Kyu Sakamoto’s Sukiyaki – the First and Only International Hit in Japanese (Yes, you know it. Wait until you hear the melody.)

Kyu Sakamoto, crooner of hit song, Sukiyaki, visiting the Olympic Village in 1964. From the book,
Kyu Sakamoto, crooner of hit song, Sukiyaki, visiting the Olympic Village in 1964. From the book, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964”.
It hit number one on the American Billboard Hot 100 in June, 1963. Number 1. And not a word in English. The title – Sukiyaki – had nothing to do with the song lyrics.

The man who sang this international hit was Kyu Sakamoto, pictured above hanging out with Aussie athletes at the Olympic Village. During the Olympics, Sakamoto performed the song on Swedish television – live – which was a big deal in those days.

The song was first released in the Fall of 1961 under the title, Ue o Muite Aruko (上を向いて歩こう), and enjoyed number 1 status for several months until early 1962. The owner of a British record label heard the song in Japan, and likely due to its catchy melody, thought there would be an audience in England, despite the fact that the song was in Japanese. The record owner’s instincts, including the decision to re-name the song after a popular Japanese dish, were superb as the record hit #6 on the charts in Britain, as well as #1 in countries like Australia, Canada and Norway.

By the time the Summer Games in Tokyo rolled around in 1964, many an Olympian would have been familiar with the song, Sukiyaki.

While Sakamoto travelled the world singing his hit song, appearing on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, he never climbed beyond one-hit-wonder status. And at the young age of 42, Sakamoto died spectacularly in the deadliest plane crash in Japan’s history, the Japan Airlines Flight 123 that slammed into a mountain side in Gunma, Japan, ending the lives of 505 people on board.

The cheerful title (Look Up and Walk) and melody belies the lyrics, which describe a man smiling and whistling through pain and loss, holding the tears at bay as he contemplates another night alone. Listen to Sakamoto’s syrupy version above. Get uplifted by the cheery melody. You’d never think the song is about pain.

Below is a version of the song in English by Jewel Akens in 1966, which also proved to be popular.