There is an old song English speakers know as Sukiyaki, and it has a remarkable story. After leaving a band to seek a solo career under Toshiba Records, Kyu Sakamoto recorded the song, known in Japan as Ue o Muite Arukō (Look Up As I Walk), and it became the number #1 hit in the country in the year of 1961. That was just the beginning.
The song made its way to the United Kingdom in 1962 thanks Louis Benjamin, a British music executive. The instrumental version was played by Kenny Ball, an English jazz musician.
However, the most intriguing thing about the song’s success overseas was the name. Kenny Ball considered the original translation of the title (“Look Up As I Walk” or “Look Up As I Walk”) to be quite long. Here is where stories start to differ. While common knowledge states that Kenny Ball renamed the song to Sukiyaki because it was a Japanese dish he loved, other versions state that Kenny Ball did not know many words in Japanese besides “Sayonara” and “Sukiyaki”, but “Sayonara” was not necessarily a cheerful word. So, “Sayonara” it was. Regardless of the version, one thing overlaps in both stories: the word “Sukiyaki” was considered to be catchy and easy to remember.
The titled giving to the song outside Japan is, of course, ridiculous since the song itself deals with feeling of sadness, loneliness, and melancholy, it never mentions the famous Japanese dish. However, the song did end up becoming a hit that rose Kyu Sakamoto to international stardom.
Eventually, the song reached the number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, staying on the top position for three weeks. This feat was and still is amazing considering how difficult it is for non-English songs to enter the Top 10, let alone top the chart.
In fact, as of March 2020, Sukiyaki is one of only 20 songs to have entered the Top 10 on the Billboard Top 100 Chart, of which seven reached Number 1. Of the seven songs that have topped the chart, only Sukiyaki is in Japanese.
The beautiful song is about the sadness someone feels, having to walk with their face up so that tears don’t fall. The lyrics are ambiguous enough to be interpreted and felt differently by various listeners. After all, feelings of melancholy and disillusion can be tied to many experiences. However, most consider the song to be about love. Regardless of the interpretations, lyricist Rokusuke Ei wrote the song while returning home from a failed demonstration that opposed The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan.
Sukiyaki ended up becoming one of the best-selling songs of all time, having sold over 13 million copies.
The song’s success continued even after the 60s, resulting in various covers around the world. Of these, A Taste of Honey’s version (whose lyrics are not a direct translation of the original song), reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
Sadly, Kyu Sakamoto died at the age of 43 in the Japan Airlines Flight 123 crash, which resulted in the deaths of 520 people. As of 2020, this continues to be the deadliest single-aircraft accident in the history of aviation.
Sakamoto’s song continues to be legendary in his homecountry, being recognized by people from various generations and appearing in many movies including Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill.