Multiple songs in Italian, Spanish, and French have ascended the US Top 40, but Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” remains the first, and only, Japanese song ever to crack the charts—and it went straight to number 1 for three weeks in June of 1963. (Oddly, it wasn’t the only foreign-language song to top the charts that year—“Dominique” by The Singing Nun climbed to Number 1 for four weeks in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, simultaneously comforting and irritating millions. One month later, in February of 1964, The Beatles spearheaded the British Invasion and the musical landscape changed forever.)
Sakamoto originally released “Ue o Muite Arukō” (上を向いて歩こう)—which literally translates as “Looking Up As I Walk”—in Japan in 1961 where it became a massive best-seller. When the British record company, Pye Records, released an instrumental version by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen, they changed the song’s original title to the shorter “Sukiyaki,” believing an English-speaking audience would find it easier to remember. When Capitol Records later released Sakamoto’s version in the US, they decided to keep the amended title. In point of fact, the word sukiyaki has no relationship whatsoever to the actual lyrics since the song is patently not about a Japanese hot pot dish. The basic premise has the narrator looking up and whistling to keep his tears from falling, a case of laughing to keep from crying. It’s certainly a jaunty tune and it’s surprising Bobby Darin never tackled it with English lyrics since the melody and orchestration sound tailor-made for his style.
The song has been re-recorded numerous times in different languages, almost none of which are literal translations. The melody always stays the same but songwriters add their own twist to the lyrics. The two biggest hits in the US subsequent to Sakamoto were English-language versions by A Taste Of Honey in 1981—you might know them as the ladies who insisted you boogie oogie oogie until boogieing no longer remained a viable option—and by 4 P.M. in 1994. (Did anyone realize their name means 4 Positive Music? Does anyone even remember them at all? Aside from my wife, that is, an expert in all things 90s R & B, who replied, “Of course.”)
Here’s the original, putting on a happy face, holding back the tears, complete with whistling solo:
1963 is one of my favorite years for pop songs. I love both “Sukiyaki” and “Dominique”—and have since childhood—and I would have added 20 more songs from this year if an adequate excuse had presented itself.