Kyu Sakamoto (坂本 九) was a Japanese singer and actor, best known outside of Japan for his international hit song “Ue o Muite Arukō” (known as “Sukiyaki” in English), which was sung in Japanese and sold over 13 million copies.
It reached number one in the United States Billboard Hot 100 in June 1963, making Sakamoto the first Asian recording artist to have a number one song on the chart.
Kyu Sakamoto was an extremely popular singer in Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and his recording of “Ue O Muite Arukō” had been a major domestic hit following its release in 1961.
Though that’s a sweet distinction to have, the translated lyrics to the million-selling song are anything but: “Sadness hides in the shadows of the stars / I look up when I walk so the tears wont fall….”
Sakamoto died on August 12, 1985, in the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history.
He was born in 1941, in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. He was the youngest of his father’s nine children, which is why he was nicknamed Kyūchan (九ちゃん), meaning “nine”.
In the summer of 1944, during the air raids over the greater Tokyo area, his mother took her children to live with their grandparents in rural Kasama. They moved back to Kawasaki in 1949. His father’s company had been closed by the American occupation forces and father opened a restaurant.
In 1956, his parents divorced. His mother was given custody over her minor children and they adopted the surname Oshima.
The older children kept their father’s name. He started playing in high school, but he soon began singing. He began singing in jazz clubs as a teenager.
In May 1958, when Sakamoto was 16 years old he joined the Japanese pop-band The Drifters that had been formed three years earlier. He was unhappy about his position in the band as second singer and this often led to fights with the other members.
His big breakthrough as a band member came 26 August 1958 when he sang at the annual music festival “Western Carnival” at the Nichigeki hall. After a quarrel that ended in a fight with two of the other members, he left the band in November 1958.
♪ Ashita ga arusa ♪
(There’s always tomorrow )
covered by Japanese comedians
♪ Miagete goran yoru no hoshi wo♪ (instrumental)
(See by looking up at the night stars)
In December 1958, he joined his classmate’s band called “Danny Iida and Paradise King”. He replaced as singer. “Danny Iida and Paradise King” and Sakamoto released their song “Kanashiki rokujussai” in 1960, which became a great hit.
In the time after they released a number of songs that became very popular. This led to Sakamoto obtaining a record deal at the Toshiba Records company and left “Danny Iida & Paradise King” aiming at a solo career.
Sakamoto’s solo career was inaugurated with the love song “Ue o Muite Arukō“ written by Rokusuke Ei and Hachidai Nakamura. The song was first heard on the NHK entertainment program “Yume de Aimashou” in 1961.
It was a great success and was released on a red vinyl on October . It remained the highest selling record until January 1962, three months after its release.
His international breakthrough came in 1963 during a visit to Japan by Louis Benjamin, owner of British record company Pye Records. Hearing the song several times, Benjamin decided to bring it back to England.
Due to concerns that the title would be too hard for English-speakers to pronounce or remember, the song was renamed “Sukiyaki“. The new title was intended to sound both catchy and distinctively Japanese, but had no actual connection to the song.
Initially, Pye Records released an instrumental version of the song recorded by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen. After it went on to become a hit in England, His Master’s Voice (HMV) released the original which also sold well, reaching sixth place in HMV’s most sold records.
Capitol Records released the song in the USA with the alternate title, eventually selling over one million copies, and remaining number one on the “Billboard Hot 100 number one single” for three weeks in June, 1963.
After the international success of “Sukiyaki”, Sakamoto went on a world tour that lasted from summer of 1963 to the beginning of 1964. Among the countries he visited were the United States (including Hawaii), Germany, and Sweden. During his time in the U.S., he was invited to appear in several television shows.
On 13 August 1963, he landed at Los Angeles International Airport and was a guest of The Steve Allen Show that evening. He was supposed to be a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show as well, but this appearance was canceled due to a scheduling conflict with the production of his upcoming movie.
Kyu Sakamoto had only one other song reach the U.S. charts, “China Nights (Shina no Yoru)” , which peaked at number 58 in 1963. His only American album, Sukiyaki and Other Japanese Hits , peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart (now known as the Billboard 200) in 1963 and remained on the Pop Albums chart for 17 weeks.
He received his sole foreign Gold Record of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) by Capitol Records on 15 May 1964 in Hotel Okura, Tokyo.
《Ue o Muite Arukou》
His most popular song, “Ue o Muite Arukou” (“I look up when I walk”) remains the only Japanese song to reach number one on the Billboard pop charts in the United States, a position it maintained for three weeks in 1963.
It was also the first ever Japanese language song to enter the UK charts, though it only climbed to number 6 with no further chart entries.
“Sukiyaki” has been covered multiple times over the years, beginning with the instrumental by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen.
♪ Sukiyaki ♪
♪ Sukiyaki ♪ by Diana King
♪ Sukiyaki ♪ by Sissel Kyrkjebø
Sukiyaki was also covered as an instrumental, by English pianist Johnny Pearson, during 1982. Well-known English-language cover versions include a 1981 cover by A Taste of Honey and a 1995 cover by 4 P.M., both of which made the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.
In 1989, Selena’s self-titled album contained a Spanish translation of the Taste of Honey cover which was released as a single in 1990.
The English lyrics have also appeared in whole or in part in songs by performers including Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh , Salt-n-Pepa , Snoop Dogg , Bone Thugs-N-Harmony , Raphael Saadiq , Mary J. Blige and Will Smith.
“Sukiyaki” is also the song played on the platform before the train doors close at Tomobe Station in Kasama, Ibaraki, Japan.
“Ue o Muite Arukou” was featured in the soundtrack of the 2011 Studio Ghibli film From Up on Poppy Hill. In one scene, an animated Kyu Sakamoto is seen performing the song on the television.
♪ Ue o Muite Arukō ♪ by kyu Sakamoto
Over 30 years have passed from the accident . We wish for the souls.
(A few passengers miraculously survived the plane crash.)