On 18 July 2016, the yearly karaoke recital for Crown Singing Academy Tanikawa Classroom was held at the Sumiyoshi-ku Community Center Hall in Osaka, Japan. This was the tenth edition of the recital. Over the course of seven hours from 10:30am, more than 100 people, along with some guests-of-honour, presented their singing skills in front of a live audience.
The event was planned and run by the classroom teacher and operator, Mitsuko Tanikawa, 64, and her students. In the months prior to the recital, they sourced for available venues, negotiated guest appearances by professional singers, and planned the order of the event proceedings. For the classroom’s students, the recital was a showcase for the skills that they had learned in the past year of karaoke lessons, so they started thinking about their choice of song and practiced their performance numbers months before the event.
Even with the blazing morning sun on the day of the event, more than 700 visitors, mostly elderly men and women, came to the recital venue. Many had come to support their families and friends who were performing, but some visitors had come alone to take in the performances after noticing the posters that were distributed and pasted around other karaoke bars and cafes around Southern Osaka.
Almost all participants sang songs from the Japanese popular music genres of enka and kayōkyoku, which are mainly melancholic ballads portraying outdated Japanese cultural ideals, and considered passé in the contemporary Japanese musical soundscape. I focus on the especially memorable performance of one particular student whom I got to know over the course of my visits to Tanikawa Classroom.
Masako Sakamoto, 63, started classes with Ms. Tanikawa seven years ago, and had previously participated in the classroom’s yearly recital. For this year, under Ms. Tanikawa’s recommendation, she had chosen to sing the kayōkyoku song “Amore Mio”, originally by the singer Kaoru Yamaguchi. She started diligently practicing the song from a few months before.
At the recital, she appeared on stage in a pink and frilly long dress, and she looked radiant with her lively make-up, curly hair extensions and silver accessories. It seemed as if she had become decades younger. Although she showed hints of nervousness in her slightly shaky voice at the beginning of her performance, she seemed to gradually regain her composure as she continued singing.
After her performance, Ms. Sakamoto reflected on her stage experience. She recounted, “At first I was really nervous. But after I finished the first verse and heard everybody’s applause, I started to enjoy singing on stage. When the song ended I felt a tinge of regret, because I wanted to sing more.”
Outside of their own turns on stage, however, the classroom students were occupied with other duties such as reception, handling reservations for the event DVD and photobook, distributing lunchboxes, moving tables, chairs and other equipment, and cleaning up after the event. The students did all of these by themselves, and thus were unable to enjoy the performances by other students and the professional singers who had come as guests-of-honour. Nevertheless, all the students had satisfied smiles at the end of the recital.
Although born in Singapore, I have been interested in the elderly fan demographic for genres such as enka and kayōkyoku for years. I am currently writing a PhD thesis at the Australian National University about their particular enthusiasm for karaoke. Under a fellowship grant from the Japan Foundation, I am currently based at Osaka University. Operating from this base, I regularly visit karaoke venues where enka and kayōkyoku are mainly sung, such as karaoke classrooms, and observe, record and participate in their activities. Through my visits, I became particularly interested in their proactive attitudes towards karaoke. Indeed, why do they put so much into karaoke?
On the bus ride back to the classroom premises after the recital, Sonoko Ogihara, 70, turned to me and explained her thoughts about the day. “The recital is a major goal and something to look forward to during the year. Performing on stage shows what we have learnt for the past year. Sure, doing reception duties and moving heavy equipment is tiring. But I’m also reminded that I have all this energy, and these friends working with me, even at my age.”
Through her immersion into singing her favourite music at karaoke, Ms. Ogihara seemed to have found company and purpose in her advanced years. Perhaps this is the explanation for their drive and motivation towards singing karaoke.
Benny Tong is a PhD candidate at the School of Culture, History and Language. His research investigates how elderly karaoke spaces in urban Japan provide sites in which older Japanese men and women can attain purpose and fulfillment in their everyday lives.
This article was originally published in Osaka Nichinichi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper