EVERY so often, 33-year-old Masaki Kitakoga slips into a tiny booth with a desk and a chair and belts out karaoke tunes for 90 minutes - completely on his own.
He is part of a growing trend in Japan favouring solo activities that is now so widespread it has its own name - ohitorisama or "on your own".
Analysts say that Japan's demographic make-up - over a third of households contain just one person - makes it perfect for the solo market, with many also craving "me time" in a fast-paced, interconnected and workaholic society.
Karaoke, in many ways the archetypal social activity, is a case in point. Six years ago, the Koshidaka karaoke chain realised that some 30 per cent of its customers in certain locations came on their own, so it set up "1Kara", tiny booths for solo singers. Now the firm runs a network of eight speciality karaoke parlours that each sees "tens of thousands" of crooners flock to its solo booths, according to Daiki Yamatani, a spokesman for the chain.
"It's a truly liberating experience," said Mr Kitakoga. "I like to sing. But beyond that, this lets me shake off stress." As demand for such services grows, the stigma of doing activities alone has decreased, added Mr Kitakoga, who also sings karaoke occasionally with friends. Many lone karaoke singers say they like singing just the songs they want to, without bowing to peer pressure for sing-along classics that everyone else knows.
Signs of ohitorisama are everywhere in Japan, from cinemas offering seats with partitions to theme parks that let singles jump the queue at certain rides. Grocery stores sell condiments and vegetables for single diners while travel agents design itineraries aimed at the solo voyager.
The "super solo society" has become a buzzword among social scientists and marketing gurus.
"Businesses are offering various goods and services to meet the trend of people enjoying solo activities," said Motoko Matsushita, senior consultant with Nomura Research Institute. "The depth and range of such services reflect the expanding nature of the consumer trend," she said. The growing phenomenon is also helping to liberate individuals from feeling like they have to conform to peer pressure, she added.
Surveys show Japanese consumers, especially younger ones, rate quality time alone above hours spent with family and friends. Official data show the ratio of households with parents and children is gradually shrinking as fewer adults form relationships.
The pace of modern life with ubiquitous social media is also pushing this trend, experts say, as fatigued people seek relief from round-the-clock contact. "Our data show sociable individuals tend to . . . seek solo activities," said Ms Matsushita, a married mother-of-two, who says she too is partial to a spot of solo karaoke.
Restaurants are also cashing in. At the "Ichiran" ramen noodle chain, it is possible to enjoy a meal with barely any human interaction whatsoever.
Customers order from vending machines and then sit in a partitioned booth to slurp down their noodles, unlike the experience at many ramen joints, where orders are shouted by teams of chefs behind greasy counters. AFP