Voice Hero: The Inventor of Karaoke Speaks
Published December 3, 2013
It’s one a.m. The bar is closing but the night isn’t over yet. While milling about on the sidewalk, a friend suggests, ‘Karaoke?’ And suddenly the night gets a lot brighter—and a little more embarrassing.
It’s safe to say that at no point in human history have there been as many people singing the songs of themselves, uncaring that their song was first sung by Gloria Gaynor, Frank Sinatra, or Bruce Springsteen. Karaoke has become inescapable, taking over bars from Manila to Manchester. Passions run high. In the Philippines, anger over off-key renditions of ‘My Way’ have left at least six dead. That statistic hides, however, the countless renditions of the Sinatra anthem that leave people smiling—or at least just wincing. The sing-along music machine terrifies the truly introverted, but it is a hero to countless closet extroverts, letting them reveal their private musical joy. Literally, karaoke is the combination of two Japanese words, ‘empty,’ and ‘orchestra’—but we might also lovingly translate it as ‘awkward delight.’
Yet for all karaoke’s fame, the name of its Dr. Frankenstein is less known, perhaps because he never took a patent out on the device and only copyrighted its name in the U.S. in 2009. His name is Daisuke Inoue, a Japanese businessman and inventor born in Osaka in 1940. In 2004 he was honored with an Ig Nobel Prize, given for unusual inventions or research.
In 2005, he shared the story of his life leading up to the Ig Nobel in an interview with Robert Scott Field for Topic Magazine. No longer in print, Topic was one of The Appendix’s inspirations (along with StoryCorps) for its celebration of the everyday and undersung heroes of our world. As a history of another sort of invention, Mr. Inoue’s interview was particularly memorable and deserves to be more widely available. With the permission of both Topic and Mr. Inoue, we are pleased to re-present his delightfully inspiring account of his life and work.
We hope you sing along.
Last year I received a fax from Harvard University. I don’t really speak English, but lucky for me, my wife does. She figured out the letter was about the Ig Nobel Prizes, awards that Harvard presents for inventions that make people laugh—and then make them think. I was nominated for an Ig Nobel Peace Prize as the inventor of karaoke, which teaches people to bear the awful singing of ordinary citizens, and enjoy it anyway. That is “genuine peace,” they told me.
Before I tell you about my hilarious adventures at the prize ceremony, though, you need to know how I came to invent the first karaoke machine. I was born in May 1940, in a small town called Juso, in Osaka, Japan. My father owned a small pool hall. When I was three and a half years old, I fell from the second floor and hit my head. I was unconscious for two weeks. The doctors told my parents that if I lived, I would probably have brain damage. A Buddhist priest visited me, blessed me and replaced my birth name, Yusuke, with a new name: Daisuke, which means, in the written characters of kanji, “Big Help.” I needed it. Later I learned that the same Buddhist priest had commented that the name would also lead me to help others.
In 1944, the impact of World War II bombings was increasing in Osaka. For safety, my family moved over a mountain, to the town of Ikoma, nestled in the ancient city of Nara. My father lost his pool hall and everything we owned. In 1946, after the war, we moved to another suburb of Osaka, this time to Kobe. My father started to make a living by unfolding a blanket on a busy street to sell candy, peanuts—anything he could get his hands on. Gradually he saved enough money to start a small okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza) shop. Life began again.
I have always enjoyed listening to music and was content to listen to almost anything until the first day at my new school, when I heard the sound of a brass band. I knew I had to get more of this. When I asked to join, the only thing I was allowed to play was the drum. Not drums—a drum. Most of the songs we played had very few notes for the big drum, so I never learned how to read sheet music. To this day, I still can’t. I memorized our songs and practiced them until my arms hurt. I could beat to them in my sleep.
Junior high was over before I really got much of a chance to play in the band. During my first year of high school, a girl heard me playing the drums one day and stopped by. Her older brother had a band and was looking for a drummer. Social dancing, which had come to us through American movies, had spawned a local dance hall that held classes during the week. On the weekends, a live band was brought in, and everyone was invited to dance. If I could memorize brass songs, I knew I could memorize some social dance numbers as well. For the next week, I practiced songs like the waltz and mambo until I could beat seven different types of dances. This time, I got to play the drums, plural.
I had to be careful that no one figured out I worked as a drummer. Part-time jobs for school kids were a no-no in Japan. Even today they are frowned upon, but in my day they were unthinkable. A crew cut was a dead giveaway that you were a student, so I grew my hair two or three centimeters longer than the other kids. My reputation took a beating in school. I was labeled a nonconformist. By my second year of high school, my drumming had improved and I was asked to play at a cabaret almost every night of the week. Though I slept a lot in class, I had no absences in all three years of high school.
Somehow I managed to graduate, and after eight unhappy months working in a securities company—I was the only businessman with long hair, bell-bottom slacks, flowery shirts and elevator shoes—I told my parents that I was leaving home to become a drummer. My father didn’t say no, a very surprising thing for a Japanese parent. Instead he said, “Go, and good luck.” The road was long and cold, and I ran out of money very quickly, even though I was making four times as much at the cabaret than I had at the securities company.
But Japan has an interesting philosophy: The older guys always take half the money, with the excuse that you have to be really good to be worthy of the big bucks. Also, many of us would go out partying and drinking every night, spending the advances on our monthly wages. So it was a vicious cycle with very little money left over. One night, I realized that no matter how much I practiced, I could never be as good as someone with God-given talent. That was enough to change my life as a band-man; after nine years on the road, many tales and no regrets, I went home. I was 28 years old.
I returned to my parents almost penniless. At the time, people in Kobe had started singing to live music like the guitar or a keyboard-like instrument at drinking places, called “snacks.” Drums didn’t really have a place in such establishments, so I began to practice the keyboards until I could play 300 songs. Every week I’d learn new songs and try to remember the old ones as well. But my brain’s computer was made in 1940 so there was only so much that it could handle. I started to forget some of the old songs or mix them with the new ones or play something totally different than what had been requested by customers.
One day, the president of a small company came to the club where I was playing to ask a favor. He was meeting business clients in another town and knew they would all end up at a drinking establishment and that he would be called on to sing.
“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.”
So at his request I taped a number of his favorite songs onto an open-reel tape recorder in the keys that would best suit his voice. A few days later he came back full of smiles and asked if I could record some more songs. At that moment the idea for the Juke 8 dawned on me: You would put money into a machine with a microphone, speaker and amplifier, and it would play the music people wanted to sing.
As I had attended a Denko (or Electric Industry) High School, you’d think I could have built the machine myself. But I was always scared of electricity and so graduated without much of an ability to put things together. A member of my band introduced me to a friend of his who had an electronics shop. I took my idea to him, and he understood exactly what I’d envisioned. With my instruction, he built eleven Juke 8s. Each machine consisted of an amplifier, a microphone, a coin box and an eight-track car stereo. Putting the machines together took about two months and cost around $425 per unit.
The next step was to record the songs. My band was the first to record the music, but early on they fired me from playing, so I produced and mixed the 300 songs we recorded that year. After that, we recorded eight new songs every month. As money really started to come in—somewhere around the fourth year—I hired a real band of roughly 20 musicians and rented a recording studio with professional sound and recording capabilities.
I sang my first karaoke song in 1969. At the time, I never imagined it would be of interest to anyone other than myself, but the machine hit the market in 1971. If I hadn’t been in Kobe, it might not have caught on like it did. In Tokyo and Osaka, people listened to live music or to juke boxes from the US. But in Kobe people drank and sang to live music: a full band, guitar, or keyboard.
I took ten of the Juke 8s to acquaintances’ clubs and asked them to place them on the bar. All ten agreed. One week passed, and when I visited each drinking place, the story was the same: Some customers had asked about them but no one had touched them. There was no money in any of the machines. Convinced we just needed the right spark, I asked a female employee to act as a decoy and go around to a few of the clubs and sing a song or two on each Juke 8. I figured a cute girl in a sexy outfit should help to draw interest. It paid off, and in no time the machines became moneymakers.
I don’t know who was the first customer to put in the first ¥100 coin (roughly $0.35), but the decoy girl had said it was a lot more fun than she’d expected, and that she’d go back again and again. I set up the machines to play five minutes per ¥100. The average song was three minutes, so a person would have to put in another ¥100 coin to make it through the second song. My idea was kind of like the modern-day prepaid card. After about a year, my machine had found a place in 200 drinking establishments in Kobe.
Then something big happened: Two club owners from Kobe decided they wanted to open clubs in Osaka. They took the Juke 8 with them. Within a year, my company was sending machines all over Japan. We made 25,000 units. After the first eleven, the rest were all pure white and looked like video arcade games. Osaka became the birthplace of the karaoke boom. It went straight to Tokyo, and soon the whole country, continent and the world became caught up in the karaoke craze.
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. I had the idea for the business model. The amp, the microphone, the eight-track player—even the ¥100 box machine—all had patents on them. Today, I could take out a patent on the business model, have someone else make it and get the royalties from the original idea. But at the time, getting a patent for a business model just didn’t seem possible.
Even the term “karaoke” itself was not my own invention. In 1952, a famous theatrical troupe in Osaka, the Takarazuka Kageki, performed every night to a live orchestra. One day, the orchestra went on strike. The parent company, Hankyu, apparently wouldn’t give in to their demands and couldn’t find a replacement orchestra in time for the scheduled performances. Hankyu called up an electronics company, Matsuda Electronics, and had them bring in a machine that could play orchestra music on a large scale. It is said that someone from Matsuda looked into the pit and said, “The music is playing but the orchestra pit is empty!” The phrase “empty orchestra” is kara okesutura in Japanese, which was shortened to form the word “karaoke.”
Recording the karaoke music for eight-track, laser disc and eventually CD was difficult, but the harder task was to convince all of the record labels to cooperate. Like the US, Japan had agencies to represent its singers, but at the time, there was no cooperation among them. Somehow, though, I was able to get the biggest record labels to sign contracts letting Juke 8, and karaoke, use their artists’ songs in the same book or library. Now everybody and their dog wants to be in the karaoke databases and song libraries. These days, many singers and songwriters—even the ones who only had one hit song here in Japan—are able to make a living from the royalties they receive every time their song is sung. Japan does billions of dollars a year in karaoke sales.
After laser discs came out, my company no longer manufactured karaoke machines, so I started a related trading company. I had a well-established distributorship and in no time was doing $100 million a year in sales. Soon enough, mail service and telephone lines were used for distribution, and songs were sent directly to companies or drinking places. There was no need to visit people, no need to reach out and touch anyone. I could just sit back, do practically nothing and make half a million dollars a year. I had everything going for me—but nothing to do. I fell into a very deep depression and didn’t want to do anything, see anybody or talk to anyone. I handed my company over to my brother, made him the president and walked away. I had lost interest in everything. I didn’t even want the money.
As it happens, it was my dog, Donbei, who got me back on the road to enjoying life and inventing. But I’m happy to say that for many people, karaoke has done the same.
In Japan, the 70s were not a good time. Companies went bankrupt, many people lost their jobs and many businessmen committed suicide. There were 35,000 suicides in Japan in 1971—the year we started placing our karaoke machines. But as karaoke caught on in Kobe, Osaka, Tokyo and finally throughout Japan, it seemed that people started to enjoy life a little more and were able to forget some of the stress.
I’ve heard many stories about people who had been mentally sick—mostly sinking into nervous depression—until karaoke came along. I received letters from a number of people saying that karaoke machines were being placed in hospitals as a rehabilitation tool and helping people get better. One of my close friends was cured from his depression when he started singing karaoke. Even today, you can find a number of clinics and hospitals with karaoke machines. (I think a lot of the doctors and nurses use the machines to polish up their singing voices, too.)
I’ve received faxes and letters from around the world: Russia, the US, most of Asia, and a few places I’ve never heard of. The most poignant was from Vietnam. A poor family who worked in the fields had heard about karaoke. Their daughter loved to sing, and they saved until they could buy a karaoke machine for her. She practiced and practiced and is now apparently one of the most famous and successful singers in Vietnam. She invited me to meet her. I humbly declined for the simple reason that she couldn’t have made me feel any better than I did reading her letter: “Thank you for karaoke.”
In 1999, Time Magazine chose me as one of the top twenty people to have influenced the 20th century. I was overwhelmed. They said Gandhi had changed the way people lived their lives in the daytime, and karaoke had changed the way people spent their nights. Can you imagine your accomplishments being mentioned in the same breath as Gandhi?
The next highlight was being chosen to receive the Ig Nobel Peace Prize at Harvard. The committee wanted me to give a speech. I’ve given speeches all over Japan, but never one in English. The people at Harvard told me that I needed to prepare two speeches: an acceptance and a longer address. I was also told that if I exceeded my time limit, I would be booed off stage and paper airplanes would be thrown in my direction. Americans do silly things, I thought, but I was game.
I had just met an American living in Japan, and he helped me write the speech. My wife, my American friend Scott and I spent hours polishing my presentation so that everyone would understand me. Scott said I should break the ice with some kind of joke, so we practiced a couple of American jokes and then he taught me an American song that he said would make everyone in the audience go crazy. I found out later that the song was used in a Coke commercial in the 70’s. Karaoke started in the 70’s, so I thought it was a perfect match. Scott sang it, and I taped it. I listened to it for a couple of hours after he left, again on the airplane and once more after we arrived at the professor’s home where we stayed.
The big day came and I was called out onto the stage to thundering applause. A very warm and exciting feeling came over me. I’d known that karaoke had reached the shores of the US, but this was the first time I’d felt it. I knew I could do this speech. I spoke slowly but firmly, as my wife and Scott had directed. I always wear my hair in a ponytail, so my first words were, “I am the last Samurai, but Tom Cruise cannot come tonight.” My first English joke, and the audience was laughing!
By the end of my speech, I was so happy it was over that when I tried to remember my song, my mind went blank. So I asked the audience to wait for a second, pulled out my pocket tape recorder, listened to the first few words and then began:
Not only did the audience join in, but I was given a standing ovation, apparently the first and only one to date in the fourteen-year history of the Ig Nobel.
What have I done since inventing the karaoke machine? One very simple invention was a personal karaoke book. It has places to write the numbers of your favorite songs, the keys you liked to sing them in, and anything else you wanted to remember. There is a section for Mom and Dad, brother and sister, friends and even the dog (if the dog could sing). The book was a hit and sold 30,000 copies its first month on sale. I did take a patent out on that one!
I also created the prototype for a cockroach-killing machine that was simple to use, safe for people and the environment, and got rid of the bugs that crawled into karaoke machines and ate the wires. This, too, became an instant hit.
I just saw the opening of a movie called Karaoke, which is all about me. The actor who plays me is six feet tall. I’ve never been six feet tall before! My higher vantage point has given me a whole new perspective on my life. My wife says that the actress who plays her part is quite beautiful, but that she was much better looking at that age.
I now live on the top of a mountain in Kobe, Japan, with my wife, my daughter, her three daughters and eight dogs, all different breeds. There’s a lot of wildlife in our neighborhood, including deer, boars and a little animal called a tanuki, or a raccoon dog. Every night I put my three granddaughters into the bath and we sing songs, splash water and enjoy each other’s company. About once a week we pull out the karaoke books and have a contest to see who can sing the most songs before going hoarse. It is a time we all look forward to, and it is my way to honor karaoke and pass on the tradition to the next generation. I may not have the original patent (some say I would have made $80 million last year—and that was a bad year), but I have good friends and family that I love, and I can’t help but smile every day.
Daisuke Inoue has been living for eighteen years in Nishinomiya City, Japan, with his wife, eldest daughter and seven dogs; three more of his dogs are presently in police and rescue training, to learn how to help in any natural disaster. Daisuke’s latest invention is an all-purpose natural liquid detergent that is strong in use but gentle to nature. As of 2005, Inoue’s movie, entitled Karaoke, was available on a Japanese DVD, with an English-dubbed version to follow. In 2008 he was the first Japanese invited to become an honorary member of the Chinese Entertainment Equipment Technology Association. That same year, at a live charity auction in Japan, he sold three million t-shirts emblazoned with the logo “I Love China,” to help raise money for victims of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.
The editors would like to thank David Haskell and Nina Peacock, formerly of Topic, for their kind permission to rerun the piece, Robert Scott for his eager translation and facilitation, and, most of all, Mr. Daisuke Inoue, whose wonderful invention changed our lives.