Meet the Inventor of Karaoke, Daisuke Inoue, Who Wanted to “Teach the World to Sing”

Daisuke Inoue has been hon­ored with a rare, indeed almost cer­tain­ly unique com­bi­na­tion of lau­rels. In 1999, Time mag­a­zine named him among the “Most Influ­en­tial Asians of the Cen­tu­ry.” Five years lat­er he won an Ig Nobel Prize, which hon­ors par­tic­u­lar­ly strange and ris­i­ble devel­op­ments in sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, and cul­ture. Inoue had come up with the device that made his name decades ear­li­er, in the ear­ly 1970s, but its influ­ence has proven endur­ing still today. It is he whom his­to­ry now cred­its with the inven­tion of the karaoke machine, the assist­ed-singing device that the Ig Nobel com­mit­tee, award­ing its Peace Prize, described as “an entire­ly new way for peo­ple to learn to tol­er­ate each oth­er.”

The achieve­ment of an Ig Nobel recip­i­ent should be one that “makes peo­ple laugh, then think.” Over its half-cen­tu­ry of exis­tence, many have laughed at karaoke, espe­cial­ly as osten­si­bly prac­ticed by the drunk­en salary­men of its home­land. But upon fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion, few Japan­ese inven­tions have been as impor­tant.

Hence its promi­nent inclu­sion in Japa­nol­o­gist Matt Alt’s recent book Pure Inven­tion: How Japan’s Pop Cul­ture Con­quered the World. As Alt tells its sto­ry, the karaoke machine emerged out of San­nomiya, Kobe’s red-light dis­trict, which might seem an unlike­ly birth­place — until you con­sid­er its “some four thou­sand drink­ing estab­lish­ments crammed into a clus­ter of streets and alleys just a kilo­me­ter in radius.”

In these bars Inoue worked as a hiki-katari, a kind of free­lance musi­cian who spe­cial­ized in “sing-alongs, retun­ing their performances­ on­ the ­fly­ to ­match ­the­ singing­ abil­i­ties ­and­ sobri­ety ­levels­ of pay­ing cus­tomers.” This was karaoke (the Japan­ese term means, lit­er­al­ly, “emp­ty orches­tra”) before karaoke as we know it. Inoue had mas­tered its rig­ors to such an extent that he became known as “Dr. Sing-along,” and the sheer demand for his ser­vices inspired him to cre­ate a kind of auto­mat­ic replace­ment he could send to extra gigs. The 8 Juke, as he called it, amount­ed to an 8‑track car stereo con­nect­ed to a micro­phone, reverb box, and coin slot. Pre-loaded with instru­men­tal cov­ers of bar-goers’ favorite songs, the 8 Jukes Inoue made soon start­ed tak­ing in more coins than they could han­dle.

“When I made the first Juke 8s, a broth­er-in-law sug­gest­ed I take out a patent,” Inoue said in a 2013 inter­view. “But at the time, I didn’t think any­thing would come of it.” Hav­ing assem­bled his inven­tion from off-the-shelf com­po­nents, he did­n’t think there was any­thing patentable about it, and unknown to him, at least one sim­i­lar device had already been built else­where in Japan. But what Inoue invent­ed, as Alt puts it, was “the total pack­age of hard­ware and cus­tom soft­ware that allowed karaoke to grow from a local fad into an enor­mous glob­al busi­ness.” Had it been patent­ed, says Inoue him­self, “I don’t think karaoke would have grown like it did.” Would it have grown to have, as Alt puts  it, “profound­ effects­ on­ the­ fantasy­ lives­ of­ Japanese­ and­ West­ern­ers ­both”? And would Inoue have found him­self onstage more than 30 years lat­er at the Ig Nobels, lead­ing a crowd of Amer­i­cans in a round of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”?

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Author Rob Sheffield Picks Karaoke Songs for Famous Authors: Imag­ine Wal­lace Stevens Singing the Vel­vet Underground’s “Sun­day Morn­ing”

Japan­ese Bud­dhist Monk Cov­ers Ramones’ “Teenage Lobot­o­my,” “Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Bea­t­les’ “Yel­low Sub­ma­rine” & More

The 10 Com­mand­ments of Chindōgu, the Japan­ese Art of Cre­at­ing Unusu­al­ly Use­less Inven­tions

This Man Flew to Japan to Sing ABBA’s “Mam­ma Mia” in a Big Cold Riv­er

Karaoke-Style, Stephen Col­bert Sings and Struts to The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sug­ar”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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