The United States has a reputation for being an insular country. But Americans’ lack of knowledge about international politics or foreign cultures pales when compared with the entertainment bottleneck created by U.S.-produced pop culture. Apart from a few niche outlets for British and Spanish-language television, networks air American shows exclusively. Only a narrow segment of film buffs seeks out subtitled movies. And while pop music may be the medium most receptive to foreign imports, only songs with English-language lyrics stand a chance at making the mainstream charts. The occasional exceptions, such as Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),” are those sung in melodious Romance languages.
As a result, it’s somewhat heartening to see how U.S. audiences embraced “Sukiyaki.” The Japanese language wasn’t as familiar to 1960s Americans as, say, Italian or French, and any Japanese-style flourishes in Western music were generally confined to kitschy exotica. Yet apart from the Japanese lyrics, “Sukiyaki” (originally titled “Ue o muite arukō,” or “I Shall Walk Looking Up”) sounds like it could have been recorded anywhere in the world. Much of the song’s crossover appeal can be traced to Kyu Sakamoto’s expressive vocals. The upbeat arrangement belies the melancholy lyrics: the singer walks looking up to keep the tears from falling from his eyes. Sakamoto’s voice betrays just a hint of that sadness beneath the the whistling and the jaunty horns. Likewise, the song’s gentle melody is catchy yet far more mournful than anything in a major key has a right to be. “Sukiyaki” succeeds because it can be perfectly understood without knowing a word of Japanese. Regardless of language, heartbreak is universal. 7
Hit #1 on June 15, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
92 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 9.43% through the Hot 100