Discover a new side of yourself in the karaoke box, a safe space to pamper your inner pop star.

Forget everything you know about “keh-ree-oh-kee,” that public embarrassment you see in Western bars, because in Japan, karaoke (カラオケ) is a magical, intimate and even classy affair. Properly pronounced “kah-rah-oh-keh,” the word is actually a contraction of the term “empty orchestra,” with kara meaning empty and oke being an abbreviation of the imported word ookesutora. If this pastime’s etymological roots don’t fancy up your image of karaoke, just wait until you discover the real thing in its native habitat.

Karaoke was invented in Japan during the early 1970s, and in its original form it did indeed look like the Western version we see today, with one person singing in front of a bunch of random barflies—accompanied by an instrumental eight-track, of course. But it really came into its own when it evolved away from the public bar format and into a more intimate space, what we now call the karaoke box: a private room fully equipped for all your lyrical needs, which you rent out for as short or as long as you want.

Testing out the authentic karaoke experience is easy. Step one: grab your friends and find a karaoke box, which are located in pretty much any town, and are often open 24 hours a day. Next, sign up for a membership, and let the front desk employee know how many people are in your party and how long you’d like to rent the room. Rooms are typically rented out per person in half-hour increments, so if four of you want to sing for three hours, you’ll each pay for your time individually. Prices vary depending on place and time, and off-peak hours (usually weekday mornings through late afternoons) are cheaper than peak hours (weekday evenings and any time during weekends). The average half-hourly rate can be anywhere between ¥100 and ¥400 (around $1 to $5). You’ll then head to your assigned room, which might range from one just small enough for a harmonious couple to one big enough for a rowdy party of 40. But size doesn’t matter, because every room at the karaoke box is equipped with everything you need to have a good time: microphones and a karaoke machine well-stocked with a multilingual catalogue of songs, from classics to contemporary chart-toppers, which you can input using a digital controller.

The karaoke box experience is not about being a great vocalist. It’s about bonding with your friends, having fun and therapeutically singing your heart out. That’s why most boxes include à la carte and all-you-can-eat-or-drink menu options delivered right to your room. So for a few hours, live the good life: grab a glass (or ten) of liquid courage, munch on some tasty treats and get ready to reinvent yourself.

Learning your etiquette before you belt it out


Here’s a handy guide to pitch-perfect politeness every time you hit the karaoke booth


DO use instruments

Bust out a tambourine or a pair of maracas to accompany your performance! (This is particularly popular among Japanese salarymen.)


DON’T hog the mic.

It’s not cool to make this a one-man show even if you’re a great singer, so share the love, or get shoved out the door.


DO score your singing.

Karaoke machines have the option of rating your performance—so competitive types can try challenging their friends for the highest score.

Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe