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Inoue made almost no money out of his discovery--which was soon picked up by larger companies--and the karaoke firm he passed on to his younger brother recently went bust. The only patent he owned, briefly, was for plastic-covered songbooks, and the only karaoke-related profits he earns today come from a potion he markets to repel the cockroaches and rats that are a karaoke box's main enemy. Until a Singapore-based all-karaoke TV channel "discovered" him in 1996, the man who rescued mute, inglorious Presleys and unrecognized Madonnas was hardly known even in his hometown. Even now, on the wall calendar that hangs by his door, there are only eight appointments listed for the whole month. "I am its natural parent," he confesses, "but, having given birth to karaoke, I abandoned it."

The premise of "sing-along" music has always been egalitarian: if the boss can make like Paul McCartney, so can I. In the often hierarchical cultures of East Asia, therefore, it has served as instrument of homemade democracy, a popular ice-breaker and even a method for picking up foreign languages. And in a world of ever more customized entertainments--the home video or the home page--karaoke is a kind of fantasy chamber for the circumscribed.

m o r e
Instant Success
A Japanese instant-noodle inventor's skillful mix of flour, oil and a little salt and MSG has redefined the way the world eats

It also seems apt that this quintessentially Japanese product, made by a man strolling to the beat of his own private drum-kit, has touched a chord worldwide. Signs for "karaoke nights" now appear outside mom-and-pop stalls in Third World villages and on the glittery billboard of the Hollywood Park Casino in California. Global icons practice it in films like My Best Friend's Wedding, and steelworkers howl away in English towns, where "carry-okie" sounds like a cousin of "cash 'n' carry." Religious figures have been heard to say that karaoke is as essential to the soul as tai chi, and 53 million Japanese alone have inflicted their voices on the world. Even in a city like Phnom Penh you can sing everything from O Sole Mio to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Inoue, meanwhile, remains an Everyman with a smile, unperturbed about lost riches and excited about his latest venture. "My dream before I die," he says, flourishing a business card on which colored dogs cavort, "is to train Japanese pet-owners to take better care of their pets. To offer a school for cradle-to-grave training of cats and dogs." Having helped to teach the world to sing (in perfect harmony), he should find training four-legged creatures and their friends as easy as just whistling.

Pico Iyer, a longtime contributor to TIME, is the author of Video Night in Kathmandu

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The Most Influential Asians of the Century
August 23/30, 1999

Asians of the Century
A cavalcade of towering individuals and a newly awakened populace

Why Adam Smith Would Love Asia
Asia has been the proving ground for global capitalism

Ending Silence
Asian women are celebrating hard-won triumphs

Embrace the wisdom of democracy and capitalism

t h e  l i s t

Ho Chi Minh
Pol Pot
Issey Miyake
Daisuke Inoue
Rabindranath Tagore
Sun Yat-sen
Mohandas Gandhi
Mao Zedong
Lee Kuan Yew
Deng Xiaoping
Corazon Aquino
Park Chung Hee
Eiji Toyoda
King Rama
Akira Kurosawa
Dalai Lama
Akio Morita

v o t e

Tell us who you think are the most influential Asians of the century



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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