There is extensive research on how music can be efficiently used to learn languages; it's especially useful to memorize vocabulary, one of the biggest challenges for intermediate learners.
So the good news is, even science says you can actually use karaoke to learn Japanese! While Japanese songs can be complex, most karaoke machines in Japan will have furigana (tiny hiragana characters) written above the kanji so even kids and weak readers can follow along. In other words, singing at karaoke can help your reading speed, your kanji recognition skills, and your vocabulary all at once!
This isn't something you do on the fly, however. If you can't read Japanese and try to pull out a song on the spot, you'll bomb as badly as any singer who doesn't know the words. This is still study, and that means preparation!
Go on your own or with a "study partner" to really master any songs you'd like to pull out in a social setting. If you can go during the day, karaoke goes for a fraction of the evening rate—and you'll be surprised how many tracks you can get through in just 30 minutes if you're on your own.
As you practice, look up words you don't know on the spot with a smartphone dictionary app—try Jsho for Android or "Imiwa?" for iPhone. You can also study the lyrics at home: just search for the title of the song plus 歌詞 (kashi), the word for lyrics in Japanese, and read through the unknown words with the Firefox browser extension Rikaichan or its Chrome counterpart Rikaikun (also available on Opera). Then sing along until you know them by heart!
If you're short on ideas on which songs are the best to kick off your karaoke-learning career, read on for a selection of 10 tracks that you can enjoy and learn from at the same time. We've ranked them from the easiest to the most difficult, so you can also track your progress along the way!
10. Utada Hikaru — First Love
In 1999, “First Love” started off the career of now billionaire pop-star Utada Hikaru, and it’s one of those heart-trending ballads that everyone can relate to. It’s a slow track, so the kanji are easy to read on screen; with the theme being a love story, the vocabulary is quite useful for everyday conversation, too. Finally, the Japanese verses are intertwined with a half-English chorus (Utada is bilingual), so you can make up for any Japanese slips by knocking the English parts out of the park!
Key Word: 苦い (nigai = bitter)
9. The Blue Hearts — Linda Linda
This is a karaoke classic so famous that it even has a movie based on it. The Blue Hearts were a punk band (the vocalist and guitarist still carry on as The Cro-Magnons) and when it comes to punk, performance and emotion are more important than technical skill. "Linda Linda" is one of those songs that you can scream at the top of your lungs while everyone around you sings along; on top of that, the lyrics are extremely simple and repetitive, which makes them quite easy to memorize!
Key Word: 鼠 (nezumi = rat)
8. AKB48 — Heavy Rotation
While AKB48 might not be to everybody's taste, this bubblegum pop track has been among the most popular karaoke songs since it hit the airwaves in 2010. The lyrics are extremely simple and punctuated with English (or "katakana English") words, making it an easy and well-known song to surprise your friends with at karaoke.
Key Word: 弾ける (hajikeru = to burst open, to pop)
7. Remioromen — Sangatsu Kokonoka
You know it happens: there's that one song that everyone has heard, whether they're a fan of the band or not. This is the case with "Sangatsu Kokonoka" by Remioromen. Used in a famous 2005 TV drama, this is one of those ballad-ish tracks that everyone seems to know, even if they don't even know the faces of this now-disbanded pop trio.
Once again, the slow song is the ideal warm-up before a tight singing session. The title is a date (March 9, to be precise), so it's the perfect excuse to brush up all those irregularities in the Japanese system of date nomenclature!
Key Word: 季節 (kisetsu = season)