“Sukiyaki” – A Cross-Cultural Pop Breakthrough


This post, from a few years ago, is one of our most popular, and most unusual. It seemed a good time to appreciate it again. (It’s also the subject of an episode of one of our favorite podcasts.)

It may be commonplace in other countries, but in America, it’s really hard to make it in the music business if you’re singing in a foreign language. It’s a huge obstacle to a career that’s already difficult; sometimes singing in English with a thick accent is off-putting to national audiences.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We’re currently living through a kind of “Korea-mania” with boybands and girl groups topping the charts thanks to the millions of obsessed fans pushing their favorite artists. Of course, due to a large Hispanic population, we’ve seen some various Latino sensations, from Los del Río with “La Macarena,” Ricky Martin, or more recently, “Despacito.”

Way earlier than all of them, a Japanese singer reached the highest point on the Billboard chart with an unusual, simple, and haunting song.

While not exactly completely forgotten by pop culture (not his song, at least), it’s still an outstanding story that Kyu Sakamoto was able to climb the charts to Number One with “Ue O Muite Arukou,” best known in the West as “Sukiyaki.”

Of course, the lyrics themselves don’t talk about a dish of food (a Newsweek columnist wrote that it would be like naming “Moon River” as “Beef Stew”). The translation of the title is more along the lines of “I look up as I walk.”

In any case, it’s still amazing that the idea of a Japanese song could reach such a high position. It was the early 60’s, and memories from World War II were still relatively fresh.

On the other hand, it may have been just the right time for such a song to find success. That period of time in popular music is definitely one of the weirdest ones in US history: the gap between Elvis being drafted into the army and the arrival of a certain Liverpool band to American airwaves was filled with novelty songs, teen idols, and weird oddities (“Dominique,” a French song performed by a Belgian nun, also reached the top of the Billboard charts).

At the time, it seemed that record companies were betting on anything that could have any potential to stand out. And in such a weirdly bizarre competition, there’s space for a Japanese crooner.

The song’s title was re-named by British record executive Louis Benjamin, whose company would re-issue it to the British market. DJ’s from the West Coast were adding the song to their rotations, and finally, Capitol Records offered a wider release in America. In June of 1963, it reached Number One: it would remain there for three consecutive weeks.

Kyu Sakamoto wasn’t shy to capitalize on this opportunity; he performed on The Steve Allen Show and embarked on a world tour. At Los Angeles airport, he was received like a rockstar.

Related: “Alan Freed & Dick Clark: Two Stories, One Scandal”

There’s a kind of symbolic acceptance of this pop-culture product: it was like it marked the end of old grudges, and the reinvention of the Asian nation as a modern, industrialized place, not afraid to be open to the world (one year later, Tokyo would hold the Olympic Games, the first ones in a non-white country).

Sakamoto would remain a famous figure in his native land for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, his international career wasn’t able to keep up the momentum, and he remains a One-Hit-Wonder in the West. Of course, his song has an enduring legacy, with cover versions from artists like Taste Of Honey and even Mexican-American singer Selena, with a Spanish version.

The singer would live a tragically short life, passing away as the victim of a plane accident when he was 43 years old.

While his international career didn’t last long, and he has been somewhat sidelined by pop culture history, it can’t be denied that he was, in his own way, a trailblazer. Even just in 2019, his well-known song was sampled for an Avicii track from his posthumous album Tim. And it would be good to truly appreciate his legacy as one of the first Asian stars in the West and to start learning the real name of his work.

We look up to you as we walk, Sakamoto-San, wherever you might be.

-Anthony Arrieta

Photo of Kyu Sakamoto via Wikimedia Commons

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6 comments on ““Sukiyaki” – A Cross-Cultural Pop Breakthrough

  1. Cliff Cherry

    While it was indeed impressive for the song to get to number 1 on the Hot 100 and bring Sakamoto enduring fame which he obviously appreciated and took advantage of, it’s still incredibly cringeworthy that the song was so flippantly renamed without repercussion back then. Different times, for sure

  2. Gary Theroux

    “The gap between Elvis being drafted into the Army [which was in 1958] and the arrival of a certain Liverpool band to American airwaves [which was in 1964] was filled with novelty songs, teen idols and weird oddities.” Really?
    Every era has had its teen idols — and to characterize pop music between 1958 and 1964 as nothing but “noveltyy songs” and “weird oddities” displays an incredible ignorance of what was happening musically during that pivotal period.
    Despite his two-year hitch in the military, Elvis continued his reign as “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” thanks to hits like “Hard Headed Woman,” “A Big Hunk o’ Love” and “I Need Your Love Tonight.” Elsewhere, timeless tracks were being created by Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Rick Nelson, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Lloyd Price, Brenda Lee, Del Shannon, Jackie Wilson, Dion, The Four Seasons, Peter, Paul & Mary, Herb Alpert, Roy Orbison, The Righteous Brothers and countless others. Over a decade before disco, discotheques (a French term meaning “dancing to records”) thrived during this period, showcasing catchy tracks to twist, frug, pony, etc. to from Chubby Checker, The Orlons, The Dovells, Dee Dee Sharp and many other dance music stars. The California sand-surf-bikini-hot rod era flourished, thanks to The Beach Boys, The Ventures, Jan & Dean. The Chantays, The Surfaris, etc. Motown took off — with The Miracles, Mary Wells, The Contours, The Four Tops, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, etc. Soul music soared, thanks to The Drifters, The Shirelles, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, The Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Crystals, Dionne Warwick, The Dells, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and many many more.
    Unlike today, when most hits played by a given contemporiary hit music station tend to sound alike, the 1958-64 period was an era of rich, wide musical diversity, during which DJs played the top hits of ALL genres — eveything from a country tune to a flat-out rocker to a soulful serenade to Lawrence Welk’s “Calcutta.” And yes, “Sukiyaki” (released stateside on Capitol, not “Capital” Records) was a part of it. The track was so retitled from the original because Capitol execs figured that “Sukiyaki” was perhaps the best-known Japanese word to most Americans at the time – even though the song is not at all about sukiyaki and the word never turns up at all in the lyrics.

  3. Gary, along the lines of the diversity in the pop landscape in the 50’s and early 60’s, you might like https://www.culturesonar.com/1950s-pop-music/ . Thanks for writing.

  4. Also worth mentioning: Sakamoto’s lyrics and their American cousin. Here’s a translation of the repeating stanza of Sakamoto’s song, originally released in 1961: “I look up when I walk / So the tears won’t fall / Though my heart is filled with sorrow / For tonight I’m all alone”

    Meanwhile, inside the Brill building at almost the same time, the great Carole King wrote a song with Howard Greenfield called “Crying in the Rain,” which in 1962 became a hit (#6 on Billboard) for the Everly Brothers. That song’s lyrics include: “I’ll never let you see / The way my broken heart is hurting me / I’ve got my pride and I know how to hide / All the sorrow and pain / I’ll do my crying in the rain”

    No conspiracy here, but isn’t it interesting that within a year of each other, two separate songs, made on opposite sides of the globe, written in different languages and released (originally) to vastly different audiences, should both feature heartsick protagonists who use ploys to hide their tears. One looks up to let the tears pool without spilling; the other uses the cover of raindrops. Otherwise, the story is the same. And more amazing: they both got to the top ten of the US charts within a year of each other. What are the odds?!?

    Also: In both cultures, boys had been taught that showing extreme emotions, particularly sadness, is a sign of weakness–think of cowboys and samurai movies of the period. But here were two songs showing that, nonetheless, such feelings were there and had to be grappled with. I can see why both were hits.

  5. Michael W Wilson

    A terrific comment, Mike. I can only add that I admire your insight. I would like to see how the Spanish translation of “Sukiyaki” that Selena sang went.

  6. Thank you, Michael. RE Selena’s version: I don’t know Spanish, but according to this entry on the LyricsTranslate site (https://lyricstranslate.com/en/sukiyaki-sukiyaki.html-0), which shows the spanish lyrics side by side with an English translation, Selena kept the heartbreak but with no ploy to cover it up: “my weeping increases every day.” LyricsTranslate is a cool web site. And I didn’t know about Selena’s version at all, so thanks for that!

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