I’m not fond of singing songs in kids’ classes. The main reason for this is that it makes me feel like a complete arse of a man but the fact that I am a very bad singer rubber-stamps my deep reluctance. When I say I am a very bad singer you must believe me. I don’t mean that I am not very good, and I don’t mean that I am quite good but also quite modest; I mean that I am unbelievably shit. I sing with screeching painfulness of a grieving middle-eastern widow. Add to that the wild pitch swings of an over-excited deaf man’s speech and you do not get a mellifluous sound. You get something that leaves listeners looking around at each other speechless in shock and awe that this could come from someone who was actually trying his best. Sometimes dribble falls from their bottom lip as they look on astounded.
So you can probably imagine that I was less than keen to try my hand at Japan’s national pastime – karaoke. It is well known that karaoke is extremely popular in Japan, but it is quite different from karaoke in bars in the U.K. because when you sing a song the other people present may politely listen and even give you a small round of applause at the end. Nobody throws things at you or shouts that you’re rubbish, even when you are. Mostly, though, karaoke differs in that it is often sung in karaoke boxes, which are basically small individual rooms in one big karaoke parlour. You get together with a few of your friends and rent one of these rooms by the hour, order a few drinks and maybe a bit of food to be sent in and then choose songs to sing along to from a phone-directory thick catalogue. But despite the fact that no strangers are there to abuse you, it still took me a long time in Japan before I could be persuaded to give it a go.
I’d been in Japan for almost a year and had resisted several invitations from students and friends to go for a sing-song on the grounds that I would scare them. But one night I’d accepted a dinner invitation from a class of adults I taught at a local community center, and afterwards they dragged me along to karaoke and I was more or less forced to sing.
I’d been their guest of honour at a lovely Japanese restaurant, where we had sat on a raised tatami floor and been fed dish after dish of fantastic food, all washed down by beer in a glass that could never be emptied. We’d come out of the restaurant in good spirits, and I was walking with a businessman in his early forties, a man called Mr Kobayashi. We were strolling through the heart of the downtown entertainment district, between tall buildings with neon lights announcing bars on every floor.
‘Where are we going now, Mr Kobayashi?’ I asked.
‘Now, we will sing karaoke,’ he said, ‘I like Elton John. Do you know?’
‘Yes, I know him, but I…..’
Mr Kobayashi had grabbed my arm and started to sing, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. He was very drunk.
‘I’ve never been to karaoke,’ I interrupted, ‘I’m a very bad singer.’
Mr Kobayashi looked at me with surprise on his sweaty, booze-infused, red face for just a second, and started laughing. Then he said, ‘Please sing The Beatles.’
‘I’ll come to karaoke,’ I said, feeling it would have been rude to just piss off after they’d picked up the tab in what must have been quite an expensive restaurant, ‘but I think I’ll just listen. I’m really very bad at singing. I’m terrible.’
Mr Kobayashi waved his hand in front of his nose and laughed again.
‘I don’t think so. I think you must be a very good singer.’
I’ve no idea how he’d come to that conclusion. ‘I’m not,’ I said. ‘I’m rubbish.’
‘Please sing Yesterday.’ He then began to sing a little bit of that for me.
We continued in this manner and I was subjected to snippets of Love Me Do, Rocket Man and almost all of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da before we finally reached the karaoke parlour.
Eight adults squeezed into a small room with pink plastic sofas, a central table and, in the corner, a tiny stage with a monitor on a stand. Above it, a lonely glitterball tried to add a touch of glamour to the proceedings. Emi, one of two women in the group, picked up the small intercom telephone on the wall and ordered beers for everyone whilst a few of the others began to look through the catalogues for their favourite songs. Mr Kobayashi had opened one catalogue to the extensive selection of English songs and was busy suggesting lots of Beatles, Carpenters and Elton John songs for me to sing. I kept saying ‘later’, and he would look at me for a second before punching me on the arm a bit harder than was really necessary and laughing.
Some of the others began to put the pressure on too, and Emi, who was the only one not drunk said it really didn’t matter if I was good or not. She herself was terrible, she said. But she wasn’t terrible. In fact she was fantastic. She only sang Japanese songs, but they were note perfect, and left everyone applauding and complimenting her when she finished each one. Mr Kobayashi closed his eyes in earnestness as he butchered the pronunciation on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Yesterday Once More, but he held the tune, and even the elderly Mr Abe of the class received a rousing round of applause for a traditional old enka song, although I felt that was more for just being an old drunk man than for being any good. But even he, bad as he was, was much, much better than me.
When everybody had sung one song and some had sung two or three, the demand for me to sing had become much more vociferous, almost hostile as far as Mr Kobayashi was concerned. He looked genuinely offended when he had programmed A Hard Day’s Night into the machine and I hadn’t begun singing as the words on the screen changed colour from pink to green. In fact, I’d gone to the toilet instead. Eventually, however, I realised I would be upsetting them and they would view me as a dreadfully poor sport if I didn’t join in. Had they been in the U.K. with me I would never have forced any of them to do something they didn’t want to do in front of a large group of locals, but I also knew that if I had asked them, they’d probably have agreed. And so I said I would sing something, but I had to choose it myself.. This news alone was greeted with a small cheer and some enthusiastic clapping.
I was thinking of doing Yellow Submarine because as far as I could tell it only had one or two notes, but I scanned the English selection of songs anyway, hoping to find something even easier. And there it was! It could hardly even be called singing, and that, I thought, would make it less tuneless sounding. Mr Kobayashi keyed in the number on the remote control, and I took my place on the small stage and gazed at the monitor as everybody waited with great anticipation for my karaoke debut. The title of the song and the name of the composer appeared on the screen in front of a completely incompatible video of a couple kicking their way romantically through fallen leaves and then the music began, the lyrics appeared, and I, rather pathetically lisped out:
You no say daddy me Snow me a go blame
A licky boom boom down
Detective man he say daddy me snow me stab someone down a lane
A licky boom boom down
Police them come and a they blow down me door
One him come crawl through me window
So they put me in the back the car at the station
From that point on me reach me destination
When the destination reach it was the east detention
Where they whip down me pants look up me bottom
For those of you that don’t recognize it, this is what it is supposed to sound like:
To my surprise, and judging by the raised eyebrows and nervously exchanged glances of my audience, theirs too, Snow’s Informer doesn’t lend itself well to a sotte voce politely spoken rendition by a nervous, slightly overweight British person. I struggled on with what I think must have been the 12” remix doing my raga/rap/hip-hop or whatever it is that Snow does, and it wasn’t until years later and I saw a clip of this guy on The X Factor who thought he was the English Eminem that I felt there was somebody with whom I could identify.
And, of course, when I saw that guy, my only thought was, ‘What an absolute cock!’ My only saving grace was that I didn’t try and compensate for my poor vocals by including any ludicrous hand movements and arm-crossing, as I believe is de rigueur amongst members of Snow’s community.
When the last word turned green and I issued my final licky boom boom down, the music stopped and there were a couple of seconds of awful silence. Most people took a sip from their beer and pretended not to have noticed I was still there but then Emi came to the rescue and said ‘omoshirokatta’, which could be translated as either, ‘That was fun’, or ‘That was interesting’ or ‘That was interesting and fun’, or ‘That was funny’ or any kind of combination of those words, but what it definitely didn’t mean was, ‘That was good’. A couple of the others nodded in agreement with Emi and one said that it seemed ‘difficult’ but nobody, not even Mr Kobayashi, asked me to sing another.
After such an awful introduction, then, it came as a great surprise to eventually become the kind of person who loved going to karaoke with a few of my friends at the end of a night’s drinking. After that painful debut I’d gone back to trying to avoid it all costs but that is not actually very easy to do in Japan and it was only a matter of time before I was once more dragged along to a karaoke box at the end of a very long evening. Again, I tried playing the role of observer but I was urged repeatedly to stop being such a poof and join in, an encouragement I felt was a bit rich coming from a guy who had just been gaily singing along to Copacabana. But, when a microphone was thrust into my hand, I tentatively joined in on a couple of choruses and then when nobody had told me to shut up I joined in on a couple of songs in their entirety. By the end of the night I had been programming in my own chosen songs and saying, ‘Let’s just get an extra hour.’
The next morning, I hadn’t even punched my futon and tried to smother myself with my pillow as I remembered what an arse I’d made of myself. Instead, I’d got myself some hangover-curing chocolate milk and sat there smiling at what a good night out I’d had. I felt that the fact I could go out with a few guys in their late-twenties and early-thirties and that we could all have a good sing song together without embarrassment must be a sign of something; that we were all as sad as each other, perhaps, but I knew I’d found friends in whose company I was truly at ease.
Now that I’m married and most of my good friends have left Japan I rarely go to karaoke, but I have fond memories of those late night sing-songs after a boozy evening. It’s not really the singing I miss, of course. After all, I can still do that any time I choose. It’s the camaraderie that comes with finding people who can spend an entire evening causing you to generate huge big belly laughs.
And you know what? I even found myself telling other reluctant singers that it honestly doesn’t matter if you’re shit. That doesn’t matter at all. And although I can still be a bit microphone shy when out with people I don’t know very well, in my heart of hearts I know that it really doesn’t matter.