92) Kyu Sakamoto – “Sukiyaki”

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


Filed under 07, 1963

9 responses to “92) Kyu Sakamoto – “Sukiyaki”

  1. Shayne

    I always thought the vocalist was female! Interesting.

    I first came to this song through the mid-90s R&B cover. I still like it…

  2. I think I first became aware of “Sukiyaki” through the cover by A Taste of Honey (1981). Their version’s in English, has a female singer and is very R&B ballad. I’m guessing that the cover you heard was modeled on the Taste of Honey version rather than the Kyu Sakamoto original.

  3. I’ve always loved this song and Sakamoto’s expressive vocals. The music arrangement sounds kind of Bert Kaempfert – y. I wonder what he would have sounded like backed by a small combo. Imagine The Shadows backing him. Now that’s a mash-up.

  4. Wow, The Shadows – that’s quite an idea! Maybe he’d get Cliff Richard-level success as well.

  5. What a wonderful song! I can’t believe I hadn’t heard it before… Not a mainstay of oldies radio, I guess.

  6. Craig

    Two more oddities about this song. No where in the song is the dish know as “Sukiyaki” mentioned. I think the U.S. record company simply chose a Japanese word that many Americans already knew.

    And Sakamoto died in 1985 in an airline crash. He was able to scribble a fairwell note to his wife as the plane was going down.

  7. GeorgeL

    This is such a cool song. Also love the Taste of Honey version. I have a CD by jazz/pop singer Bobby Caldwell. He does a cool remake which is patterned after the original & he sings the original English translation of the lyrics. When TOH did their version, they wrote new English lyrics.

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  9. Joshua K.

    @Craig: You are correct that the U.S. record company just assigned the song a familiar Japanese word as the title. In The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Fred Bronson said it was as though a Japanese record company released “Moon River” under the title “Beef Stew”.

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