Words by Sean Hoffman
Illustrations by Trevor Swan
Karaoke. What a beautiful word. Just hearing it sends images of beer mugs, microphones and tambourines dancing through my head. In fact, to really understand the word, you have to break it down into its separate parts, kara and oke. Kara is the Japanese word for “the” and oke is Japanese for “shit”.
And that’s what karaoke is: The Shit. It’s an interesting etymology, I know. But before I began my love affair with karaoke, I have to admit, I wasn’t a fan at all. Having only been to American karaoke, I can safely say that Japanese karaoke is far different. It’s superior in so many ways to its American counterpart that it’s baffling America hasn’t gotten its act together and started following suit.
American karaoke takes place in an open bar while one lush croons a Journey song in front of indifferent strangers. One person sings, everyone else shuts up. And judging from the testimony of my international JET brethren, karaoke in the rest of the world is pretty similar.
Japanese karaoke, on the other hand, takes place in a private room with up to twenty of your friends. This room is equipped with a large TV, big couches, tambourines, two microphones and a direct phone line to the bar that keeps a steady flow of alcohol delivered to your room for two hours. The best part about Japanese karaoke is that everyone is encouraged to sing. One person may have the mic, but everyone else in the room is screaming with you. So instead of one drunk guy trying to do his best R Kelly impression, it’s 20 drunk people all yelling in unison (which is probably far more annoying to the outside observer but when you’re one of said “drunk people”, you’re already too wasted to care). And I’ll tell you something, there’s nothing quite like having 20 drunk back up singers while you’re belting out “I Believe I Can Fly”.
I’ve had quite a few karaoke sessions during my time here in Japan. And I’ve been noticing an interesting trend. No matter who I’m with, or whatever city I’m in, there are particular characters who seem to pop up in every karaoke group, like moths to a flame. You may not have noticed them before, but I can assure you that they’ll always turn up before long. You might even be one yourself.
The Characters of Japanese Karaoke
The Microphone Hog
In every karaoke group, there will always be a Microphone Hog, possibly even two or three. It’s inevitable. I know because I’m totally guilty of this myself. The Microphone Hog is exactly what it sounds like. This person will have an arthritic death grip on the mic until it’s forcefully pried from his cold, dead fingers. It doesn’t matter which song is on or who chose it, because if no one acts fast, the Microphone Hog’s gonna sing it. Everyone else in the meantime is left to fight over the remaining mic while the other mic is being screamed into when there isn’t even a song playing. (Again, I’m undeniably guilty of this…) The best way to deal with a Microphone Hog is by keeping him occupied in between songs with refills of beer, giving you an ever so brief window to snatch the mic away. But beware, the MH is persistent and next thing you know, the mic will be right back in his hands only two songs later.
The Chronic Song Selector (aka The Hoarder)
All karaoke songs are selected through a small touch screen box with a little pen attached. Naturally, the night begins with the box being passed around from person to person, so that everyone can request a song or two. But once everyone has pounded a few beers, there’s always one person who gets just a little too cozy with the box and eventually goes into a song picking frenzy. The next thing you know, DJ Jazzy Jeff has created his dream, hour-long playlist of songs that no one had any desire to sing. You can spot a hoarder from a mile away. If someone is actually watching another person pick songs from across the room instead of singing, he’s a song box crackhead. This is the tell-tale sign. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Arrhythmic Tambourine Player
The Tambourine player is the self-proclaimed “horrible singer” of the group. As soon as the ATP enters the room, they make a beeline right for the percussion instruments or any other object that gives them a reason to stay away from the microphone. He’s perfectly content banging away on that tambourine all night. He can’t be bothered with petty singing when he’s undertaken the responsibility of keeping everyone on rhythm. That’s a big job. The problem is when the room finds out that the ATP has absolutely no rhythm to speak of. And on top of that, he’s beating the damn tambourine like it owes him money. And it gets worse as the night goes on. What starts as a somewhat coherent beat turns into drunken morse code for near-deaf people.
The Lone Wolf
The Lone Wolf is exactly what it sounds like. He’s a solo flyer. The black sheep. The karaoke rebel. The Lone Wolf couldn’t give a damn about what the rest of the group wants to sing. He’s gonna put his song on and he couldn’t give two shits if you sing along or not. He doesn’t need you in his wolfpack. He had been waiting patiently for the ten-second gap when the Hoarder finally put down the song selector and now he’s gonna sing his Nine Inch Nails song… at the top of his lungs. People will be staring at him like he should be wearing a helmet, but he won’t care. So just sit down and enjoy the ride because the Lone Wolf is gonna enjoy himself, and god bless him for it. Popular Lone Wolf Songs: “Livin La Vida Loca”, “Chop Suey”, and Some Japanese Song You’ve Never Heard Of.
Everyone once in awhile, you’re gonna pick a song that you thought would fly with the rest of the group, but it’ll turn out to be a dud. In my case, it turns out that some people don’t share my same appreciation for 90’s R&B music. You’d think “This is How We Do It” would be the ultimate party starter, but then you find yourself in the company of godless non-Montell Jordan fans. Regardless, sometimes your chosen song will get a flatline of a response once the title appears on screen, and that’s when you know you’re in for an uncomfortable three minutes. This is where the Spotter comes in handy. The Spotter is like the charity worker of the group. A good Spotter can sense when a song is about to take a nosedive even before it starts. So they quickly grab the other mic and provide the back up vocals needed to keep the party going, whether they know the song or not. Sometimes though, even a great Spotter can’t save a song once the group starts shouting a resounding “SKIP”. That’s karaoke No Man’s Land. Instead of the “walk of shame”, it’s the shameful “passing of the mic”. No one wants to experience that. Trust me.
The Hype Man
You ever notice all those big guys who stand behind rappers at a rap concert? The guys who just yell and get pumped up in the background while the rapper does his thing? Well, in reality, they’re a vital part of the show. These are the hype men. They have one job, to get the people excited by keeping the energy up. Public Enemy needs Flava Flav, just as every karaoke room needs its hype men. The Hype Man is the guy who keeps the party going. Sure, maybe he’s not a great singer, but he’ll be making damn sure that everyone around him keeps belting out those tunes. The Hype Man will be yelling, dancing, drinking, disrobing and anything else that will keep that fire lit under the people’s asses. Next to the dog dying at the end of “Marley and Me”, a dull karaoke room is one of the saddest things you can ever experience. So if you’re looking to get big things poppin’, you better have a hype man or two or three in your crew.
Let me just say that this is an extremely rare occurrence in the drunk karaoke room. But every once in a great while, an amazing singer will grace the karaoke room with his or her presence. When this happens, it’s usually everyone else’s job to just pipe down and enjoy Karaoke Tip: If you see someone sporting this “Seal Face”, pass him that mic because shit’s about to get real. the show. Feel free to sing any of the songs that The Pro doesn’t select, but once “I Will Always Love You” pops up on the screen, it’s time for you to put that microphone down and have a drink because you are just going to pale in comparison. I cannot stress enough, don’t be the drunk guy trying to outduel an actual singer. Believe me, I’ve tried and failed terribly. There’s no way you can win in the end.
The Horrible Rapper
Oh yes. There’s one in every group (and it’s usually me). His palms are sweaty. Knees weak, arms are heavy. There’s sake on his sweater already, Bento spaghetti… After years of rapping to Eminem by yourself in your car, you finally have your time to shine. You’ve been singing The Real Slim Shady for years. You know all the lyrics. How hard it could it be? You’re gonna lose yourself in the moment. You only get one shot. Then the song comes on and you come to a sad realization. The only reason you thought you were any good at rapping was because you had the music up too loud to ever hear yourself. Now, you have 20 bystanders to witness the train wreck. “Will the Real Slim Shady please stand up… I repeat… Will the Real Slim Shady please stand up…We’re gonna have a problem here…Ya’ll act like you’ve never seen a white person before! Jaws on th- shit -…(awkward silence)…-like Pam and Tommy just burst in th- um…(more awkward silence)…and Dr. Dre said, NOTHING you idiot, Dr. Dre’s dead he’s loc- god dammit…(silence until the chorus if the song hasn’t been skipped already)…I’M SLIM SHADY YES I’m THE REAL SHADY” That was a word-for-word transcript of my first time attempting “The Real Slim Shady” in Japan. So before you decide to get on the mic and do your best B Rabbit impression, you better get some practice in on your own time. Because a karaoke group can be harsher than an 8 Mile crowd. Real rap.
Believe me when I say that karaoke would not be nearly as fun if all these kinds of people didn’t exist. It takes a collective effort to make a fun karaoke group, and without these people, it’d be pretty damn boring. They all add in some way to the bizarre culture of Japanese karaoke. Like I said before, I’m guilty of being multiple characters on this list. In the span of a night, I’ve been known to be the microphone hog and the horrible rapper. I think the only way I could possibly be more obnoxious is if I was blowing a kazoo in your face in between songs. And if you read one of these characters and thought to yourself, “Oh, I think I’ve done that once before”, it probably means you’re a repeat offender. But not to worry, because everyone of these people has a place in my ideal karaoke room, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.