April 5, 1998

Get the business for a song - Popular Japanese pastime presents an opportunity

CHRIS DORST photos/ Sunday Gazette-Mail
Karaoke DJ Sandy Sowell shows off the newest addition to her Karaoke library - 1,500 Japanese titles. Sowell believes the influx of Japanese nationals to West Virginia to work for companies such as Toyota will create a demand for Japanese Karaoke shows.

By Todd Meyers
Sunday Gazette-Mail

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 is impressed."

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 said.

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 the equipment.

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 functions.

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.


Karaoke machine important work tool

April 5, 1998

By Todd Meyers
Sunday Gazette-Mail

After the working day is over in Japan, employees often have one more mandatory stop to make before home: the karaoke bar.

"It is very important to have a party with co-workers," said Yasuhiro Shikahama, a Japanese senior majoring in communications at Salem-Teikyo University in Salem. "After work, we go drink together. It is a good time to talk between the boss and just workers. It is a good time to show the boss their current."

And what better way to demonstrate one's 'current' - pizzazz, enthusiasm - than to ham it up on center stage, singing along solo or as a group with the karaoke machine?

Karaoke is a Japanese invention. Broken into its component parts, Kara translates literally as 'empty', while 'oke' means orchestra.

"The song is empty," Shikahama said. "You have the original song and take out the voice."

It's the karaoke performers' duty to replace that voice.

In Japan, you don't have to possess Bing Crosby's golden throat to take the stage. If the boss tells you to sing, you'd best sing.

"The important thing in Japan is participating," Shikahama said.

Just like other places, Japan has its share of wallflowers who would rather wilt along the sidelines than perform a Japanese version of "Blue Suede Shoes" in front of their peers.

"It is really tough for some people to get on stage and get on mike," Shikahama said. "They need to get some power from alcohol."

Karaoke has become so popular in Japan that a karaoke machine is as standard as a beer tap in most bars.

In recent times, karaoke has spilled over into a new type of venture called the karaoke box. Imagine a hotel where people rent rooms not to sleep, but sing by the hour.

Shikahama said his cousins own a very lucrative, 12-room karaoke box in Tokyo. They charge about $35 for an evening session in a room equipped with a machine. Drinks, of course, cost extra.

"You need to call and get some drinks," Shikahama said. "You might sing 10 or 12 songs and you'll be thirsty. You might sing for two hours."

Even high school students get in on the act, pooling their cash to rent a karaoke box with friends after the bell rings.