In 1961, the song “ue o muite arukou” was released, performed by Sakamoto Kyū, music by Nakamura Hachidai and lyrics by Ei Rokusuke. NHK yesterday showed a documentary on the song, in which Sakamoto’s daughter travels the world in search of traces of her father and his music. Sakamoto Kyū died August 12, 1985 in an airplane crash near Tokyo.
The melancholy tune (lyrics here) first traveled westwards performed by Kenny Ball under the title “Sukiyaki”. From this point onwards, the curious title would never leave the song. It had nothing to do with the Japanese title, or the lyrics, at all, but was chosen merely because it was a Japanese word well-known in English-speaking parts of the world.
DJ Richard Osborne’s show on Pasco, WA, radio station KORD, picked up on “Sukiyaki”. Capitol Records got interested, and in 1963, “Sukiyaki” became number 1 in US charts. Sakamoto toured the US and appeared on TV shows.
Yesterday’s documentary showed some footage of the times, and interviews with people involved. Richard Osborne said he pushed the song because at those times, there were so many US soldiers coming back from Korea and Japan who could relate to its melancholy, and revive their fond Asian memories with it. A Japanese photographer who took pictures at Sakamoto’s arrival in the US, on the other hand, said that the WWII experiences of Japanese living in the US were a major factor in making the song popular: its major line, to walk forward while looking upwards so that tears in one’s eyes don’t drop down, caught on with people who had to preserve some sort of optimism while they were interned in concentration camps in the USA.
The tune is captivating. About half a year ago, I had it on my mind, knew it was from Japan, and just couldn’t for the life of me find out where I knew it from. By the way, the writer of the lyrics originally opposed Sakamoto’s performance because he found Sakamoto’s way of aspirating long vowel stretches (“aruko-ho-ho-ho-ho”) not properly Japanese, language-wise.