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More fun than it sounds.
LIKE NOBODY'S WATCHING

The wildly popular Japanese art of solo karaoke

By Olivia Goldhill

I didn’t want to go to solo karaoke. I did it for journalism, for the sake of this article. I never expected to enjoy it.

Solo karaoke booths, designed for individual customers to sing their hearts out, are hugely popular in Japan. When I first heard of this activity, I thought it sounded sad and bizarre. What loneliness or dark experiences would motivate someone to sing in a booth to themselves, I wondered. Perhaps they had no friends, or joy in their lives, or had to relentlessly perfect their singing in private before braving a group performance?

When I tried it for myself in Shibuya, Tokyo, I forgot my cynicism. I was given a pair of headphones and, after entering the women-only wing, went into a small room with a mirror, a chair, two microphones, and a karaoke kit. I picked a song and started singing, blissfully unaware of my own voice. Then I tried another, just because I’m a really thorough journalist. And then another, just because.

The atmosphere at the solo karaoke spot, in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, was considerably less despondent than I expected. As Avril Lavigne played in the background, well-dressed women in their 40s, businessmen both old and young, and stylish twentysomethings, came out of their individual booths looking thoroughly content, having paid roughly 1,000 yen ($8) for 30 minutes of singing alone.

The way they describe it, solo karaoke is a kind of wellness activity—not unlike a yoga class or Zumba. Watahabe Hirotaka, 19, who goes to solo karaoke every week, says he feels “free to sing,” when he’s alone. Another customer, 30-year-old Ryohei Miyoshi, goes once a month. “You feel like a kid,” he says. Rachel Yano, 28, likes to sing Disney songs, but she’s “a little shy” to sing in public.

Solo karaoke wasn’t simply fun, it also felt natural to me, just like turning on the radio and singing along loudly in your car, or testing out your vocals in the shower. It’s not so surprising that business is booming at 1Kara karaoke, the Japanese chain that caters only to solo singers.

Getting over the stigma associated with solo activity has plenty of benefits. Researchers have found that people are wary of doing activities alone, for fear that they’ll be judged as not having enough friends. But when they are pushed to do events solo, they enjoy it just as much as those who go in a group. In other words, being alone is perfectly enjoyable. Our fear of being seen alone, of having fun from ourselves, often deters us from these activities.

Focusing on what you love and ignoring the judgement of others is clichéd wisdom, and yet we still struggle to live by it. One friend of mine, a film producer, refuses to see movies with other people, as she likes to be alone to focus entirely on the experience. When we do activities only with others, their opinion can dilute our own. Even so, most of us struggle to feel so comfortable in our own company.

If enjoying external pleasures, such as going to the movies, is still considered odd, performing a song for yourself might seem even stranger. But turning to yourself as an audience allows you to take pleasure in activities for their own sake, rather than looking externally for approval.

Anneli Rufus, author of Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, says she takes a similar attitude when she draws—she doesn’t think about showing her funny, creepy artwork to others or posting it online. “It’s the act. It’s entertaining to me to see what I’m going to come up with when I’m done,” she says. “I’m going to creep out myself or make myself laugh.”

You might find you have a similar sentiment about whatever activity you love the most. I started comedy sketch-writing classes last year, for example. I don’t care who sees my work; I don’t write sketches to advance my career or get praise. I make time for these classes simply because I love the activity, entirely for its own sake.

The same can be true of exercise. In the past, I’ve worked out to burn calories and with an eye to physical appearance. Now, when I swim, it’s to feel my body working in the water. Rufus says athleticism is certainly a form of solo performance. “Being out in nature, watching the sun come up, seeing the animals, feeling what my body is doing and what it can do—that’s a beautiful, elite performance,” she says. “That has nothing to do with anyone else.”

Performing for yourself—or pretending you are—can also unlock creativity. When writers and artists have a block, Rufus tells them to stop thinking about their audience. “Be the little kid you once were who’s writing a story you weren’t going to show to anyone, drawing that picture on a sunny afternoon in your bedroom just for the fun of it,” she says. “Go back to being that person.”

Now, I can’t say that my terrible rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in a booth in Tokyo was a great creative act. But it was fun. Did I miss the company of a karaoke group? Not in the slightest.