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Denver's Annual Kohaku Uta Gassen Singing Contest Is Extreme Karaoke -- In Japanese

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It stands to reason that the country that invented karaoke is one that takes karaoke very, very seriously.

It takes singing to backing tracks so seriously that in Japan, Kohaku Uta Gassen, the annual singing showdown that airs live on New Year's Eve, has been like the Super Bowl of the country's broadcasting industry, drawing huge numbers of viewers year after year. And Colorado's Japanese-speaking community has brought the tradition to Denver by hosting its own Kohaku Uta Gassen every January for 36 years.

Since 1951, the year Japan and the US signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- the "Gaijin Shogun" who ruled Japan as the Commander-in-Chief during the US occupation of post-war Japan -- was fired by President Dwight Eisenhower, the annual karaoke singing contest has been one of the highlights of the country's cultural calendar.

Kohaku Uta Gassen (literally translated as "Red and White Singing Battle") has pitted women (the Red Team) against men (the White Team) in a competition to see who has the best singers.

That first Kohau Uta Gassen was broadcast on NHK radio on January 4, 1951. Television broadcasting began in Japan in 1953, and the show moved onto the small screen, and to New Year's Eve. Along with sports shows such as wrestling (there was a huge fad of Western-style, not sumo, wrestling in the 1950s) and baseball, Uta Gassen helped boost sales of television sets because no one wanted to miss the shows.

Over the decades it became so popular, featuring the country's best performers in evolving styles from traditional "enka" (Japan's version of blues or country music, mostly about heartbreak) to the current J-pop and rock sounds, that it's become an institution.

Denver's Uta Gassen has also become an institution, with some performers singing every year. This year's contest, held at the Denver Buddhist Temple's auditorium in Sakura Square, was filled as usual with about 300 audience members, including the singers and their families and friends. It's always an all-Japanese affair -- the one year I served as a judge, I understood about 30% of the jokes and even less of lyrics but was able to vote on the merits of the performances.

It's extreme karaoke, spending an afternoon hearing 32 singers belting out songs in Japanese to nothing but backing tracks. At least they don't need to refer to a TV screen with the lyrics scrolling by -- they've been rehearsing their songs for weeks.

About Karaoke

Karaoke has become a global phenomenon because music is a universal language.

An aside: "Karaoke" is NOT pronounced "carry-okey" like most Americans say it. The word is a combination of two Japanese words, karappo (empty) and okestora (orchestra). Get it? Music with an "empty orchestra" -- sans musicians. It is pronounced "kah-rah oh-keh" with a Spanish sorta trill on the "r." See my Japanese Pronunciation Guide post for other Japanese words that drive me nuts when people say them incorrectly.

It seems like karaoke has been around forever, but it's a relatively new phenomenon, a child of technology. The urban legend has it that a bar owner in Kobe asked customers to sing to music tapes when the band that was booked for the night didn't show up. That tradition of singing with friends in a bar took hold, but became karaoke as we know it when Daisuke Inoue, a musician responded to requests from fans to make a recording that they could sing along to. He came up with a tape recorder that played the instrumental tracks of his music when someone put a 100 yen coin into it.

He fine-tuned his invention into machines that could be used in restaurants and bars, and even evolved into karaoke boxes -- private rooms (with bar service, natch) where a small group of friends could slaughter songs all night without bothering other customers. Eventually karaoke became a national obsession that spread around the world.

Back to Uta Gassen

Seeing the singers take the stage for Kohaku Uta Gassen is in many ways a throwback to the early days of the contest, and the dawn of karaoke. Many of the singers are seniors -- they've been competing for years. Unlike Uta Gassen in Japan, which now includes younger singers in a variety of contemporary styles, Denver's contest is a little bit frozen in time.

I urged several Japanese American teenage boys who were selling refreshments for the church to get together a group and sing a Japanese rap song next year, but it turned out they were too shy, and didn't really speak the language. Damn.

But it's a pretty cool community event. A handful of Japanese Americans attend even though, like me, they may not understand much Japanese. The room's mostly filled with older JAs who still speak Japanese and recent immigrants ("shin-issei" or new first generation), or Japanese nationals who are on temporary assignment, working for Japanese companies in Denver.

The ladies of the Buddhist church, who dependably cook for events large and small, served a $10 bento box lunch that was amazing for its value: A large portion of teriyaki chicken, rice balls, pickled vegetables and a manju pastry.

The men's and women's teams alternate singers for three rounds, starting with the least experienced (and sometimes, the most out-of-tune) vocalists and ending with the superstars of the local Japanese community. The videos here are of Mihono Uehara, a veteran of the contest, singing in the last set of women singers, and Souichi Nakamura, the captain of the men's team, who was -- because of his enormous and effortless talent -- the final singer of the day.

Through the first two sets, the red team had the lead with the panel of judges, who are notable community leaders including Consul General Kazuaki Kubo (who took a nice turn as an unannounced singer during one break). But the men caught up and surpassed the women with singer after excellent singer in the final set, culminating with Nakamura's number.

Although people understandably think of the Sakura Matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival that's held every summer as Denver's celebration of its Japanese community, the real Japanese main event for many in the community is Kohau Uta Gassen, the extreme karaoke contest.

(Cross-posted from the Nikkei View blog)