How living in Japan helped me face my fears and fall in love with the mic.

pg36-2It was the stuff nightmares are made of.

There I was, standing in front of a room full of strangers, while my dad unabashedly sang the latest Céline Dion love song beside me. We were at a traditional Chinese wedding, where guests were meant to celebrate by singing instead of dancing. My dad, seemingly oblivious to my pain and suffering, was having the time of his life, singing at the top of his lungs, only taking a break now and then to try and convince me to join him. Cheeks on fire, I refused. Each time he’d put that dreaded mic in my face, I’d push it away, feeling more humiliated as each second passed. It didn’t help that I was painfully shy, a little chubby and wearing a puffy flowered dress to match my puffy crimped hair.

The thing is, I loved singing. Absolutely adored it. In my spare time, my parents would find me belting out show tunes on the in-home karaoke system I’d received for Christmas. But that was at home. By myself. Without hundreds of people staring at me.

It was that night, at that wedding, with that puffy dress, that my karaoke phobia was born.

Twelve years later, I would find myself teaching English in the country that invented karaoke. A little slimmer, a lot less shy and with hair that I (mostly) knew how to tame, I was looking forward to immersing myself in anything and everything Japanese. So when a fellow teacher suggested we go to karaoke, I didn’t refuse. After all, it was part of the culture, and I didn’t want to miss out. But there was no way I would be doing any actual singing…. That is, until I found out the venue was all-you-can-drink. For only ¥1,000 (around $10), I could drink as much as I wanted. All night long.

Ten bucks could get me endless pints of beer or a huge variety of chu-hai cocktails, which are essentially Japanese vodka mixed with any fruit juice of your choosing. I went with the latter. There was everything from grapefruit or grape, to lemon or lime, to sour plum or mango—and I probably tried one (or more!) of each. In less than an hour, I had ended my decade-long karaoke aversion. By midnight, you couldn’t get me off the mic. By 4 am, I had developed a brand new addiction—and it wasn’t to alcohol!

Of course, it helps that karaoke in Japan takes place in much more intimate spaces than here in the West. Forget singing on stage in front of a crowd. You either rent a small room with friends, or you hang out in a dark, smoky hole in the wall (that really only has enough seats for your group) and sing the night away. And that’s what I did, nearly every week, for the next four years of my life in Japan.

As for weddings? I’d be one of the first guests to grab the mic.


KATHLEEN O’HAGAN

Kathleen spent years living in and travelling around Japan—and blogging about her adventures while she was at it. Now back in Toronto, Kathleen continues to write about her life-changing experience abroad when she can—in between discovering new and delicious Japanese restaurants in the city, working as a copywriter and raising her baby boy.


Illustration by Chieko Watanabe