In Tokyo I paid $9 an hour to sing by myself in a tiny booth—and I loved every minute.
Standing alone in a room just slightly bigger than a phone booth, I slipped on a pair of professional studio headphones and picked up a microphone. On the video screen in front of me, the lyrics to Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” flashed over close-up shots of tomatoes and green beans. The camera cut to a pretty young actress pretending to go grocery shopping. I wondered if she knew she was starring in a low-budget karaoke video.
“Baby, if I think about you, I think about looooooooove,” I crooned theatrically over the backing track. I heard my voice in the headphones and smiled at my reflection in the wall mirror, trying to channel my inner 70s rock god. I felt completely ridiculous in the best possible way.
It was a Saturday night in Tokyo and I had just become a card-carrying member of 1Kara, a local chain that rents out private karaoke rooms designed for parties of one.
When I’d told my American friends I planned to spend an evening singing karaoke by myself in a tiny room, some wondered why. Wasn’t that kind of… sad? Couldn’t I find anyone to go with me? Wasn’t the whole point of karaoke getting drunk and shouting out the chorus to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” with your equally plastered friends? How was this a thing?
In Tokyo, where 1Kara has several 24-hour locations, taking time out of your day to belt out pop songs solo isn’t strange. The concept of hitokara, the Japanese term for doing karaoke alone, must be understood in context. In the US, karaoke often means standing in front of an audience of total strangers at a bar. In Japan, it’s typical to go to a “karaoke box” that rents private rooms by the hour and sing with a group. Karaoke is such a common social activity that my soft-spoken brother, whom I’ve never even heard sing in the shower, adopted a go-to tune when he lived in Japan.
Group karaoke in Japan can also involve singing with bosses, coworkers or clients. As YouTubers Nama Japan explain in a video called “How to properly do karaoke with your colleagues in Japan,” the point is team-building, so you’re supposed to pick songs everyone knows.
When you do karaoke by yourself, you get full control of the playlist.
“You don’t have to be considerate to others around you,” explained Jun Tsurumi, the cheerful 1Kara employee who led me to my karaoke “pit” in the ladies-only section of the company’s spaceship-themed Shibuya location. (She said the gender-segregated area helps female customers feel comfortable and safe.)
“Singing alone is my hobby,” a thirtysomething office worker named Sam told me. “It's very comfortable because I'm a little bit shy.” He prefers Japanese pop songs and describes his twice-monthly hitokara sessions as a way to relax and “a lesson for myself.”
Solo karaoke gives you perspective on your singing, so you can improve the next time you go with a group or simply steer clear of songs you can’t pull off. “The sound you hear when you put on headphones is your real voice,” Tsurumi said. “So that’s more helpful.”
I’ve been to karaoke boxes in the Bay Area and New York’s Koreatown with friends a few times, but I’ve never been a very confident singer. On my early forays, I stuck to accompanying others on the tambourine. Even now I usually won’t pick up the microphone without a couple of drinks and someone to back me up. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s important to choose the right song. Warren G’s “Regulate” seemed like a guaranteed crowd pleaser, but it has a lot more words than I remembered and they come at you fast. I know Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” well because an old roommate used to play it when she cleaned the house, but it fell flat with a group of international colleagues who’d never heard it.
Standing alone in my private karaoke space, sans liquid courage, I felt free to flub whatever songs I wanted. 1Kara had a pretty good English selection and I was in a ’70s mood, so I warmed up with “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” before moving on to Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Bad Company. I would have felt incredibly awkward singing “Feel Like Makin’ Love” in a group, but here I was free to let my hair down and ham it up. Next I took on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain," a truly atrocious version of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe," “Jack and Diane,” “Ring of Fire,” and “Wonderwall."
When my hour was up, I went back to the front desk and paid for another.
The 1000 yen ($9) per hour fee to sing included access to a row of machines dispensing complimentary tea, coffee, hot chocolate and soda. There’s also corn soup, presumably to soothe karaoke-strained throats.
After finishing Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” I stepped out of my booth to refill my cup of neon-green melon Fanta and heard a woman wailing passionately off-key in Japanese across the hall from me. I cringed for a moment; I’d thought the miniature rooms were more or less soundproof. I definitely sounded at least as bad as my neighbor, but then I realized I didn’t care. She was rocking out and so was I. We weren’t here to pay attention to anyone else.
I came back to my pit and put on the 1975 Eric Carmen power ballad “All By Myself.” The video showed a man walking around New York looking despondent, drowning his sorrows alone at a bar. But I got a huge rush from singing alone on a Saturday night—totally sober, at the top of my lungs, and with zero fear of being judged. I left feeling invigorated, a little hoarse, and thankful for the freedom I’d found in my karaoke room for one.