I had been an exchange student in Tokyo, a bride on Sado, a caregiver of a dying Japanese grandmother and an “education mama” raising my children firmly in the culture. Now I was going to be something else– a jet-setting karaoke queen.”
From The Six-Foot Bonsai
I first encountered karaoke in 1982. I was on Sado Island at the famous Yahatakan hotel and it was my wedding day. Understanding little of what was taking place around me, I witnessed what I would have called a sing along. Old men and women from our neighborhood a bit inebriated from the festivities took turns belting out folk songs.
My mother elbowed me. “Come on. Let’s get up and sing your grandfather’s song!”
I hesitated. She was talking about a little children’s ditty. If we attempted to sing it we’d be without any back up– just us up there on stage with microphones bigger than our mouths.
“I’m not sure it fits with the occasion. Besides we can’t even sing!”
Relentless as my mother was and not wanting any scene to override the occasion I gave in. For our efforts we received a few puzzled looks and what amounted to a cursory clap. Perhaps we were a bit too sober!
Thirteen years later I would find myself drawn to singing karaoke. My debut, at Pub Sanpei in the western suburbs of Detroit was in 1995. While I may not have been their only gaijin (“foreign”) singer, I quickly became their most prolific. Losing my mind required many outlets.
Finding Japanese karaoke to be “in my wheelhouse” and an excellent way to earn free drinks, I practiced my heart out– eventually buying a “Discman” that actually played karaoke CD videos if I hooked it up to the TV! Although the contraption broke many years ago and my enthusiasm for crooning in Japanese has long since passed, I still own many of the discs.
The days when I sang in Pub Sanpei…the day when I wanted to be Japanese more than anything are long past. And for the most part, the CDs you see here could inexplicably disappear and I wouldn’t miss them. But somehow, despite being a minimalist for many years, I find it hard to toss these memories out. Truth be told, once or twice a year when I get into a strange funk, I channel my inner karaoke queen and my American husband who didn’t know me in those days shrugs. He thinks I sing Japanese really well somehow; strangely much better than I sing anything in English. “Practice” I tell him. The truth is, most everything I sing in my non-native tongue is born of pain and passion.
Well before “J-Pop,” long before anime was an international phenomena, there was a 30-something divorced woman who bounced in and out of small pubs in Tokyo and Detroit singing like a cicada who had just emerged from the ground…a lost housewife looking once more for love and acceptance in her culture of choice.
Among Bonsai’s favorites is the folk artist Nakajima Mikyuki. Below are two her most popular songs. Take a listen! And if you don’t mind, please read my rare memoir “The Six-Foot Bonsai“– a tale of severe cultural addiction and redemption.