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.
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.
Photo of Kyu Sakamoto via Wikimedia Commons