Benny Tong is a PhD candidate at the ANU studying the lives of elderly Japanese people in karaoke bars and how they seek fulfilment and purpose in the later stages of their lives. Born and raised in Singapore, he earned his Bachelors and Masters in Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore before coming to the ANU. As a teenager, he fell in love with J-Pop which ignited his passion for Japanese culture.
“Karaoke is a huge industry worth billions of dollars,” Benny explained, describing how the many sorts of karaoke chains in Japan accommodate everyone from millennials to older wealthy businessmen. Benny’s research, however, focuses on two types of karaoke venues: karaoke kissas which are small open-mic bars that are open during the day; and karaoke classrooms, where people learn how to sing karaoke from a trained instructor. These venues, Benny says, “lean towards a mature working-class demographic that are very much over sixty.”
Benny explains how karaoke kissas provide a strong sense of community for many of these elderly people who don’t have a family to rely on. “The foundational concept of the karaoke kissa makes it a very inclusive place — as long as you pay the cover charge. There are a lot of regulars who all become friends, forming a tightly knit community.” Many of these regulars lament the demise of Japan’s traditional family structure, which has separated many elderly Japanese from their families.
During the interview, Benny showed me some karaoke magazines containing song scores used for study in karaoke classrooms. These classrooms provide many elderly people with a continued purpose in their life. At the end of the school year, the school organises recitals for the students, “where they can present what they’ve learned in front of an audience of peers, friends, and family. It’s a very important place for them to vindicate their continued participation in karaoke — as something to learn rather than passively enjoy.”
Many of these kissas and classrooms are located in working-class suburbs, far off the beaten track. These places usually lack windows and have two thick layers of doors, making it both inconspicuous and intimidating to enter.
Benny described to me, how lucky he was to find his first kissa. “The karaoke operator, or as they call them, ‘masters’, actually noticed me pacing back and forth outside, and beckoned me to come inside.” Once inside he was warmly welcomed into the community that was “happy to have a younger person among their midst to learn about their lifestyle”, he said.
“One important skill for fieldwork is getting on socially with other people. For me, coming in with a very open attitude towards learning what these people are doing and not making judgements, especially since you know so little, is important.”
“There’s a lot of them who very much desire to tell people about their life stories,” he said, “so they can pass on certain values or certain ideas that they’ve gained through their experience in life.”
Through studying these karaoke kissas and classrooms, Benny has found a widely-neglected space where many elderly Japanese sing with each other and laugh over drinks. Some have even rekindled their passion for love, despite losing their first partners to death and divorce. For many of these elderly people, singing Shōwa classics, like enka and kayōkyoku, helps reshape their identities in the face of old age, and provides a new direction in their lives. This contrasts very much to modern representations of elderly people as a drain on state healthcare, living their last days alone or in geriatric care.
Criticising the post-war experience of modernity, Benny argues that, “Japanese policy-makers, academics, and public discourse tend to think of elderly life as a period of life where bodily functions deteriorate to the point where you need institutionalised care. I find that actually, especially with these people that I’m working with, that’s simply not the case. They are growing old quite healthy. A lot of them take pride in the fact that they still maintain a very good standard of physical health. They tell me that they are very happy that they rarely go to the hospital. And it’s the singing that allows them to have them this kind of constant exercise and socialisation that keeps them both physically and mentally healthy.”
“So that’s why I think studying Japan now is going to be a very valuable lesson for the rest of the world for learning how to cope with an ageing population in a manner that will treat old people with respect and honour. Growing old is not a problem. It is not a crisis. It is essential and unremovable part of what it means to live.”