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Karaoke: Easily one of the most mispronounced Japanese words of all time

29 Jul 12:00 by Zentern Team


Don’t forget that while participating in an internship in Japan there are plenty of opportunities to have fun in Japan! Although some of the more natural sceneries and interesting rural communities may require a lengthy train ride to visit, sightseeing is only one of many ways to spend free time. In this post I will discuss karaoke, a widely loved recreational activity that can often be enjoyed locally and inexpensively in groups of all sizes, even a party of one!


What is karaoke?

Karaoke, a Japanese word deriving from 空(から)のオーケストラ, an orchestra lacking a vocalist, refers to the act of singing along to the instrumental version of a song. Although many countries have taken to a pronunciation along the lines of 'care-ree-oh-kee,' please be advised that karaoke is supposed to be pronounced like 'cah-rah-okay.


Why is karaoke so big in Japan?


Sound privacy is practically non-existent in all variants of living accommodations in Tokyo from apartments to guest house private rooms. When your next-door neighbor comes back home, you’ll hear the door creak open, the knob rattle, and a small thump and clatter as they shut the door and scrape off their shoes at the genkan. Naturally, this sound transparency has evoked a culture of courtesy regarding noise, especially in residential areas, but ensuring a quiet solace comes at some cost to personal freedoms. For aspiring instrumentalists and enthusiastic amateur singers alike, home is not a place for letting loose. So what’s a person to do when a Maroon 5 song comes up on their pandora or spotify playlist and they suddenly have the urge to crank up the volume and sing along? Well, to be honest, they would be probably just hum quietly and rock their body in time with the music in the short-term. But when the desire to sing or perform builds up, karaoke is great place to indulge. Bring a few colleagues, friends, family members, or coworkers along and make it a bonding experience!


What are your choices? We have some advice


Karaoke is a competitive business. In addition to the major chains Joysound, UtaHiroba, Big Echo, and Karaoke-kan, there are a variety of smaller facilities and specialty stores that can offer great hourly deals, fashionably designed private booths, and unique culinary options. Some establishments even have rooms equipped with electric guitars, drumsets, and electronic piano keyboards. For a comprehensive summary of karaoke options in Tokyo, I recommend Tracey Keong’s guest post on Enable Japan.


It is worth noting that karaoke prices are listed by the half-hour and that rates for chain stores are specific to a given location. The best time to go for karaoke in general is during the daytime on weekdays when majority of people are busy with work or are attending school. In fact, during a short window of time from 9 AM to 11 AM, most Maneki Neko Karaoke locations in Tokyo offer shockingly generous morning rates of 10 yen per 30 minutes. However, as a regular precaution, we do advise checking the profile page of the store(s) nearest you for pricing information before deciding where to go. The second way to get the most value out of your money at karaoke is to find “Free time”(フリータイム) or “Utai-houdai”(歌い放題) deals, which allow you to sing for as long as you want within a given time frame for a flat fee. Minor discounts are also available to students up to collegiate level and those with memberships, but overall the best way to keep costs low is to avoid going to karaoke at night and on the weekends.


Is it weird to go to karaoke alone? Not at all!

More and more karaoke establishments are starting to offer separate fee systems and features to appeal to solo visitors and expand their customer base. In addition to having the luxury of practicing their singing in a private, spacious room, parties of one often do not have to pay for access to unlimited-refill drink bars where various sodas and teas are available for self-serve. Although going to karaoke in a group is more common, there is no shortage of people who can enjoy performing solo as it is very convenient to be able to choose songs without having to consider the music tastes of many people in a group. Furthermore, on platforms such as Youtube, Twitcasting, Saitousan, and LINE Live, streamers with singing talent who broadcast their solo karaoke performances are also on the rise.  


Let’s learn relevant Japanese for going to karaoke!

In my personal experience, English-speaking staff is a rare find even in Tokyo, the economic center of most tourism. However, there is no need to fret because most interactions with employees at karaoke facilities can be cruised through with simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses. Let me walk you through the process.


A standard front desk for a karaoke facility 

Step 1- Walk up to the front counter: The employee stationed at the desk will confirm the number of people in your party verbally as you approach and will likely also raise a corresponding number of fingers for extra clarity. All you need to do is nod and or say yes.

Example dialogue:
Q:    一名様でよろしいすか。 
    Ichi-mei-sama de yoroshii desu ka?
    You are a party of one, correct?
A:    はい。


Step 2- Fill out the entry form: The employee will ask one person in your group to fill out a form with their name, phone number, date of birth, information regarding the composition of your party, and your desired karaoke time duration. A form of identification may also be requested. If you identify yourself as a student to take advantage of discounts, you will need to present your student ID card. 

お名前(なまえ)/ オナマエ = o-namae = name

電話番号 = denwa bangou = phone number

生年月日 = seinengappi = date of birth    [Format: Year年 Month月 Day日]

性別 = seibetsu = gender

男性 = dansei = male

女性 = josei = female
~人 = ~nin = *Counter for number of people

未成年 = miseinen = underage; minor [Note: the legal drinking age in Japan is 20 years old]

学生 = gakusei = student [This term applies to all youth in school up to graduate school level]

会社員 = kaishain = working adult

その他 = sono hoka = other

~時間 = ~jikan = *Counter for number of hours     [The abbreviations “h” or “hr” are also used]

Despite there always being a place on the form to indicate how long you would like to stay most employees will ask you directly before you get the form. To prepare for such an event, make yourself familiar with the following exchange.

Example dialogue:

Q:    ご利用時間はどうなさいますか?

Go-riyou jikan wa dou nasaimasu ka?

How long would you like to stay?

A:    一時間にします。
    Ichi-ji-kan ni shimasu.
    I would like to stay for one hour.


Step 3- Indicate your room preference: Provided it was not a category on the form, the employee will ask if you would prefer to be in a smoking or non-smoking room. These words only vary by one kanji in Japanese and sound similar so do be careful if this matter is important to you.

Example dialogue:
Q:     タバコをお吸いですか。

    Tabako wo o-sui desu ka?
    Do you smoke (tobacco)?

A:     はい、吸います。 / いいえ、吸いません。
    Hai, suimasu.       / iie, suimasen.

Yes, I smoke.      /   No, I don’t smoke

Q:     喫煙室と禁煙室、どちらの方がよろしいですか。
    Kitsu-en-shitsu to kin-en-shitsu, dochira no hou ga yoroshii desu ka?

Would you prefer a smoking room or non-smoking room?

A:    喫煙室でおねがいします。 / 禁煙室でお願いします
    Kitsu-en-shitsu de onegai shimasu. / Kin-en-shitsu de onegai shimasu.

A smoking room, please. / A non-smoking room, please.   

Step 4 - Find your room: After you have provided all the necessary information at the counter, the employee will print out your receipt, clip it into a narrow binder, and hand the binder over to you. The receipt paper will have written on it your designated karaoke room number so that you don’t get lost as well as the end time of your karaoke session just in case you forget what time you arrived or how much time you requested. Don’t worry about paying in advance. Many customers end up asking to extend their time or order extra things such as desserts so the bill is always recalculated and paid at the end. After you have looked at the receipt, the employee will state your karaoke room number out loud, gesture towards the elevator, and tell you what floor to get off at. As a rule of thumb, most karaoke room numbers in multi-story buildings are comprised of three digits with the first one indicating the floor number.



Sample Joysound Karaoke Room in Kanamachi, Tokyo. 


Step 5- Get settled in your room: When you enter your room the television screen will already be on and playing commercials until songs are selected. You should find two portable tablets, one for song selection, another for ordering food and beverages, and two microphones in their respective charging cradles. Make a mental note of how things are organized so that you can return items to their original positions before checking out.


Step 6- Start building a song list and singing pronto: Tap the tablet screen and it should light up. The display should be similar to the image below:


Although foreign language interfaces are available at most karaoke places, the English menu layout is usually drastically different and lacks helpful pictographs. For that reason, I personally find it much easier and faster to navigate the Japanese menus. Challenging yourself not to use the English menu may also help you pick up new Japanese words or kanji.

歌手名 = kashu mei  = artist name

曲名 = kyoku mei = song title

キーワード = kiiwaado = key word

選曲番号 = senkyoku bangou = song ID number    [Can be researched in advance]

声で探す = koe de sagasu = search via voice input

歌詞検査 = kashi kensa = search by lyrics

予約リスト = yoyaku risuto = scheduled song list 
                     [Where you can change the order of pending songs]

歌詞表示 = kashi hyouji = lyrics display 
                 [where you can set lyrics to display in ローマ字(romaji = English 
                  alphabet characters] instead of かな(kana = hiragana and katana)]

履歴(りれき)= rireki = playlist history

            [where you can choose songs that you would like to sing again or you can  

snoop on the song choices of the users before you]

リモコン = rimocon = remote [where you can fastforward, rewind, or stop songs]

演奏中止 = performance discontinuation [A button that allows you to skip to the next song]


Tips for not wasting time choosing songs:

  • Plan your song list in advance if possible. If you can lookup the 選曲番号 online in advance that is even better.

  • If the song you want has a generic name, research the artist name on your phone before attempting to find it on the karaoke tablet

  • Look up songs by genre and popularity. It is very unlikely that your group will be unfamiliar with every song on the Top 50 Japanese and English pop song lists.

  • There is often a submenu for looking up songs from anime, movies, and tv shows, which is very efficient because the songs you need to choose from are significantly narrowed down.


Step 7- Answer the 10-minute warning phone call:  Ten minutes before the end of your initially specified time duration you can expect a phone call from the front desk. What the employee says can vary greatly so for simplicity’s sake, it is perfectly fine to ignore what the person says and just state whether you want to extend your stay or not. Make sure to specify how much longer you would like to use the room.

Example dialogue:
*Pick up ringing phone*

A:     はい、もしもし。
        Hai, moshi-moshi.
Q:     ????
A1:     30分追加延長できますか。
    San-juppun tsuika enchou dekimasu ka?
    Can I extend my time by 30 minutes?
Q1:     はい、かしこまりました。失礼いたします。
    Hai, kashikomarimashita. Dewa, shitsurei itashimasu. 
    Yes, I’ll take care of it. Please excuse me.
A2:    はい、分かりました。でも、延長しません。
    Hai, wakarimashita. Demo, enchou shimasen.
    Okay, understood, but I won’t be extending my time.

Q2:     はい、承知しました。では、失礼いたします。
    Hai, shouchi shimashita. Dewa, shitsurei itashimasu. 
    I see, then please excuse me.  

*Hang up*

Step 8- Make sure you are ready to leave on-time: At one minute before the end of your time I would suggest tidying up the room so that you can leave exactly on time and there is no risk of being charged a late fee for overstaying.


Step 9- Pay the bill Return to the front desk and the employee will ring up your final bill updated for any time extensions and food or drink orders. Be prepared to pay in cash but many facilities also accept payment via credit card and IC card (Suica, Pasmo, ICOCA, etc.)


Step 10- Walk out: Leave happy and vocally exhausted!

Thank you for reading until the end of this karaoke walkthrough. My personal favorite karaoke place is UtaHiroba because it is one of the cheaper options and the sound quality of their mics and speakers is nearly as good as that of the notoriously expensive Joysound's equipment. If you have the time, it's definitely worth trying out a few different chains and small facilities for yourself. Kindly leave your remaining questions and personal tips for others regarding karaoke in the comment section!