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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

FYI

KARAOKE

Low key, off key, but anyway it's your way


Staff writer

Born in Japan three decades ago, karaoke has evolved into a global fixture.

News photo
Singing in the rain: A customer soaks her feet in a warm "ashi-yu" foot bath while crooning at the Fioria aria blu karaoke parlor in Tokyo's Roppongi district last week. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Since the beginning, karaoke (empty orchestra) has manifested itself in myriad ways.

Following are questions and answers about the popular entertainment system:

How did karaoke come about?

The prototype machine originated from a jukebox with a microphone around 1970, according to the All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association.

Karaoke was first commercialized in 1971 by musician Daisuke Inoue. He made his original machine by connecting a microphone and attaching a coin box to a tape recorder and started lending out the device and cassette tapes loaded with instrumental accompaniments of his songs, the association said.

In 2004, Inoue was awarded the Ig Nobel peace prize for inventing karaoke. Improbable Research, which administers the humorous prize, praised Inoue for "providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other."

Since Inoue's invention, manufacturers of both hardware and software joined the business and karaoke rapidly spread nationwide, mainly at bars.

The early 1980s saw radical changes. Karaoke machines started sporting screens showing images and lyrics.

Before that, people sang songs using a tape recorder while reading the lyrics off paper.

The updated machines allow users to sing while reading the lyrics off the screens.

Was karaoke popular from the get-go?

Yes. But people who partook were generally limited to middle-aged businessmen who drank and sang songs at bars.

There was a surge in popularity in the 1980s as special establishments known as "karaoke boxes" debuted, offering private rooms with food and drinks to draw in ever-increasing younger customers.

In the beginning, when a customer at a bar sang, the rest of the patrons had to wait their turn before also singing in front of a bunch of strangers. The boxes provided a more intimate atmosphere for friends or colleagues to have fun.

The industry association said karaoke boxes in Japan peaked at 160,680 in 1996, more than triple the 52,578 in 1990. The number stood at 131,200 in 2006, according to the latest data available.

The number of users in Japan increased until 1994, when it peaked at 58.9 million. It had declined to 47.2 million by 2006.

Why is the industry slumping?

Karaoke booths have seen their popularity wane as new forms of entertainment, including the Internet, cell phones and iPod music players, find favor.

Sales at karaoke establishments in 2006 stood at ¥436 billion, down 34 percent from the 1996-1997 peak, when sales hit ¥660 billion, according to the White Paper on Leisure 2007 published by the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-Economic Development.

"Since the burst of the bubble (in the early 1990s), the economy has slowed and corporate demand has declined," said Hisaya Yanagita, a senior researcher at the center. "Now people who partake in karaoke are those who really love to sing. They are overwhelmingly in their teens or in their 30s," he said.

Data show that people in their 20s tend to spend more time on mobile phones and on the Internet, he said.

What are the latest karaoke developments?

More and more people are going solo, or "hitokara," which is short for "hitori" (single) karaoke.

An Internet search will turn up Web pages recounting hitokara experiences. People go it alone for various reasons. Some sing purely out of a love for music. Others are practicing before singing in front of or along with friends and colleagues.

Karaoke boxes are meanwhile competing with each other by enhancing services.

Fioria aria blu in Tokyo's Roppongi district, for example, offers "ashi-yu" foot baths and even Jacuzzi, renting out swimsuits and towels in some booths to offer a higher level of relaxation.

Other operators may lend costumes, such as those of "manga" cartoon characters, nurses, maids or police officers, as well as offering play areas for small kids to lure mothers into coming to karaoke boxes.

Also, many operators serve fancy dinners like those at expensive restaurants.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk


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