The type of karaoke familiar to unfortunate UK pub-goers is very different from what is probably the most intensively practised variety - the Japanese 'box' style of sing-along.
In this massively popular form of entertainment, a group of people, numbering from two to perhaps 15, in larger establishments, rent out, for a small hourly fee, a small room. It is usually lined with nice comfy chairs or sofas centred around a nice coffee table, and fitted with its own TV set/hi-fi system all ready to play any of your favourite tunes from a sizeable, catalogued collection. The programming of the system is left to you1.
There is usually an intercom system or bell which can be used to order food and drink, or at least to call an attendant to take an order. Some smaller establishments feature vending machines selling some awesome vended food, with burgers, yakisoba fried noodles and okonomiyaki arriving steaming hot from the machine's gaping maw.
The karaoke-ists settle down with their favourite beverage, and pass the microphones from person to person to bawl out their rousing tunes in private. This causes no unpleasantness to other frequenters of the establishment, who are mostly secluded in their own little boxes merrily singing away. As the songs play, the large TV screen shows pretty panoramas, street scenes or often soft porn to accompany your song, MTV video style. It also shows you what the lyrics are and the speed at which they should ideally be sung.
For those less inclined to sing, whether from an inadequate alcohol intake or an early burst of over-enthusiasm leading to a sore throat, hours of fun can be had merely trawling through the catalogue, which as well as the standard selection of old favourites will invariably feature all manner of obscure and forgotten tracks guaranteed to flood the mind of the most hardened anti-songster with waves of happy nostalgia2.
There are dozens of such establishments in every Japanese town, and they are always popular and bustling. Another common trait is a special deal for daytime users, and the boxes are often full during the afternoons with packs of housewives drinking Ume-shu - an alcoholic beverage popular with the ladies, traditionally flavoured with Ume plums but now available in a bewildering variety of flavours; a kind of Japanese alcopop. Anyway, you'll find them singing away (or, as they often put it, 'practising') in small groups, often for periods of five or six hours at a stretch. Here the ladies hone their singing talents, preparing themselves for the ordeal of having to perform before a less friendly audience, perhaps consisting of a husband and maybe some of his business cronies. As a result they become highly trained singing machines, sometimes achieving near-perfect mimicry of the original singer. More often they create some kind of beautiful but bizarre sounding cross between Frank Sinatra singing 'My Way' and Mickey Rooney's terrible Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany's. This comes as a result of the (fairly common) use of katakana3 versions of the song's lyrics on the TV screen. The most accomplished of these achieve the ultimate glory of appearing on one of Japan's many karaoke themed TV shows.
Another group often found frequenting karaoke boxes are courting couples. Quite apart from being a pleasant, romantic place to spend an evening alone with a loved one, quietly whispering love songs to one another over a bottle of wine, karaoke boxes provide privacy and comfort at a reasonable hourly price, compared to the cost of a Love Hotel. Thus the boxes, more often than not, become temporary love-nests for the lust-lorn youth of overcrowded Japan.
Karaoke boxes, providing as they do a reasonably inexpensive night out are ideal places for Japanese hosts to take foreign visitors (known as 'gaijin' to the Japanese), and for foreign tourists to take themselves in search of the authentic Japan. The catalogues almost always provide a section with the song titles written in romaji4, allowing foreigners to pick their favourite songs with ease and sing along to them in a loud, drunken, raucous style. As with any karaoke experience, copious amounts of alcohol are required, and a good time is generally had by all, until the night draws to a close and the establishment shuts its doors. The proprietors often signal to their customers that time has caught up with them by playing a lovely tinkly, orientalised version of 'Auld Lang Syne'. Magical.