Word! The Language Column
In the Empty Orchestra: “wabi sabi” and the Essence of Pop

Illustration: screen that is also an open mouth, next to it a person with microphone in hand and speech bubble
Karaoke: Karaoke: the infinite approach to a result that never becomes one | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Jan Snela pays a visit to a karaoke box in Kyoto, where he continues his quest for the essence of Japan – a mix of silence and noise.

By Jan Snela

Japan is noise and silence. It’s cosplayers, panty vending machines, pachinko madness, occasional visits by Godzilla to the shopping district, loudspeakers blaring polite announcements wherever you go. But Japan is also – and for some people, it’s much more about – the dry streaks of rake marks in the sand of a Zen garden, the Buddha’s smile in the dusky half-light of a temple, tea bowls, incense plumes, a crane reflected in a falling raindrop amid a world given over to transience. These latter aspects prevailed in my mind, at least before my trip to Japan. An empty mirror that rendered me unrecognizable. The Other as a pond swallowing up my self.

At the karaoke box

Staircase in a karaoke house in Kyoto
Staircase in a karaoke house in Kyoto | Photo: © Jan Snela
Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely for these reasons – and in tradition-steeped Kyoto of all places, where it rains cherry blossoms, and which was spared the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out of reverence for its cultural treasures – late one night I ended up in one of the “karaoke boxes” you find all over Japan. Ka ra o ke – カラオケ: that’s what today’s column is about.
The word “karaoke” is a portmanteau of kara = 空 = “empty” and oke, an abbreviation of “orchestra”, which is one of those Japanese adaptations of a Western word that always seems bizarre in such a good way. This excitingly contradictory configuration of “orchestra”, “emptiness” and a big “OK!” that fuses the two makes me think of John Cage’s 4’33’’, in the performance of which the orchestra does not play a single note for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. But not even I, a bona fide pop culture philistine, expected any such thing as I walked, in the company of an enchanting person, past golden microphones and a desk of friendly receptionists, up to the fourth-floor booth we’d been assigned. Muffled over-the-top Japanese pop music from the honeycombs next door, two microphones, two tablets wirelessly connected to a screen that was still dark, with a digital native at my side – the adventure could now commence.

Pop music of decades past

1980s relics from the first flowering of a sophistication unprecedented in pop music history. The more stripped-back, de-glitzed songs of the early ’90s and the turn of the millennium. Wow, how exalted that sounds in these terms. A Japanese woman told me just a couple weeks ago that some Japanese folks actually shell out for karaoke teachers so as not to cut a poor figure on the obligatory slog through Japan’s nightlife, e.g. on a company outing. That’s how seriously they take this fun.

Hallway with booths in a karaoke house
Odd chants behind every door | Photo: © Jan Snela
But there’s something else underlying this fun or earnestness that never ceases to fascinate me: something about the more or less out-of-tune singing of these heroic epigones fills me with a sense of exaltedness. Deep down, the perfectionism of this rather silly activity actually serves the cause of imperfection, ceaselessly closing in on a result that never quite results. After all, as I notice here more than ever, I’m not Michael Jackson. But it’ll come out all right. I’ll just keep on closing in on that unattainable result. And never stop.

Melancholy delight in imperfection

It would certainly be reductive to ascribe the beauty that can be found therein solely to the nobility of failure. This is the title of a book by the British author Ivan Morris celebrating the Japanese cult of the samurai of yore. In my opinion, this doesn’t wholly account for the beauty of karaoke. As always, there’s a vague term in Japanese that comes closer to what I’m getting at: wabi sabi (侘寂) encapsulates a melancholy delight in imperfection. When people knock themselves out zealously striving to imitate their idols, it’s the very opposite of the rhetorical ideal of imitative one-upsmanship. Whereas our entire culture is Lancelot/Holy Grail, i.e. hell bent on closing the gap between us and the object of our desire, this here is a conspicuous celebration of the distance between us and the original. Such a heated pursuit and yet so chill. Some months ago, sitting in a wicker chair, I read in Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows that the Japanese conception of beauty is associated less with cold perfection than the possibility of inner sympathy, an easygoingness of the spirit. Which is so heartwarmingly cool!

Ceiling lights  karaoke house
Japan-pop excesses in the spotlight | Photo: © Jan Snela
As for our karaoke session, I couldn’t help feeling that the kings and queens whose immortal vibes we hoped to achieve were born in these honeycombs in the first place. Out of our striving throats. An insubstantial idolatry which, it dawned on me with striking immediacy as I bent towards the mic, is the very essence of pop culture. The way that so much of the insubstantiality around here points towards an essence. A star above the abyss. Something that awakes in the empty heart of the orchestra. Needless to say, my own performance was rated. I achieved my best score to the blaring of Bad Religion’s “Generator”. Every time it grew quiet in our booth between one song and the next, we could hear a lonesome man in the next bay over intoning the same tune again and again. To this day, his singing reminds me of an eagle chick falling from its nest. The first spreading of wings in the diagonal wind. A full-throatedly quiet image carrying itself over and over again to the very edge of silence.


Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.