New Emissary

Karaoke, Ancient Harmony?

A popular modern pastime in countries like China and Japan, karaoke’s roots may actually lie in ancient philosophy.

Many of us don’t tend to see Confucianism, the ancient philosophy, reflected in contemporary Chinese society and culture.

But when I recently spoke to Daniel Bell (author of China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society) on the revival of Confucianism he sees in China today, he told me that you might actually find it in a ubiquitous modern hangout—the karaoke bar.Why is karaoke so popular in East Asian countries with a Confucian heritage and not nearly as much in North America and Europe?’ he asked. ‘University students in the West go to bars, but more often or not in Asian countries, they go to karaoke.’ Indeed, during my own student days in Canada, I spent a total of zero time singing karaoke with my friends.

Bell explained how one of the core ethics of the Confucian philosophy may very well have popularized the pastime in places like China: ‘Confucianism emphasizes the human voice as being important for generating harmony…It’s really hard to explain why it’s become so popular otherwise here and not elsewhere,’ he suggested.

In Japan also, karaoke is a favourite group activity amongst the young and old. In the book Confucius Lives Next Door, author T.R. Reid argues that Confucianism influences everyday Japanese and that values such as harmony and the importance of treating others decently is what has led East Asia to realize its ‘other miracle,’ in the form of ‘dramatically low rates of crime, divorce, drug abuse, and other social ills.’

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And certainly from what we’ve seen in the way the Japanese people, especially those directly affected by the March 11 earthquake, have conducted themselves in the wake of crisis, it seems that Reid is onto something.