“Sukiyaki (Japanese title: Ue wo muite arukou - 1962) by Kyu Sakamoto

One of the things that I have missed about Japan after moving outside of Japan in 2003 are Japanese songs. I don’t have many CDs of Japanese songs and don’t have many opportunities to hear Japanese songs in the media here in Canada.

That’s why I had to stop cooking when the song “Sukiyaki” came on the French radio channel recently.

The song which was originally titled “Ue wo muite arukou (I look up when I walk)” in Japanese was written by Rokusuke Ei, composed by Hachihiro Nakamura and sung by Kyu Sakamoto in 1961. It is said that Kyu Sakamoto was given the score two hours before his recital and sang the song on the spot. Surprisingly, although the record sold well, his singing style was not well received in the conservative Japanese singing world at the time.

The English title “Sukiyaki” seems to have been given when it was introduced in the UK in 1962. In fact, “Sukiyaki” is the name of a Japanese dish and has nothing to do with this song. I couldn’t figure out why this song was called “Sukiyaki” in English the first time I listened to the English version.

It has been suggested that it was entitled “Sukiyaki” because it’s catchy and more familiar to English speakers, which sounds funny to me, but it worked. If they had kept the original title “Ue wo muite arukou”, this song would not have been so famous in the English-speaking world.

The song itself is a wonderful piece of work, full of charm, but there is another factor which makes this song even more popular outside of Japan. It’s Kyu Sakamoto’s unfortunate life. He was killed in the Japan Airlines Flight 123 plane crash in 1985. He was only 43 years old. When “Sukiyaki” is introduced on the radio, the tragedy of the plane crash is always mentioned.

In this world, there are lots of songs which have been loved for a long time. You may be surprised that some of the world’s most popular songs have sad lyrics and so do the original Japanese lyrics in “Sukiyaki”. Kyu Sakamoto, who sang “Happiness is over the clouds’” in a husky voice, has gone above the clouds and never returned.