By Todd Meyers
Culloden, West Virginia - Sandy Sowell doesn't speak a word of Japanese,
but when she heard through the grapevine that some transplanted Japanese
business people had inquired about karaoke, she purchased 1,500 songs in
their native tongue to supplement her popular Laser Karaoke show.
"Karaoke is an integral part of their culture,"
Sowell said. "Period. End of sentence. It's in their taxi cabs. They
have special karaoke rooms in their houses. It's been a big deal there
for a long time, and it will continue to be a big deal.
They like to perform for each other. If you are
a Japanese business person, you do karaoke. If you do it well, the boss
At Salem-Teikyo University in Salem where 30 percent of
the 850-person student body is Japanese, karaoke performances are a regular
feature of campus life for both Japanese and American students.
"We do it a lot over the lunch hour, we do it in
the evenings," said Dr. Catherine Phee, dean of students. "Sometimes
karaoke will run through the night until 6 a.m. the next morning."
Sowell started her laser karaoke show nine years ago.
She charges about $700 for a two-hour show that includes a 10-foot karaoke
screen and a free cassette tape of each performance. Now she plans to develop
a scaled-back corporate show tailored for Japanese or mixed Japanese and
American audiences that will cost about $450.
This booklet acts as Sowell's
Rosetta stone. It lists song titles in alphabetical order and includes
artists and track numbers on each compact disc.
"There are some large companies in West Virginia
that I believe will appreciate the opportunity to have both English and
Japanese songs to choose from at their party," Sowell said. "I
envision doing corporate functions with about 30 executives in a little
room for fun. What they are hiring me for is to finesse the situation.
They're not going to have to force each other to perform."
Sowell said she does not expect an immediate return on
her investment of 100 Japanese compact discs valued at about $3,000.
"It might take this show a year to book," Sowell
The idea for Japanese karaoke is based more on a hunch
that more Japanese natives are coming to West Virginia than on an actual
market survey, Sowell said.
Toyota Corp.'s motor plant under construction in Buffalo
will employ the largest contingency of Japanese expatriates. About 18 full-time
Japanese employees will be on staff at any given time when the factory
reaches regular production mode, said plant manager David Copenhaver.
"None of this is written in concrete, but typically
the Japanese will come for a three-year assignment," Copenhaver said.
"Then they go back to Japan and somebody else comes."
The Japanese presence will be strongest at the plant for
the next 12 to 18 months when 50 to 55 native Japanese will be here on
a temporary basis to help set up machinery and train employees to operate
Still, it's a relatively small percentage compared to
Toyota's projected work force of 650 people.
Diamond Electric Manufacturing Corp. in Eleanor, a manufacturer
of automotive ignition coils for Chrysler, Subaru, Mazda, Mitsubishi and
some European automakers, employs seven Japanese citizens.
NGK Spark Plug in Pocatalico manufactures oxygen sensors
for Chrysler, Ford and others. It also employs about seven Japanese individuals.
More Japanese could arrive if additional auto parts suppliers
choose to set up camp near the Toyota plant. A new University of Michigan
study found 5.5 spinoff jobs for each new core auto manufacturing job created
in the United States by foreign automakers.
Sowell slides a compact disc into the karaoke machine
set up in the living room of her airy country home. Through the speakers
pump hard-driving Japanese pop ditties such as "Dang Dang" or
"Crazy Gonna Crazy" from the likes of The Barbee Boys and Zard.
Japanese characters scroll across the video screen, turning
lavender or lime green to cue performers that it's time to croon a lyric.
The background scene shows a lovelorn Japanese woman dressed in a kimono,
slumped over a low table, her right hand wrapped around a sake decanter.
Each Japanese Karaoke disc
is valued at about $30 and contains 15 selections.
English phrases like, "Love you, gonna take you,
crazy crazy" and "Ah, ah, wow, wow, wow, oh, oh" occasionally
materialize amidst the sea of unfamiliar Japanese Kanji characters.
As strange as all this may sound, Sowell believes Japanese
karaoke will fare much better than her ill-fated Comedy Karaoke.
"That should have been hysterical, but it wasn't,"
Sowell recalled of the uncomic venture that fizzled after two shows in
1993. "The joke would come up on the screen and all the performer
had to do was tell it. The problem was that people had no mike technique,
they had no timing.
"They'd start to get the giggles and the joke would
go on and they would have missed the punch line," she said.
"Finally, the material wasn't funny. Some of the
jokes were so dirty that I had to review the material. I just wasn't going
to have an old lady getting up there in the name of fun having to tell
some damn dirty joke."
A karaoke pioneer in West Virginia, Sowell has emceed
hundreds of elaborate stage shows. She no longer brings her mobile show
to clubs, focusing instead on corporate parties and picnics and other private
Sowell decided to add Japanese titles to her library about
three months ago.
"I heard where there were about 500 Japanese discs,
not English discs done for Japanese," Sowell said. "These were
produced in Japan and meant for Japanese audiences."
Assembling and cataloging the anthology of Japanese hits
without speaking the language, however, proved a daunting task.
For starters, the karaoke distributor in Columbus, Ohio
that handled the discs were clueless as to which traditional (called Enka),
pop and childrens songs the Japanese prefer. And that wasn't all the supplier
was unsure about.
"The company I bought the discs from didn't know
if they were in Japanese, Chinese or Korean," Sowell said. "It
all looked like gobbly-goop to them."
With an Internet search, Sowell unearthed an Ohio State
University student who knew Japanese willing to do the legwork and cull
through the distributors' merchandise for the best selections.
"They set her up with a machine and she brought in
her friends who also spoke Japanese," Sowell said. "They spent
10 hours in that karaoke warehouse, separating discs into 'no' piles and
'yes' piles and 'maybe' piles."
Once Sowell had her hands on the discs, the bulk of the
translation task remained. The karaoke DJ needs to have a way for Japanese
audiences to pick the songs they wish to perform. Then they need to be
able to locate the songs.
This time Sowell found a translator in her back yard,
literally. A Japanese woman living next door, an exchange teacher working
in a Hurricane elementary school, agreed to tackle the challenge. The translator
had to review every disc because the label did not contain any artists.
She created a booklet, a kind of Rosetta Stone that alphabetizes
selections by title - first in Japanese characters, then phonetically spelled
out in English. The listing also contains artist, and, most crucially,
a disc and track number for each selection.
"To request a song, all a person has to do is look
in the book and write down the disc number," Sowell said.
To a limited extent, Sowell will rely on a translator
at Japanese events. "Somebody has to tell me how to pronounce their
names correctly when I introduce them on stage," she said.