Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Culture Shock: Japan Discovery Challenge

A new Web TV reality show starts on Sunday, December 16 at It's called Culture Shock: Japan Discovery Challenge and has Japanese and American high school students teaming up in groups (two Japanese and two Americans)and competing to produce short films about Japan. Each team has a bilingual leader and from the trailer that you can watch on the site I could garner that the typical communication and cultural problems arise with people from two disparate cultures have to work together who don't know each others' language. Looks like it's going to be quite an interesting show and already there are snippets you can watch that have some great location shots of Akihabara, Asakusa, and Shibuya, which are districts in Tokyo. Twenty-four segments will be shown weekly from December 16 through February 17. By the way, "bukatsu" means extra-curricular activity and many Japanese school children are often saddled with bukatsu as well as "juku" (study schools outside of regular school). Taihen desu ne (that's tough!).

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Karaoke Kichigai (Crazy for Karaoke)

Karaoke (singing popular songs to pre-recorded backing tracks) was invented in Japan. It means “empty orchestra” and is pronounced as kah-rah-okay, not karey-okie, as has been adopted in the United States.

I first discovered karaoke in Japantown (Nihonmachi) in San Francisco in the late 1970s. I was a frustrated vocalist who had performed for peanuts (and less) in a number of bands. And I was also a rabid Japanophile who couldn’t get enough of studying Nihongo (the Japanese language). So I jumped at the chance to be able to learn Japanese pop songs (J-pop) and perform them without the need for backup musicians who were often either too messed up to play or plain just didn’t even show up for a gig. Singing in Japanese was easier than speaking it, and it was fun to pretend to be fluent for the duration of a song. I honed my skills at karaoke bars in Japantown and even briefly worked at one as a singing bar hostess. Soon I was performing in Japanese karaoke recitals and contests, usually the lone female Caucasian in the group, and racked up a few trophies and prizes.

At that time I was singing songs by the pop idols of the day—Akina Nakamori and Seiko Matsuda. I also tried my hand at learning enka, a more traditional type of singing and did songs by Masako Mori and Sayuri Ishikawa. When I moved to Tokyo I appeared on a wacky television show that was a karaoke contest for foreigners (gaijin) (see picture). I even had my own backup dancers, way before Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls.

I continued singing in Japanese and when I returned to California I eventually even got my own home laser-disc karaoke set. But laser discs fell out of favor and died along with eight-tracks, Betamax, and the Apple Newton. Now there were “karaoke boxes,” establishments that supplied small rooms rented by the hour where you could sing your heart out, choosing from thousands of songs; there was no need to buy your own.

In 2002 I auditioned for NHK TV’s “Nodo Jiman” (“Brag Your Throat”) program when it came to San Francisco. I was one of the twelve finalists and performed Teresa Teng’s “Kuu-koo” (“Airport”), broadcast live by satellite all over the world from Bill Graham Auditorium.

Now, promoting my debut novel, MIDORI BY MOONLIGHT, I am still singing in Japanese. My heroine in the book, Midori Saito, ends up working at a karaoke lounge in Japantown and we want to give readers the opportunity to hear some Japanese music. So at some of my book events my husband, Manabu “Stokemaster” Tokunaga backs me up on electronic keyboard and I perform “Shura no Hana,” a Japanese song made popular in the Quentin Tarantino film, “Kill Bill,” and sung by Mieko Kaji, as well as other Japanese favorites.