Transcript 2: Sukiyaki

TRANSCRIPT, EPISODE 2: Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto

First released 8/26/2017

NOTE: THIS IS A PRE-RECORDING SCRIPT AND MAY NOT REFLECT THE SCRIPT FOR THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Hello, and welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a look at popular songs of the past and dives into their history, their meaning, or any other things that might be of interest surrounding those songs.

My name is Claude Call and I’m just some guy who’s interested in this sort of thing. If you are too, and you have any suggestions or questions of your own, please feel free to email me at HowGoodPodcast@gmail.com. You can also find me on Twitter @HowGoodItIsPod, and you can check out the website How Good It Is Dot Com for some additional tidbits about this show.

[FADE THEME]

You know, one of the things that I’ve always found especially delightful about the oldies is the variety of songs that can appear on the charts. For instance, in the second week of June 1963, these were the Top Ten songs in the Billboard Hot 100. Just check out how many different styles, genres and tones there are:

[BG: Montage]

  • At #10 we have 18 Yellow Roses by Bobby Darin sounding a lot like Marty Robbins.
  • Then we have the easy listening lounge track Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis at #9
  • The remarkably depressing Still by Bill Anderson at #8
  • Fortunately, at #7 you have an antidote: Nat King Cole’s Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer
  • Bobby Vinton held the #6 spot with Blue on Blue
  • Al Martino’s I Love You Because was at #5
  • The #4 song in mid-June of 1963 was Da Doo Ron Ron by The Crystals
  • #3 was You Can’t Sit Down by the Dovells. I love that organ swell at the beginning.
  • Lesley Gore had just dropped out of the top spot to land at #2,
  • And the #1 song of that week, the first of three weeks in the top slot, is the subject of today’s episode.

[BG: “Sukiyaki”]

 In today’s episode we’re going to look at the song “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto.

But let’s look back at that list for a moment: look again at the variey of stuff there. A couple of country songs, some genuine crooning, a Phil Spector tune, a song that’s going to spawn a sequel later on, and all of it capped off by a song that isn’t even in English! According to the Washington Post, which recently did an article about this, over the past 35 years, only 15 songs have made it into the Top 5 on the Billboard charts, with the most recent being Despacito, by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, with a little help from Justin Bieber. I’ve linked to that article on the website.

Sukiyaki is one of the best-selling singles of all time, with over 13 million copies having been sold. In addition to spending three weeks at #1 on the pop chart, it also did five weeks at the top of the “middle of the road” chart.

Now, I’m sure you realize that Sukiyaki is not really the song’s title. I’m sure I’m going to butcher it because I’m taking the music out of it, but the Japanese title is “Ue o Muite Arukō”,(ooh ee  oh  moo-oo ee te  ah ru ko)  which is the first line of several of the verses, and it means “I look up as I walk”. 

While Kyu Sakamoto is the singer of this song, he wasn’t the guy who wrote it. That honor belongs to Rokusuke Ei, who wrote the lyrics, and Hachidai Nakamura, who composed the music. And there’s a little bit of military history attached to this song.

[BG: F/O “Sukiyaki”]

In 1951, a Security Treaty was signed between the United States and Japan. This treaty completely disarmed Japan while at the same time giving the United States a military foothold in Asia that they didn’t previously have. Basically, America was entirely responsible for Japan’s defenses.

In 1959, there was talk of a new treaty of mutual cooperation and security between the two nations. This treaty was called Anpo.  The Anpo Treaty stirred up a lot of unrest in Japan, partly because it called for a continued US military presence there. In one demonstration, about 500 people got hurt in the clash between the demonstrators and the police. But this wasn’t the end of the pushback. There were protests throughout Japan that went on into 1960, even beyond the treaty’s May 19 ratification date. In fact, on June 15 there was another huge demonstration involving thousands of protestors that met with police resistance, and this time over 600 people were injured. President Eisenhower was scheduled to visit Japan a few days later, but cancelled at the Japanese government’s request.

Rokusuke Ei attended some of these protests, but he also saw the writing on the wall and realized just how ineffective they were. As he walked home he started putting together a song that vented his frustration, about a man who looks up while he’s walking, to prevent his tears from hitting the ground. He made a few changes to turn the song into a more generic tune of lost love, and later on Nakamura set it to music. Kyu Sakamoto recorded and released Ue o Muite Arukō (ooh ee  oh  moo-oo ee te  ah ru ko)  in 1961, and it absolutely burned up the charts in Japan.

[BG: Kenny Ball version]

So in 1962 a British man named Louis Benjamin heard the song when he was traveling in Japan, and he had his group Kenny Ball & his Jazzmen record an instrumental version for Pye Records, that made it to #10 on the UK charts. Benjamin was worried that English-speaking audiences might find the original title too difficult to remember or pronounce for that matter, so he gave it the new title of “Sukiyaki”. Sukiyaki, incidentally, is a dish consisting of thinly sliced beef or other meat which is slowly cooked at the table, along with some vegetables and other ingredients. It all goes into a shallow iron pot that has a mix of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, which is a sweet rice wine. So the food Sukiyaki has nothing whatsoever to do with the song. In fact, a columnist for Newsweek around that time suggested that calling this song “Sukiyaki” is a lot like issuing “Moon River” in Japan under the name “Beef Stew’.

So how did the Japanese version make it to our shores? Songfacts dot com says they heard from a woman named Marsha Cunningham. She said that in the early 1960s she was a high school student at the American School in Japan, and her dad was a pilot for Japan Air Lines. She heard the song while watching a movie that starred Kyu Sakamoto. She bought the record in a local store and then brought it back to the US the next year when she attended a girls’ boarding school in Sierra Madre. By then her dad, who also did some time as a disc jockey, was playing the Kenny Ball version, but switched to the Japanese version when he got ahold of the record. And because HE had trouble with the pronunciation, he also used the title “Sukiyaki”. Capitol Records finally secured the American rights to the record, and it went to the top spot for three weeks. 

[BG: End Kenny Ball, begin Sakamoto]

So what is the English translation of the song? Let’s listen and follow along:

Ue o muite arukou I look up as I walk,
Namida ga kobore nai you ni So that the tears don’t fall
Omoidasu haru no hi Remembering those spring days
Hitoribotchi no yoru But I am all alone tonight.
Ue o muite arukou I look up as I walk,
Nijinda hoshi o kazoete Counting the stars with tearful eyes
(also: count the blurry stars)
Omoidasu natsu no hi Remembering those summer days
Hitoribotchi no yoru But I am all alone tonight.
Shiawase wa kumo no ue ni   Happiness lies beyond the clouds  
Shiawase wa sora no ue ni   Happiness lies above the sky  
Ue o muite aruko   I look up when I walk  
Namida ga kobore nai you ni   So the tears won’t fall  
Nakinagara aruku   Though my heart is filled with sorrow
Hitoribotchi no yoru   For tonight I’m all alone  
(whistling)  
Omoidasu aki no hi   Remembering those happy autumn days  
Hitoribotchi no yoru   But tonight I’m all alone  
Kanashimi wa hoshi no kage ni   Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars  
Kanashimi wa tsuki no kage ni   Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon  
Ue o muite aruko   I look up when I walk  
Namida ga kobore nai yoo ni   So the tears won’t fall  
Nakinagara aruku Though my heart is filled with sorrow
Hitoribotchi no yoru But tonight I’m all alone

[BG: Allow Sakamoto to fade; start Jewel Akens]

The song has been covered several times. In 1966 Jewel Akens created an English-language version that’s not a hard translation but conveys a similar sentiment. This version peaked at #82 on the Hot 100:

[BG: Jewel Akens rolls for a bit, then F/O]

{BG: Start A Taste of Honey]

Then in 1980, the band A Taste of Honey was looking for a classic song to re-make in a style similar to Linda Ronstadt’s recent cover of “Ooh Baby Baby”. Band member Janice-Marie Johnson secured permission to write a new set of English lyrics for the song. There’s a rumor out there that she only got permission because she agreed not to receive credit or pay for the re-write, but I wasn’t able to nail that down. However, I can tell you that the record label credits her only for the US Arrangement of the music; she’s not given a writing credit. This version peaked at Number 3 in 1981 and remained on the charts for 24 weeks, which makes it their most successful single.

As far as Kyu Sakamoto, he got to tour the world on the strength of that single, and he remained popular in Japanese music and films until about 1975. Unfortunately, he was one of the victims of the Japan Air Lines Flight 123 crash in August of 1985, the second-deadliest aviation accident ever. He was only 43 years old.

You know, in preparing for these shows, sometimes I try out different bits on my family. And I was talking about this one with my wife, specifically the English translation of the Japanese lyrics. I think I ruined this one for her, because she thought of it as a jaunty, upbeat tune. But while I was preparing the audio for recording, she came in the room and said to me, “Is that the depressing Japanese song again?” So…sorry, honey.

And that’s it for this edition of How Good It Is. If you want to get in touch with me, you can email me at HowGoodPodcast@gmail.com,

Or you can follow me on Twitter at HowGoodItIsPod.

Or, you can check out the show’s website, How Good It Is Dot Com, where I throw in a few extra bits for you.

Next time, we’re going to discover how good it is to meet the woman who’s responsible for most of the Buckinghams’ hits.  

See you then.