This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Connect.
Adam Koueider (Gunma)
Let’s set the scene. You’re at your very first nomikai and the night is going well. You may have even managed to scrounge up the courage to have a three sentence long conversation with your kocho-sensei. Life is good. That is, until somebody mentions heading on out to the nijikai. “Nijikai?!” you scream in your head. Why of course, there’s got to be an after party, and where better to take the after party than to the time honored tradition of karaoke. This was NOT on the itinerary! You don’t want to be the foreigner clicking on the dreaded English menu and queueing up some Ed Sheeran now do you? (No offense, Ed Sheeran fans. . .)
Fear not, for I will guide you, young one, into the weird and wonderful world of Japanese karaoke songs. Once I’m done with you, you’ll be rocking the roof and knocking the socks off of your Japanese co-workers. Who knows? You may even impress your kocho-sensei enough that they’ll give you tomorrow off. Probably not, though (remember to drink water!)
5 – “Mayonaka no Door (Stay With Me)” by Miki Matsubara
Singing Difficulty: 2 Stars
Japanese Difficulty: 2.5 Stars
With the resurgence of City Pop around the globe, Miki Matsubara’s debut single “Mayonaka no Door (Stay With Me)” has stood as the most famous outside of Japan. That’s not quite true in Japan, it was only a moderate success on the charts when it first released, but it remains a classic that many people know to this day.
A song about a woman longing for her lover to well. . .stay with her after a midnight dream, it’s the perfect mix of jazz, funk and disco. The Japanese level of this song isn’t too high and there’s a pretty good chance you’ve at least heard the chorus of this song bouncing around on the internet over the past few years. The verses are short and sweet, and I’ve yet to find someone who can resist belting out its infectious chorus.
4 – “Haruka” by GReeeeN
Singing Difficulty: 3 Stars
Japanese Difficulty: 3 Stars
If you’re looking to pull at the heart strings, this is the song for you. A heartfelt song about a son who’s left home, it’s one of GReeeeN’s most popular songs and an easy one to sing in a big group. It’s not the shortest song at over five minutes, but the slow, building pace of the song makes it a good recommendation for beginners and advanced karaoke singers alike.
Due to the context of the song, this is a common song to be sung at graduations, so there’s a very good chance your co-workers know it and might have even sung it for their students’ graduations. Just know that the little refrains between the verses and choruses are non-negotiables and MUST be sung.
3 – “Whiskey ga Osuki Desho”by SAYURI
Singing Difficulty: 1.5 Stars
Japanese Difficulty: 1 Stars
No karaoke list would be complete without a song from an artist from the enka genre, the Japanese genre most stylistically similar to traditional Japanese music. Of course, enka is also a very difficult genre to sing without the necessary vocal chops, so instead I’ll recommend a jazz ballad by one of the most famous Japanese enka singers, Sayuri Ishikawa.
Originally composed as a whiskey ad for Suntory, it’s become a cult classic for its slow piano-led instrumental and conversational lyrics. Many artists including Mariya Takeuchi and even alt-rock trio Clambon have covered the song, but to this day, I’m most attached to the original. Be careful; as this was technically not an enka song, it wasn’t originally titled as by Sayuri Ishikawa, so some systems have the song under the artist name, ‘SAYURI.’
As far as Japanese goes, since it’s supposed to be a conversation in song form, it’s actually very easy and there are no particularly fast elements, making this an excellent song for beginner Japanese learners to sing. Some of the high notes may prove difficult, but you can just as easily sing it in monotone, and hopefully some of your older companions will jump in and carry you through the high notes.
After you’re done, make sure you hop on the phone and order some Suntory whiskey for further immersion (I make no commission from these articles, but if someone from Suntory is reading this, I’d take some free whiskey!)
If you’re super sure of your ability to croon and wail with the best of them, then the enka song to go for is another Sayuri Ishikawa banger titled “Amagigoe.”
2 – “Lemon” by Kenshi Yonezu
Singing Difficulty: 4 Stars
Japanese Difficulty: 4 Stars
For a more modern karaoke classic, look no further than Kenshi Yonezu’s smash hit, “Lemon.” With over 800 million views on YouTube, it’s by far the most viewed Japanese music video on the platform and it’s no wonder. This song is a beautifully melancholic tale of longing for someone who’s no longer there. Despite all of the despair, it still has its high points that feel like you’re letting go of all of the emotional baggage you’ve saddled yourself with over your life.
Be warned, it’s a moderately difficult song to pull off. It’s got a few tricky high notes in the chorus, but the verse is pretty straightforward. Since its release, “Lemon” has stuck around at the top of the karaoke charts in Japan, so it’s sure to elicit a great response from the crowd. You’ll have no shortage of help from your co-workers should you stumble at some of the more difficult notes, so don’t be afraid to bust this song out towards the end of the night!
1 – “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” by Yoko Takahashi
Singing Difficulty: 4.5 Stars
Japanese Difficulty: 3.5 Stars
And by robot, I mean get to learning this classic anime opening from Neon Genesis Evangelion. This song is so famous, it’s the most sung karaoke song of all time according to popular karaoke service provider, Joysound. It’s not the easiest song to sing, but it’s one that everybody, and I mean everybody knows. So even if you mumble through a few of the faster paced verses, your co-workers are sure to jump in and carry you through all the important group choruses.
I know, I know. It’s not the most obscure anime song, and some of you may prefer other mecha anime (I’m partial to Mazinger Z) but trust me when I tell you that when it comes to anime songs, this is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Unless you’re a prodigy EVA pilot (Japanese karaoke singer), there’s not much chance of queueing this up and smashing it out of the park in your first karaoke session. It’s fast paced and hard to sing, but put enough karaoke hours in beforehand and your synchronization rate is sure to skyrocket.
Quick tip: if you’re not inclined to sing the entire song, or you only know the parts from the anime opening, then you’ll need to look for the TV size version in the karaoke box list. This works not only for this song but all anime/television songs.
There you have it. Five songs guaranteed to impress even the most austere co-workers and put a smile on everyone’s face. So what are you waiting for? Get to practicing at your nearest karaoke parlor and you’ll be belting out tunes with the best of them.
Originally from Sydney, Australia, Adam is a second-year JET living in Gunma. When he’s not playing soccer or rooting for his beloved Parramatta Eels, you can find Adam at Karaoke-kan practicing for his next nomikai star performance.