It's hard to imagine, but there was once a time when karaoke didn't exist.
Sure, there have long been singalongs and pianomen. And people have made drunken fools of themselves at bars since there were bars. (And before: Alcibiades at Plato's Symposium? Awkward!)
But this particular fixture of the festive landscape, the karaoke bar and the machine(s) that enable it: This had a discrete moment of creation. And then, like a big bang of joyous, off-key mewling, it blasted out into the universe, expanding and cooling into the formations that you see today. Like The Mint in San Francisco. Or The Alibi in Portland. Or Winnie's in New York.
They are legion.
It turns out that the inventor of karaoke is a man named Daisuke Inoue, who was born in a small Japanese town in 1940. He was a drummer, by trade and sensibility, which means he ended up returning home "almost penniless" to live with his parents at the age of 28. He started playing the keyboard in particular bars called "snacks."
And that's where the story of karaoke really begins.
Inoue recounted his adventures in 2005 to Topic Magazine, which allowed the Atlantic-favorite history site The Appendix to reprint his first person account of creating a modern sensation.
One day, the president of a small company came to the club where I was playing to ask a favor. He was meeting business clients in another town and knew they would all end up at a drinking establishment and that he would be called on to sing. “Daisuke, your keyboard playing is the only music that I can sing to! You know how my voice is and what it needs to sound good.”
So at his request I taped a number of his favorite songs onto an open-reel tape recorder in the keys that would best suit his voice. A few days later he came back full of smiles and asked if I could record some more songs. At that moment the idea for the Juke 8 dawned on me: You would put money into a machine with a microphone, speaker and amplifier, and it would play the music people wanted to sing.
As I had attended a Denko (or Electric Industry) High School, you’d think I could have built the machine myself. But I was always scared of electricity and so graduated without much of an ability to put things together. A member of my band introduced me to a friend of his who had an electronics shop. I took my idea to him, and he understood exactly what I’d envisioned. With my instruction, he built eleven Juke 8s. Each machine consisted of an amplifier, a microphone, a coin box and an eight-track car stereo. Putting the machines together took about two months and cost around $425 per unit.
That was in 1969, but the machines did not actually hit the market until 1971. At first, people weren't all that interested, but once they figured out how they worked, they started to take off with an Atari-like speed.
"Two club owners from Kobe decided they wanted to open clubs in Osaka. They took the Juke 8 with them. Within a year, my company was sending machines all over Japan. We made 25,000 units," Inoue continued. "After the first eleven, the rest were all pure white and looked like video arcade games. Osaka became the birthplace of the karaoke boom. It went straight to Tokyo, and soon the whole country, continent and the world became caught up in the karaoke craze."
Inoue did not take out a patent on the karaoke machine, mostly because he could not imagine the global phenomenon it would become. He never struck it Silicon Valley-rich, but he did make money in the business over the years. He sunk into a depression after his company became a dependable but boring success. " I had everything going for me—but nothing to do," he wrote.
He says his dog Donbei pulled him out of these dark years. And he went on to invent a cockroach killing machine, among other things. Now, he lives on the top of a mountain in Kobe.
"Every night I put my three granddaughters into the bath and we sing songs, splash water and enjoy each other’s company," he writes in the concludion to his Topic essay. "About once a week we pull out the karaoke books and have a contest to see who can sing the most songs before going hoarse. It is a time we all look forward to, and it is my way to honor karaoke and pass on the tradition to the next generation."
Oh, and a coda: What does the "karaoke" mean? Inouye writes that he didn't invent the term. Rather, a Japanese entertaining group got a machine to play big orchestral music after the musicians in the orchestra went on strike.
"It is said that someone from Matsuda [Electronics] looked into the pit and said, 'The music is playing but the orchestra pit is empty!' The phrase 'empty orchestra' is kara okesutura in Japanese, which was shortened to form the word 'karaoke.'"
Kara okesutura: a fun activity born from sadness at many levels.