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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)



Born in Tokyo, Shigeichi’s mother ran a tobacco store. His father was a government official, responsible for overseeing elections.

Shigeichi was known as a very studious boy. Aged just eleven, he won a national calligraphy competition.

He went on to do really well in his exams. Shigeichi’s hobby was creating cardboard cityscapes.

After leaving school, Shigeichi studied Economics at Hosei University in Tokyo.

Hosei University (courtesy Science and Technology Office Tokyo)

Then, he was drafted into the Japanese army, during the Second World War.

At the end of the conflict, Shigeichi became a prisoner of war. He served two years in a prison camp in Singapore.

Upon his release in 1947, he became a salesman for Olympus cameras.

Olympus cameras (courtesy Nicks Picks)

It was during this period that he got married and was to have three children.

In 1956, Shigeichi set up his own electronics company. It was called ‘Nichiden Kogyo’ and was based in a small factory in the suburbs of Tokyo.

Nichiden Kogyo (courtesy Nichiden Kogyo)

The company manufactured stereo systems for the growing Japanese car manufacturing industry. They also produced transistor radios.

In 1967, Shigeichi was working away, humming to himself. He loved the early morning radio show, ‘Pop Songs Without Lyrics’ and he was singing along to a tune from this programme. One of his employees teased him, saying he had a terrible voice. His response was, “Give me a break.”

Nevertheless, it got him thinking. “If only he could hear my voice over a backing track.”

Shigeichi wired together a speaker, a microphone and a tape deck.

He then played an instrumental version of the 1930s song ‘Mujo no Yume’ (The Heartless Dream). He sang along to the track.

The moment he heard his voice through the speakers, he shouted, “It works.”

He took it home to show his family and they had a sing-song. It was the very first karaoke session.

Shigeichi had a friend who worked at the Japanese Broadcasting Company. He showed this new idea to him and was told it was marketable.

Shigeichi never patented his idea but he managed to find a distributor. The original plan was to call the invention ‘karaoke’ – Japanese for ‘empty orchestra’.

However, the distributor refused to accept this name, saying it was too similar to the word ‘kan oke’ (Japanese for coffin).

Instead, Shigeichi called it the ‘Sparko Box’. It had chrome fittings and flashing lights and used cassette tapes. “I created something like the prototype of a jukebox”. It was coin operated and came with a booklet of lyrics.

Sparko Box (courtesy The Wall Street Journal)

The Japanese always had a thriving nightlife, so Shigeichi travelled around the country demonstrating his Sparko Box. He sold them to bars, restaurants and hotels (including the notorious ‘Love Hotels’.

It wasn’t universally popular and received great criticism in certain quarters. “He earned the enmity of performers who saw his machine as a threat to their jobs.”

His primary opponents were ‘Nagashi’ – itinerant guitarists, whose traditional role was to provide music to diners and drinkers.

Shigeichi estimated he sold 8,000 Sparko Boxes. However, in Japanese tradition it was considered ‘bad form’ to sing in public, so his machines were usually used for background music. In later years, he said, “Now I think about it, it’s a bit of a shame.”

The idea never took off on a massive scale.

In 1971, he got a rival, night club musician Daisuke Inoue, who invented a similar machine which he called ‘8 Juke’.

The bottom fell out of the market and Shigeich found himself in financial trouble. His company folded in 1975.

He said, “I grew tired of the conflict with musicians and the grind of door-to-door sales and maintenance.”

After that, Shigeichi sold electronic Buddhist talking prayer books.

At the start of the 1980s, three more Japanese inventors created similar machines – and suddenly the karaoke craze took off.

It spread through Japan, then throughout the rest of Asia and then the rest of the world. Shigeichi was delighted (although he made no money from it).

He retired in 1993. His hobbies were basket making, sculpting and…singing karaoke (of course).

By the turn of the century, it was estimated 50% of all Japanese people sung karaoke. There are 8,000 box venues, 13,500 bars in the country, and it has a market worth $2.6 billion.

Reputedly, the most sung song in the world is still, ‘My Way’, by Frank Sinatra.

My Way – Frank Sinatra(courtesy Spotify)

The All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association, credit all the inventors with a contribution to the development of the karaoke, but call Shigeichi, “The first among five.”

In 2020, journalist Matt Alt wrote a book called ‘Pure Invention – How Japan Made the Modern World’. He interviewed Shigeichi, who was the subject of one of the chapters.

“I knew right away that I’d invented something new…Most of all, it was fun.”

Shigeichi died after a fall.

Following his death, his daughter said that he was never concerned that he had not patented karaoke and that he had made little money from it. “He felt a lot of pride in seeing his idea evolve into a culture of having fun through song, around the world.”

There is just one (known) functioning Sparko Box left in the world. It is owned by the Negishi family.

RIP –Rejected Idea (of) Patent


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