30 Day Song Challenge, Day 21 – “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto

The subject for Day 21 of my 30-day Song Challenge is “A song sung in a different language“, and my pick is “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto. I vividly remember hearing it played a lot on the radio in the summer of 1963, and even though I was only eight years old and couldn’t understand a single word he sang, I absolutely loved it. The beautiful song was a big worldwide hit, reaching #1 not only in Sakamoto’s home country of Japan, but also in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.

Originally titled “Ue o Muite Arukō” – represented in Japanese as 上を向いて歩こう, and translated into English as “I Look Up as I Walk” – the song was alternatively titled “Sukiyaki” (the name of a Japanese hot-pot dish with cooked beef) for its release in English-speaking countries. The word ‘sukiyaki’ does not appear in, nor have any connection to, the song’s lyrics, but was used only because it was short, catchy, recognizably Japanese, and more familiar to English speakers. Written by lyricist Rokusuke Ei and composer Hachidai Nakamura, and sung by young Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto (who was only 19 when he recorded the song), “Ue o Muite Arukō” was first released in Japan in 1961. It quickly topped the Japanese pop music chart, and went on to become the #1 song of the year there.

Released in the U.S. in Spring 1963, “Sukiyaki” spent three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1963, one of the few non-English songs to do so. It was the only single by an Asian artist to top the Hot 100 until “Dynamite” by South Korean band BTS in 2020. “Sukiyaki” ranks among the best-selling singles of all time, selling over 13 million copies worldwide as of 2009.

In contrast to the upbeat arrangement and sunny instrumentals, the poignant lyrics tell the story of a man who looks up and whistles while walking so that his tears will not fall, with the verses describing his memories and feelings. Ei wrote the lyrics while walking home after having participated in the 1960 Anpo protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Though he was expressing his frustration and dejection at the failed efforts to stop the treaty, his lyrics were purposefully generic so that they might also be interpreted to be referring to a lost love. (Wikipedia)

Tragically, Sakamoto died in August 1985 in the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123. All 524 passengers and crew were killed in the crash, which remains the deadliest single-aircraft accident in global aviation history.

An alternative version of “Sukiyaki” was later recorded in 1981 by American band A Taste of Honey, who’d had a #1 hit in 1978 with their disco song “Boogie Oogie Oogie”. Just like me, A Taste of Honey vocalist Janice-Marie Johnson heard the original “Sukiyaki” on the radio in the summer of 1963 when she was nine years old, and loved it. Despite not understanding the lyrics, she was deeply moved by the song, demanding “Mom! Buy me this record!” She played the record constantly, phonetically learning its lyrics and teaching them to her sister, and before long the pair would sing “Sukiyaki” at neighborhood talent shows while performing their approximation of an Oriental dance number.

Years later, after Johnson heard the Linda Ronstadt cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” on her car radio, she thought remaking a 1960s hit could be a good career move for her band. Her obvious choice being her beloved “Sukiyaki”, Johnson contacted the song’s lyricist Rokusuke Ei, who provided her with a literal translation of what he had written. Because his translation did not yield complete sentences in English, Johnson set out to write a new set of lyrics she felt would capture the spirit of the song. Johnson later recalled the reaction of vice-president of Capitol Records Cecil Hale, who upon hearing her sing the lyrics she had written for “Sukiyaki” in the slow ballad style she envisioned for the track, said, “‘absolutely not! Black people don’t want to hear Japanese music.’ I was stunned [having been] so sure he would like it. I looked at him and I said ‘Last time I looked in a mirror I was black and I want to hear it.‘”

Producer George Duke, who was assigned to produce the upcoming A Taste of Honey album Twice as Sweet, shared Hale’s lack of enthusiasm. In a 2010 interview with All About Jazz, Duke recalled: “‘Man, what am I going to do with “Sukiyaki”?’ I thought [Johnson] was crazy, but I said ‘If that’s what she wants to do, I’ll do it.'” He brought in Clare Fischer to play the string arrangement and June Kuramoto, of the jazz band Hiroshima, to play koto, giving the track a Japanese flavor. “We added an R&B section, and that was it. It was a simple tune I never thought would become a hit. To this day, I can’t believe it was as big a record as it was.”

Though Capitol Records exec. Cecil Hale remained resistant to the song, after two released tracks from Twice as Sweet failed to gain traction, he finally relented and released “Sukiyaki” in January 1981. Even though I personally don’t much care for the song, it reached #1 on both the Billboard R&B and Adult Contemporary charts, and #3 on the Hot 100.

13 thoughts on “30 Day Song Challenge, Day 21 – “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto

  1. Beautiful tune – first time I heard it!

    While I guess you could say the phonetic difference between English and Japanese is bigger than between English and German, perhaps it gives you a bit of an idea how English language music sounded to me as an-eight-year-old when I started listening to it without understanding a word. It was a song’s melody, sound and groove that drew me in.

    While I began paying more attention to lyrics when I started learning English at school when I was 10, to this day, the melody, sound and groove are the primary elements of a song I tend to check out first before listening to the lyrics. Usually, I can see past mediocre lyrics when I dig all of the other aforementioned elements.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Badfinger (Max)

    I JUST heard this song a few weeks ago on A Sound Day’s blog. Such a beautiful melody but I’m still shocked it was a hit at that time if only the language barrier.
    Glad Johnson stuck with it and proved the execs wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. legorn

    I had no idea a Japanese song had been so successful in the US back in 1963! As mentioned above, quite a feat.
    Bittersweet entry wit the tragic death of so many people.

    Liked by 1 person

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