It’s no secret that Japanese people love their entertainment. A lot of their modern-day practices came from ancient times when the Japanese people back then needed to fill their time with something to entertain themselves. And we’re here to reap the benefits! 

In Season 3 Episode 8 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, we had a virtual walkthrough of Japan’s entertainment culture — both traditional and modern. From traditional arcades and classic gaming cafes to Japan-born pachinko and karaoke, time and life in Japan is far from boring. You’ll quite literally never run out of things to do, because there’s always something to do, suburban towns and city centres alike.

This article is a recap of what we went through in the episode, but it also has enough information to answer your probing questions. 

Karaoke

The first on the list is karaoke. What’s Japanese entertainment without karaoke? This singalong, interactive entertainment is not only famous in the origin country Japan itself, but worldwide. If the estimated global karaoke market of $10 billion won’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

Karaoke is basically singing to an instrumented version of a popular song songaku without the vocals. There’s usually a television that shows the lyrics of the song, so you’re basically taking over the part of the vocalist. The word “karaoke” actually came from a famous entertainment group who created the word after an orchestra went on strike and a machine was used to replace the music. Karaoke means “empty orchestra”.

While most of us know karaoke, do we know its history? This first ever karaoke machine was invented by Daisuke Inoue in 1971, and it’s not in Tokyo — but in a city called Kobe. Inoue performed at an utagoe kissa, a type of coffeehouse where customers can sing along to songs during performances. He was asked by his guests to record his performances so that they can sing along at home. After that, he realised the potential for this untapped market, so he made a machine that’s similar to a juke box so it would play songs when a 100 yen coin was inserted. 

Today, karaoke provides a safe space for amateurs and professionals alike to sing their hearts out to their favourite popular songs on the radio. From bars and nightclubs to homemade karaoke stations, karaoke has taken over the world. 

But we can all agree that karaoke is less about the singing and more about having a hell of a time with a group of friends and a couple of drinks on the side.

Pachinko

If you’ve been to Japan, you’d realise that there’s no casino here. You’re right, there isn’t one big gambling facility, but there is pachinko. This mechanical game has arcade spaces dedicated to just them scattered all around the country.

So what exactly is pachinko? It’s pretty similar to the slot machine game in Western gambling. While mostly used for gambling, it’s also a sort of recreational arcade game. First built in the 1920s, it was originally a children’s toy. Its first name was “korinto gēmu” (コリントゲーム) based after the American Corithian bagatelle. It was only in the 1930s that this adult pastime became widespread, from Nagoya outwards.

The thing is, gambling is illegal in Japan. But pachinko offers low-stake gambling that allows some sort of legal loophole. How pachinkos operate is pretty similar to the likes of those in casinos, featuring a few slot machines. When you win a pachinko ball, it’s not allowed to exchange it directly for money or remove it from the premises. So you have to take the long way round: exchange it for “special prize” tokens which you then can legally sell it for cash at a separate vendor. (They say separate, but most of the time, they are owned or working for the pachinko companies themselves, which the tokens would be sold back to at a profit.)

So whether pachinko falls under the grey area of Japan’s gambling laws or just recreational fun, it’s no doubt a huge part of Japanese entertainment. I mean, it beats Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore’s gambling revenue combined — that has to count for something.

Arcades

Who here spent their childhood days stuck behind a pixelated screen and game sticks in a stuffy room with other kids doing the same thing? My after-school days looked just like that. If you think your local arcade is good enough, wait till you see what Japan arcades have to offer.

With multimillion dollar gaming companies like SEGA and Taito, it’s basically a given that any Japanese arcade has the basic 1,000 games — the car races, bike races, basketball and air hockey games are fun, but hold on, if you think that’s all Japanese arcades have, you’re in for a treat. Japan wouldn’t be Japan without their uniqueness and originality.

Physical horseracing is fun and all, but if you’ve never tried and want to see if you’ll do okay, try Japan’s virtual horse racing arcade game. Yup, you don’t have to lift more than a finger — much less get kicked off the back of a horse.

And the tap-dancing arcade games are taken to a whole new level with rhythm games like maimai and taiko drums. Maimai is basically a giant, colourful washing machine-looking screen where you have to hit the buttons that light up in colour. Taiko drums rhythm game uses traditional Japanese instruments to hit when it’s time for the beat count. Who says you can’t learn culture from gaming?

Local Entertainment

So those are all modern Japanese entertainment, what about traditional ones? Local entertainment is definitely something you should have on your Japan bucket list. Have a break from the brightly-lit, music-blaring 21st century technology and time travel to various decades with Japanese traditional and local entertainment.

There’s everything from performances to sports like kendo (Japanese martial arts) and sumo (traditional competitive wrestling involving rikishi, or wrestler, attempting to push the other out of the ring).

Alternatively, give kabuki a shot. This traditional Japanese entertainment is a classical dance-drama performance that originated in the 1600’s. Initially, Kabuki was done by women singing and dancing to themes that were rather erotic. When the Golden Age of Kabuki in Japan came in the 1700’s where women were banned, all-male dance troupe took over, still presenting its original stylisation of drama, extravagant costumes and elaborate makeup.

You could travel even further back in time to the 1300’s with the Noh performance. Similarly, it’s a traditional dance-drama. In short, kabuki’s a more ordinary performance as compared to the strictly traditional Noh, and while kabuki has face paint makeup, Noh has masks.

If you’re not so much of a theatre person, Japan has their own rendition of stand up comedy. Manzai is a classic and traditional Japanese double act comedy, dating back to the 1000s. Basically, there are two performers: a funny man known as the boke and the straight man known as the tsukkomi. Jokes go back and forth based on cultural references and verbal gags like puns and double-talk.

Another form of stand up comedy, but without as many props, is the rakugo from the 1700s. Performers are to only have a handkerchief and a Japanese fan. They’re to tell a story, playing all parts of the scene themselves.

These are all just the tip of the iceberg of traditional entertainment — there’s more where these came from.

Vocab Recap

We used so many interesting Japanese vocabulary words in the full episode. So for those of you who’ve tuned in, here’s a list of them for your reference:

Karaoke (カラオケ) — empty orchestra

Ongaku (音楽) — song

Utagoe kissa (歌声喫茶) — a coffeehouse where customers can sing along to songs. Utagoe (歌声) means singing voice, while kissa (喫茶) or kissaten (喫茶店) means a coffeeshop

Tomodachi to asobu (友達と遊ぶ) — to hang out with friends. Tomodachi (友達) means friend, while asobu (遊ぶ) means to play

Osake (お酒) — alcoholic drinks 

Pachinko (パチンコ) — recreational arcade game that’s usually used for gambling 

Mura (村) — village

Pachisuro (パチスロ) — pachinko slots

Tokushu keihin (特殊景品) — special price tokens

akēdo (アケード) — arcade

Rizumugēmu (リズムゲーム) — rhythm game

Taiko (太鼓) — Japanese traditional drums

Kendo (捲土) — Japanese martial arts

Sumo (スモ) — traditional competitive wrestling

Rikishi (力士) — wrestler

Kabuki (歌舞伎) — traditional dance-drama performance

Kumadori (隈取り) — kabuki makeup

Manzai (漫才) — traditional stand up comedy, and performers are known as manzaishi (漫才師)

Are You Not Entertained?

What did I tell ya — Japanese entertainment is abundant and amusing. And like I said, these are just a handful. Fill up your Japan itinerary with all of these Japanese entertainment and more! Check out the full episode if you want to know more about these types of entertainment mentioned, only on the Nihongo Master Podcast!