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The 50 Year Reign of Kyu Sakamoto and Sukiyaki - Japan's Only U.S. Billboard #1 Song

By Edited Apr 20, 2016 4 7

Kyu Sakamoto at age 19
June 15, 2013 marked the 5oth anniversary of Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki" reaching the #1 position on Billboard's Top 100. Much has changed, yet one thing hasn't.

The song was the very first from Japan to attain that lofty status. Fifty years later - not a single record sung with the Japanese language has ever gotten there again. Actually the recording was entitled: "Ue O Muite Aruko" ("I Look Up When I Walk"), and was composed by Hachidai Nakamura, with lyrics written by Rokosuke Ei. It was released in 1961, in Japan, and became a smash hit.

Eventually, by 1962, Louis Benjamin in the U.K. had heard the original Sakamoto version "Ue O Muite Aruko". Benjamin was president of Pye Records Ltd and summarily commissioned Kenny Ball and the Jazzmen to do a rendition. He also changed the song name to "Sukiyaki" - a Japanese word that "westerners could understand without confusion". Ball had previously

Kenny ball & The Jazzmen

 scored big, in 1961, with a huge instrumental hit "Midnight In Moscow" - which rose to #2 on Billboard.

A delayed mega hit

Kenny Ball's creation in early 1963 - with that brand new song title was a bouncy, Dixieland, fun inspiring instrumental. It could easily have been the background music for a comedy, or even a fight scene. Ball's Sukiyaki began climbing the UK charts, which convinced Washington DC DJ Richard Osborne to start playing Sakamoto's "Ue O Muite Aruko" (from 1961) which was now known as Sukiyaki.

June 15, 1963, Sukiyaki reached #1 on Billboard. It had dislodged Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" - a still very recognizable song. Everyone knew that Sukiyaki wasn't about a Japanese food dish. Its true meaning remained unknown, but mysterious to most Americans for years. The recording featured that unique and unmistakable eight second xylophone introduction, impassioned verses probably about a relationship, and that wistful whistle that could be intoxicatingly haunting.

 The English translation

Invariably anyone who had ever sung Sukiyaki with the English translation had felt that the English was lacking in beauty and style.  Here is the literal translation, from Japanese to English. The title is "I Look Up As I Walk".

                        I look up as I walk
                        So that the tears won't fall
                        Remembering those spring days
                        But I am all alone tonight.  

                         I look up as I walk
                         Counting the stars with tearful eyes   
                         Remembering those summer days
                         But I am all alone tonight.

                         Happiness lies beyond the clouds
                         Happiness lies up above the sky.

                          I look up as I walk
                          So that the tears won't fall
                          Though the tears well up as I walk
                          For tonight I'm all alone tonight

                          Remembering those autumn days
                          But I am all alone tonight.

                          Sadness lies in the shadow of the stars
                          Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon

                          I look up as I walk
                          So that the tears won't fall
                          Though the tears well up as I walk
                          For tonight I'm all alone


A vital bridge to Japan

At the end of World War Two, America and Japan certainly were not friends. It was like the later Russian cold war, only worse. Suspicion abounded on both sides. Americans tended to think that Kamikazi bombers represented the general public.  They received only scant information about Japan. There hadn't been enough tangible reasons to believe that the Japanese were friendly or peace loving or had anything of appeal to the United States.

1963 was only 18 years removed from the war, though it seemed much further away to us Americans who were too young to remember. In retrospect, that made all the difference. By comparison, its only been 12 years since 9-11 - though it seems much, much more recent. A day unlikely to be forgotten.

Kyu Sakamoto seemingly came out of nowhere with his harmless little groundbreaking tune. In the years since his heyday, there is real consensus among credible observers, that the song became a gateway toward acceptance between the United States and Japan.

The tones of Sakamoto implied a softer more sentimental constitution of the Japanese people - where there had been limited exposure to such, before his coming.

The video is raw, as productions go. This isn't your standard glossy, colorful MTV original, but it is in keeping with the mysterious. The young Sakamoto character is surrounded by nondescript old barrels in a building, but it hardly matters. Mentally he is in his own land of Oz, smiling nonstop as he is unavoidedly caught up in total reverie of the gloriousness of how it used to be, but is no longer.

After personal heartbreak and tragedy, folks often say "it's one foot after the other" - just to survive. He plods on - as the dreary factory grey smoke hits the sky. Sakamoto's hands soon aimlessly and unconsciously scrape the tops of those barrels in this desolate scene. By the end he's transitioning from delicious daydream to the sunny - though uncertain future.




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After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, in 1941, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were sent to camps enclosed by barbed wire. Many had been born in America - but were viewed as anti American and a potential threat.

A family's regained strength thru song

That experience had happened to the parents and grandparents of David Mas Masumoto - a born American. Masamoto was working the farm in the summer of '63, when suddenly amidst the sounds of radio rock & roll - stunningly a song sung completely in Japanese had materialized; but not just any song. Masumoto recalls:

"For many, the song had a timeless sweetness about it, Sukiyaki, a song in Japanese about lost love and looking to the future. A repeated line "I look up when I walk so the tears won't fall", seemed to capture the Japanese - American ethos. To look beyond the past, accept the sorrow and move on".

"Sukiyaki helped my family...my parents smiled when they heard the song on the radio...my uncle loved the song...He'd served in the U.S army, as a translator in the Pacific during World War Two".

"Many still harbored ill feeling against the Japanese following the war, but they were growing older. A new younger America was moving on, accepting a Japanese song and lyrics by making it the #1 song in America".

The man synonymous with Sukiyaki

The man known as Kyu Sakamoto was the youngest of nine kids. His given name was Hisashi, but was nicknamed Kyu-Chan, by family and friends. It means "affectionate dimunitive" (Kyu stood approximately 5'3).

Sakamoto's Sukiyaki was considered by many as being beautiful, but sad or meloncholy, as well. He, himself, was nothing if not fun loving, bubbly and always smiling.

He had recorded "Ue o Muite Arukow" / "Sukiyaki" at age 19, but had already been a major star in Japan. The song went on to sell 13 million copies. In total, Sakamoto had over 20 songs and appeared in 16 movies. Kyu married actress Yukiko Kashiwagi in 1971. There are two daughters.

Sakamoto did an outstanding job, mimicking Elvis, in "G.I. Blues" (which can be heard on You Tube) but most of his renditions of American rock & roll tended to be fun, off-the-wall songs such as "Calendar Girl" "Good Timin'" and "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini". His visit to American TV's "Steve Allen Show" was more of the same - lots of animated frolic and big grins. At that time he was in the midst of a world wide tour, in 1963, after the burgeoning success of Sukiyaki.

Sukiyaki was her savior

"Sukiyaki has brought a lot of joy, but also a lot of sadness", said 59 year old Janice Marie Johnson, who along with Hazel Payne, formed the duo "A Taste Of Honey", that had made Sukiyaki a big hit all over again in 1981. Her voice was cracking, as she then masked her tear filled eyes, by placing a hand over them.

This was the reaction triggered by her thoughts of Rokusuke Ei, as she was being interviewed in August 2013. She is sure that the 80 year old Ei is unaware that she feels so compromised by contract restrictions involving royalties. This successful version went to #3 Billboard Hot 100. Johnson adds: "It's my favorite song to perform. It's so beautiful. But I feel so disrespected".

A Taste of Honey

A Taste Of Honey had become famous for their disco songs, most notably "Boogie Oogie Oogie". Johnson was to appear September 7, 2013, for the Little Tokyo Live Music Series, at the Aratani Theatre.

As a child, Janice used to don Japanese outfits and sing Sukiyaki in her self styled little theatre. She says: "It's just a song that has always been with me". She had felt herself being ball & chained to disco as a captive symbol of its era - and conjured up the idea of a re-make of Sukiyaki. The thought was to do this legendary song in English.

Music industry executives wanted no part of it, believing that Japanese music wasn't "in". According to Johnson, her and Capitol Records had to make many concessions to make it happen.

Thru connections, she reached Japan's Rokusuke Ei, who of course, had written the original song lyrics. Ei was magnanimous and got Sukiyaki completely rewritten in English - though this Taste of Honey version is not a direct translation of the original.

The video is from TV's Soul Train program. The nostalgia drips, as the iconic figure of Don Cornelius is everpresent here, as an added bonus.

In 1981 the Taste of Honey duo met Kyu Sakamoto, in Japan, in what must have been a peak experience for them. The three joined forces and were seen together on TV and in concerts. The sudden spotlight had also raised the star of Sakamoto once more - and he re-released his Sukiyaki 20 years after its introduction.

Janice Marie Johnson will continue to perform throughout the year, singing Sukiyaki wherever she goes, hoping to receive the proper credit for her part in the worldwide appeal of this song.



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12 hits Including Sukiyaki.

Japan's post Sakamoto success

Japan, in 2013 is second in the world in terms of overall music market, though they're really feeling heat from the Korean music explosion of technical and artistic expertise. Thru the decades, Japanese companies have done little to tap markets in the U.S. The 80's Seiko Matsuda made a concerted effort - but her single never made the Top 40, and she was Japan's largest pop star - a sobering lesson.

Japanese sensation Utada, broke loose in 1997, having sold millions of albums. She was born of parents who were both eminent in Japan's world of music - and even spent most of her formative years in New York, fluent in English.

Utada was not spared. The highest she had reached on Billboard charts was #69. The talented balladeer fell victim to being a Japanese woman caught in a dogfight of an African-American market.

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The song that transcends listener age or nationality

As a reflection of worldwide embracement, the amount of Sukiyaki versions are assuredly uncountable. You see it by soloists, duos, trios, quartets and whole orchestras. They are slow paced or fast - featuring pianos, trumpets, flute, acoustic guitar, ukelele... renditions are done in rock, classical, R&B, reggae and untold other styles. It is globally cherished and savored.

The following is in honor of the 19,000 Japanese victims of the horrible tsunami that struck in 2011. One Love / Sukiyaki is a collaboration of Japanese singers and musicians . It's performed outdoors, not in a studio - accompanied by nature's landscape and updated in a steady reggae beat.

Original Sukiyaki composer Hachidai Nakamura and Kyu Sakamoto would have been proud beyond words, to have seen what their creation has evolved into. If only they'd lived to to see it. ( Lyricist Rokusuke Ei is fortunately still with us.)





Kyu Sakamoto made history once again, one last time - but sadly not the way the world would have wanted. He died  August 12, 1985, at age 43, in the Japan Airlines Flight 123 plane crash killing 520 people - the worst single aviation disaster in history. It had occurred outside Tokyo.

A Taste Of Honey's Janice Johnson, in that August 2013 interview, also had this to say about Kyu Sakamoto:

"He was quite possibly the nicest man I've ever met".


Kyu nearing the end


Oct 7, 2013 3:18pm
Hi--Wow--I remembered the song after playing it--I was just going in the service when it was broadcast on radio--to me it shows that music Including singing has no real barriers for people in the world--there should be more of it--For example I do not understand one word of the lyrics and yet I easily "feel" the meaning. It reminds me of when I was in Thailand and the Thai bands played American music--very impressive! Anyway, 2 BIG-BIG thumbs up and a rating--Great article!
Oct 7, 2013 5:40pm
Thanks much, Marlando. You're a gentlemen!
Oct 13, 2013 1:56am
Thumbs up.This song remembers me the japanese karaoke parties in Brazil, Ue O Muite Aruko is still a hit there . Nice article.
Nov 13, 2013 7:06am
This was fun.

Many times I think the history of a particular tune transcends its actual performance (kind of like the Strangeloves' "I Want Candy"). A thumb. And, yeah, I'm a big enough man to admit that I not only like this song, I own it on 45!
Nov 13, 2013 9:30am

REAL men like the song "Sukiyaki". I've sung it at karaoke, with the Japanese lyrics. Speaking of "transcending", "The Way We Were", by Barbra Streisand, was FAR superior to the movie with the same name!

A more stunning example is "Theme From A Summer Place"; a phenomenal instrumental by Percy Faith - but a horrible, HORRIBLE beach movie, with an insipid Troy Donahue!

Nov 16, 2013 12:23am
Interesting article. I remember the song too. Thanks for writing this.
Nov 18, 2013 12:15am
What a blast from the past! A top rated trip down memory lane. I was a child and remember this song very well. Now we know the words to Sukiyaki thanks to you, Jeff. Thanks for all the videos you share. I will take my time after work to enjoy them. My name is Sue and I was often called Suki by older people.
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  1. J.D Considine "How K-pop Triumphed Over J-pop: A Swaggy Story of Underdog Ambition." Pop Dust. 29/October/2012. 14/9/2013 <Web >
  2. David Mas Masumoto "Sukiyaki - My American Song." The Fresno Bee. 20/07/2013. 17/09/2013 <Web >
  3. MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS "Saved By Sukiyaki." The Rafu Shimpo. 29/08/2013. 20/09/2013 <Web >
  4. Robert Michael Poole "Sukiyaki:Japan's Greatest Moment in Music, 50 Years on." BLOUIN ARTINFO. 17/06/2013. 12/09/2013 <Web >
  5. "The Complicated History of the Song Sukiyaki." Eurasian Sensation. 11/10/2010. 21/09/2013 <Web >

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