A number of American artists and bands have achieved significant success in Japan but very few Japanese musicians have become popular in the United States. In fact, only one Japanese artist has ever had a number one hit in the U.S.
Kyu Sakamoto was a popular crooner in his home country. He released “Ue O Muite Aruko,” (English translation: “I Look Up When I Walk”), in 1961 and it became the number one single of the year. English musician Kenny Ball heard the song and recorded it for release in the U.K. He and his record label figured that the original Japanese name would be too difficult to pronounce, so they issued the song with the generic title, “Sukiyaki.” Under its new name it reached the top ten.
In the United States, Sakamoto’s original version began to receive airplay on the west coast. Capital Records signed him to a recording contract but released the song under its British title. Fifty years ago this week it reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for three weeks. It would go on to become a huge worldwide hit, selling over 12 million copies.
It was a mid-tempo pop song that was very catchy and just stayed in your mind despite being sung in a foreign language. A number of singers tried to translate the song into English but none were successful. In 1981, A Taste Of Honey used the original melody but wrote different lyrics and took their version of the song to number three on the Hot 100 and number one both the Soul and Adult Contemporary charts.
He would only have one more small hit in the USA but remained a superstar in Japan. He issued eight best-selling albums and charted 15 singles. In addition he starred in a number of films and appeared regularly on television.
His career came to an abrupt end August 12, 1985, when he boarded Japan Airlines Flight 123. In the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history, he died along with 519 other people when the plane crashed approximately 44 minutes after take-off.
Kyu Sakamoto may be gone but he made history 50 years ago when his “Sukiyaki” topped the American music world.