Japanese Song of the Day – “Sukiyaki,” or “ue wo muite arukou (I’ll Walk Looking Up)” by Kyu Sakamoto

Well, you all knew this one was coming. 🙂

First off, if you’re curious about more of the history behind this song and Kyu Sakamoto’s career, PLEASE get yourself a copy of “Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon” by Michael Bourdaghs. It’s a great history of Japanese popular music from World War II to the 1980’s, and it goes into many biographical & political that I personally am not nearly as well-researched in. It covers not just Kyu Sakamoto in-depth but also the fantastic and legendary Misora Hibari, and it goes into trends such as the eleki boom, group sounds, and cover pop. It’s a friendly read, as well, and I highly recommend it.

Moving on, in 1961 Sakamoto recorded the single “ue wo muite arukou,” kind of a departure from his previous work – he was most famous for Elvis covers and western-inspired rock & roll.  American soldiers stationed in Japan loved him.

In 1963, the late Kenny Ball recorded a version of “ue wo muite arukou” because he liked the melody so much. He renamed the track “Sukiyaki” for his release – something recognizably Japanese, but easier for English speakers to remember & say in conversation.

A few months later, Kyu Sakamoto’s original version was released in the US and UK. The song reached #1 on the Billboard Charts in the US, the first and so far only Japanese song to do so.

More covers have been done of this song than I can possibly count or share, but here are some notable ones.

The Ventures – Sukiyaki (1963)

This instrumental cover captures the melancholy of the song very well. The Ventures were a surf-rock instrumental group in the 60’s that no one in the US really remembers, but – and I’m not exaggerating here – they’re the reason Japan decided the electric guitar was cool. So Japan still loves these guys. It’s appropriate that they’d cover “Sukiyaki.”

Jewel Akens – My First Lonely Night (1966)

I LOVE this English version because the lyrics are much, much closer to the original song. I will never understand why A Taste of Honey’s version of Sukiyaki is the one everyone covers. It’s nice, but… this captures the spirit of the original song so much better.

A Taste of Honey – Sukiyaki (1982)

This version is the one everyone knows, or knows a cover of.

4PM – Sukiyaki (1994)

My introduction to Sukiyaki, when I was a kid this got a ton of radio airplay. And the group are nothing special but I never forgot this melody. So it hooked me same as everyone else, it seems!

“Sukiyaki” has been covered by plenty more artists both in the US and Japan, and continues to endure thanks to appearances in commercials, movies, TV shows, and video games. It’s a real classic, and it’s a song I like studying & looking at because it bridged the gap between the US and Japan, musically, in a way that hasn’t happened since. Not even when Pink Lady came around 16 years later…

But more on that next time. 🙂

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