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What killed the karaoke stars?

by Carl Tremblay-Slater

Jan. 31, 2013 - 07:30AM JST

CHIBA —

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. 

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