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The beat continues at the birthplace of American karaoke in the Northwest


 This story originally aired on October 21, 2017

It’s hard to imagine a time when karaoke did not exist in the Northwest. Today, any night of the week, you can go out with friends and find some place where you can belt out your favorite tunes in front of a crowd.


But, everything has a beginning. Things have to start somewhere, right? For American style karaoke in the Northwest, it was at Bush Garden in Seattle’s International District.


“When we first started out, people were a little bit shy, they didn’t want to act like they could sing. There was more screaming in the mic, early on,” says Karen Sakata, who co-owns Bush Garden with her husband.


Today, Karen says people go all out, “I forget how many years ago, West Side Story was performing at 5th Avenue Theater and a lot of the performers came down and they started doing their dance moves and everything! So, you never know.”


Bush Garden is much more than a karaoke bar to Karen Sakata. This old brick building on Maynard Avenue is where she had her first job in the restaurant. For generations, Bush Garden played an important role in the Japanese American community.


“Back in the day, before all of the big hotels downtown, they had weddings here, they had funerals here, fundraisers. All that stuff happened here, in community,” says Karen.


The building was bought in 2016 by a developer. The restaurant closed shortly thereafter, but the karaoke bar has been allowed to continue, for now.


It's not just the music that will end if and when the bar is forced to shut down.


“It’s not just about money, it’s about relationships. It’s about humanity. It’s about culture and I think if Seattle lost that piece of it, we would be erasing a part of ourselves,” says Karen with tears in her eyes.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.
Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.