, and today, karaoke boxes, usually rented by the hour, are the norm around the world.

In terms of karaoke machines themselves, and the technology behind them, being launched in the ‘70s meant that most early karaoke machines used cassette tapes, an unsophisticated technology even at the time. Then, in the mid-‘80s, karaoke tracks moved on to the new LaserDisc format. This crucial development added the ability of karaoke music producers to add the lyrics to the coding on the discs, so that the words played along with the music. This ability to read the lyrics is a crucial part of karaoke, since few amateur singers are able to remember all the lyrics. But LaserDiscs, being digital, could carry this extra information and put it up on the video screen, vastly improving the memories of millions of singers, and saving the ears of millions of listeners.

Since then, improvements in karaoke have included ongoing refinements to storage and delivery with the ensuing waves of CDs, DVDs and now, hard drive machines that can store thousands of songs, lyrics and even videos to accompany the “empty orchestras.” One form is known as tsuushin karaoke (“communication karaoke”), which provides songs and videos from a commercial content vendor, which is outside the box and delivered via the internet or cable. Tsuushin karaoke greatly expands the number of songs available to singers, beyond whatever discs or limited collection one particular karaoke box may have.

Another form of karaoke that is growing in popularity is the wankara, or solo karaoke box (the word is a pun: “one-kara”). In this small “room” – with just enough space for one person to stand or sit in – a shy singer can belt a song out to her heart’s content, without the social pressure that comes from singing karaoke in public. The verb hitokara (combining the Japanese words “hitori” (alone) and “kara” (karaoke) means to sing karaoke alone.

Karaoke Singer

This is a development that all of us should be grateful for, whatever our level of vocal ability. Another is the relatively recent addition of pitch-correcting technology, similar to the Auto-Tune used by many pop singers, which evens out even the wobbliest pitch.

In any case, any trip to Japan will offer many opportunities to sing karaoke, and a visitor would be foolish to pass up the chance, as singing together is a common way for the Japanese to bond. If you do, be prepared to be asked to name your juhachiban – your favorite song to sing karaoke. You’ll enjoy karaoke more if you have one.

By David Watts Barton