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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Japan's Only Song To Reach Billboard's No. 1

Despite having achieved a certain vintage, I still maintain a youthful exterior (the interior is getting old and wrinkly), and can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing a lot about a Japanese singer who's Japanese-language song hit No. 1 in the United States Billboard Hot 100 in June of 1963… because I wasn't born yet.

Let's meet Sakamoto Kyu (坂本 九)… no… waitaminute… that was his stage name… meet Oshima Hisashi (大島 九), who was born in Kawasaki-shi, Kanagawa-ken on December 10, 1941. That's him on the record cover above.

He sang the song 'Ue o Muite Arukō'… sold over 13-million copies… and with his Billboard top ranking, he became the first Asian recording artist to be top of the charts.

13-million? That makes it one of the top-selling songs ever. It's still the only Japanese-sung song to be No. 1 on the chart, though others have boarded.

For whatever reason, in western markets, the song Ue o Muite Arukō was renamed as Sukiyaki.

Sukiyaki (鋤焼, or すき焼き) is a traditional Japanese meal consisting of sliced meat, veggies and a soy sauce, sugar and mirin mix - all placed into and cooked slowly at the dinner table in a hot pot known as nabemono.

I've had it a few times… and while it is torture for hungry people to have to sit at a table and smell the food slowly simmering beside you while your stomach's growling makes conversation both difficult and uneasy, sukiyaki is a wonderful cold-weather dish that satisfies the tastebuds.

Despite me crowing about the taste delights of sukiyaki, at no time whatsoever does the word or implication of a nabemono meal occur in Sakamoto-san's song with the bastardized western title.

The song is not about sukiyaki at all.

So… what's with the name? Near as I can determine, the word was chosen because it would be a hell of a lot easier for western Radio DJs (disc jockeys) to say than "Ue o Muite Arukō".

The song, when translated to English has three interpretations as to its deep meaning:

  1. the mindset of a man facing execution;
  2. someone trying to be optimistic despite life's trials;
  3. the story of an ended love affair.
The 45RPM single. He sure looks happier than the lyrics he is singing.
So… lyrically, Sukiyaki is about a man who looks up and whistles while he walks so that his tears will not fall.

Been there…. but I can't whistle when I cry.

Okay… while Sakamoto could have been singing about stepping in dog poop while thinking about molesting his blow-up doll—because, outside of Japan, few people on the planet had any inkling as to what he was actually singing about… just that they liked the music and the way it was sung.

Original Japanese lyrics were penned by Ei Rokusuke, who had attended a protest against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (日本国とアメリカ合衆国との間の相互協力及び安全保障条約 Nippon-koku to Amerika-gasshūkoku to no Aida no Sōgo Kyōryoku oyobi Anzen Hoshō Jōyaku)… or better known in Japan as Anpo jōyaku (安保条約).

The treaty would allow the U.S. to exert its right over Japan on domestic issues, and so much more. What it was meant to do, however was tell other countries, that if you attack Japan, you also attack the U.S… but you can see how it also allowed the U.S. to maintain military bases in Japan.

Effective as of May 19, 1960, it is still in effect today, but can be voided should one of the two parties provide the other with one year's notice.

What the fug? I just wanted to write a Japanese song with a stupid nonsensical title.

Anyhow, so while the non-specific song lyrics could have three meanings, there's the fourth, describing Japan's loss of identity in the face of the U.S.

How sublime that the song became No. 1 in the U.S.

If you have ever heard a version of the song by A Taste Of Honey with English words - be aware that these lyrics are not translated from the original Japanese ones, and are entirely new, accompanying the same musical melody.

If we were to translate the original Japanese lyrics as penned by Ei and sung by Sakamoto and found on Wikipedia, we would have:

"I keep my eyes to the sky as I walk, so my tear drops never fall. Remember the spring day, alone at night.
I keep my eyes to the sky as I walk, I can't count the stars through the tears. Remember the summer day, alone at night.
Happiness lies above the clouds, Happiness lies above the sky.
I keep my eyes to the sky as I walk, so my tear drops never fall. Crying while I walk, alone at night.
Remember the autumn day, alone at night.
Sorrow lies in the shadow of the stars, sorrow lies in the shadow of the moon.
I keep my eyes to the sky as I walk, so my tear drops never fall. Crying while I walk, alone at night."

Yeah… if this is about the U.S presence in Japan, Ei's lyrics are definitely not biting.

Here's the song with English lyrics:

Holy crap!!!!

After listening to it just now, I recall that this song was always sung around me by my friend boss Hanazaki-san of the Ohtawara Board of Education!!!!

He had always told me it was a famous Japanese song, but until just now I never put ni + ni together (2+2). That makes me smile... I miss that guy, and wonder if he is well. Hey Matthew! Please ask Pops for me, if Hanazaki-san of the OBOE is hale and healthy!

I'm not going to babble on about Sakamoto's teenaged years et al, suffice to say that after being in various bands with lousy names, he went it alone. The song "Ue o Muite Arukō" was played on the Japanese NHK radio program Yume de Aimashou on August 16, 1961 (I only mention the program name for Mike Rogers who might have some interest in knowing stuff like this).

Released on red vinyl (a red record), for three months the song remained Japan's highest-selling record.

But the big break came about in 1963 when a Great Britain's Pye Records owner Louis Benjamin was visiting Japan and heard "Ue o Muite Arukō" and decided to bring it back and play it for the U.K.

Benjamin was the one who renamed it Sukiyaki, and even I who can sound out Japanese words well enough find the phrase to be slightly cumbersome.

The song was released in the U.K. as an instrumental by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, which makes sense… who the hell wants to hear Japanese… it could give some people awful WWII flashbacks.

It became a hit. So HMV (His Master's Voice - that's the dog listening to his master voice in the Victrola horn - Nipper… was that his name?) released the original Japanese version… and sold well, reaching sixth for most sold records. In the U.S., via Capitol Records it sold one-million copies, and did its time at the top of the charts.

He did live guest spots on television shows in the U.S., Germany and Sweden to name a few, appearing on The Steve Allen Show on August 13, 1963.

Sakamoto had a second song—Shina no Yoru (China Nights)—reach the Billboard Hot 100, getting no higher than No. 58.

His only American album reached No. 14 on the Billboard Pop Album chart (now the Billboard Top 200), remaining on the chart for 17 weeks.

He received a gold record for Sukiyaki/"Ue o Muite Arukō" - for foreign record sales in 1964, and appeared live at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics via satellite, as he was actually in Sweden at the time on a TV show there.

He was married in 1971 to Japanese actress Kashiwagi Yukiko (surname first—she's was pretty hot), and they had two kids.

While Wikipedia says that Sakamoto passed away on August 12, 1985 at the young age (relative to myself) of 43, I say he died violently as he was one of the passengers of Japan Airlines Flight 123… the deadliest single-aircraft disaster in aviation history.

This was a flight from Tokyo to Osaka… with the Boeing 747SR aircraft suffering explosive decompression 12 minutes into the flight, and then crashing into Mount Takamagahara in Gunma-ken some 32 minutes later.

Fifteen crew and 505 of the 509 passengers died… many simply because it was a tough place for rescuers to reach.

What caused the crash? It was determined (eventually) that faulty repairs to a tailstrike (when the tail of the plane hits the ground when the plane's nose is lifted too quickly)… an accident and repair that happened seven years earlier.
Japan Airlines Flight 123 seen here missing its tail after the explosion took out the tail and hydraulic controls.

The leaky repair job caused the explosive decompression in the rear of the plane - exploding it like a bomb… causing most of the tail to rip away.. causing a loss of hydraulics… meaning the plane was nearly impossible to fly.

Holy crap… we've been all over the place with this blog. Music, food, U.S. power in Japan, and Aviation.

Yeah… for Sakamoto and the rest of those poor people on that plane, happiness lies above the clouds…

If you are so-minded, you can pay your respects to Sakamoto at the Chōkoku-ji (Chōkoku Temple) in Minato, Tokyo.

Andrew Joseph


  1. Unlike you, I was already born when this song was a hit (though I was teeny toddler). Recognized the tune immediately -- but I couldn't quite place where I'd heard it recently. Then I remembered my husband has been watching "The Man in the High Castle" and the song is played in an early episode. That's an interesting show ...

    1. I saw a few minutes of the first episode and was blown away. I watch baseball, basketball and hockey and TV series and we only have the one idiot box so I have to wait till people go to sleep before I can watch stuff they don't want to watch. LOL! That's cool that they used it in that show. It IS a nice song lyrically and musically.

  2. Replies
    1. When it comes to trivia, I'm full of it. LOL!
      yes, His Master's Voice. And Nipper is the mascot's name. It was one of those early companies to go all short and sweet with the nickname... like A&P (he Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company,), KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), HBC (Hudson's Bay Company), BMO (Bank of Montreal), HSBC (Hong Kong Bank of China)... plenty of those brand names that we just take for granted. Miss you here.