Who Invented Karaoke?

(Getty Images)

For those looking for a good time, karaoke is right up there with other popular pastimes such as bowling, billiards and dancing. Yet it was only as recently as around the turn of the century that the concept started to catch on in the U.S.

It was a somewhat similar situation in Japan, where the very first karaoke machine was introduced exactly 45 years ago. While the Japanese have customarily enjoyed entertaining dinner guests by singing songs, the notion of using a jukebox that simply played back background recordings, rather than a live band, seemed a bit odd.

Not to mention that choosing a song was equivalent to the price of two meals, a tad pricey for most.

Even the idea itself was born out of unusual circumstances. Japanese inventor Daisuke Inoue was working at coffeehouses as a backup musician when a client requested that he accompany him on a visit to see some business colleagues. “Daisuke, your keyboard playing is the only music that I can sing to! You know how my voice is and what it needs to sound good,” the client told him.

Unfortunately, Daisuke couldn’t make the trip, so he did the next best thing and supplied the client with a custom recording of his performances to sing along to. It obviously worked out because when client returned he asked for more cassettes. That’s when inspiration struck. He decided soon after to build a machine with a microphone, speaker and amplifier that played music people can sing along to.

Inoue, along with his technologically savvy friends, initially assembled eleven 8 Juke machines, as they were originally called, and started renting them out to small drinking establishments in nearby Kobe to see if people would take to them.

As I mentioned earlier, the systems were seen mostly as a novel alternative to live bands and appealed mainly to wealthy, affluent businessmen.

That all changed after two club owners from the area bought the machines for venues that were opening locally. Demand shot up as word quickly spread, with orders coming all the way from Tokyo.

Some businesses were even setting aside entire spaces so that customers can rent out private singing booths. Referred to as karaoke boxes, these establishments typically offered multiple rooms as well as a main karaoke bar.  

By the 90’s, karaoke, which in Japanese means "empty orchestra," would grow into a full-blown craze that was sweeping across Asia. During this time, there were several innovations such as improved sound technology and laser disc video players that allowed users to enrich the experience with visuals and lyrics that were displayed on screen -- all in the comfort of their own homes.

As for Inoue, he didn’t make off as handsomely as many would have expected due to having committed the cardinal sin of not making the effort to patent his invention. Obviously this opened him up to rivals who would copy his idea, which cut into the company’s potential profits. Consequently, by the time laser disc players debuted, production of the 8 Juke was halted altogether. This despite having manufactured as many as 25,000 machines.

But if you’re assuming he feels any remorse over the decision you’d be gravely mistaken. In an interview published in Topic Magazine and re-published online at The Appendix, an online “journal of experimental and narrative history, Inoue reasoned that patent protection would have likelu hindered the evolution of the technology.

Here's the except:

“When I made the first Juke 8s, a brother-in-law suggested I take out a patent. But at the time, I didn’t think anything would come of it. I was just hoping the drinking places in the Kobe area would use my machine, so I could live a comfortable life and still have something to do with music. Most people don’t believe me when I say this, but I don’t think karaoke would have grown like it did if there had been a patent on the first machine. Besides, I didn’t build the thing from scratch.”

At the very least, though, Inoue has begun receiving recognition rightfully as the father of the karaoke machine, after his story was reported by Singaporean TV. And in 1999, the Asian edition of Time Magazine published a profile naming him as among "The Most Influential Asians of the Century." 

He also went on to invent a cockroach-killing machine. He currently lives on a mountain in Kobe, Japan, with his wife, daughter, three grandchildren and eight dogs.