Lost in translation: Kyu Sakamoto, “Sukiyaki” (1963)

kyu-sakamoto-ueo-muite-arukou-la-voix-de-son-maitre

(Above: The French 45 cover, replete with vaguely racist font.)

In June of 1963 a catchy song that very few Americans could sing went to the top of the pop charts and stayed there for three weeks. That song was “Sukiyaki.” Actually, that’s not entirely accurate; the song is really titled “Ue o Muite Aruko” and translates approximately to “I Look Up When I Walk.” It might have been a good thing that the lyrics weren’t widely known as it is not a happy song by any means:

————–

I look up when I walk so the tears won’t fall
Remembering those happy spring days
But tonight I’m all alone

I look up when I walk
Counting the stars with tearful eyes
Remembering those happy summer days
But tonight I’m all alone

Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Happiness lies above the sky

I look up when I walk so the tears won’t fall
Though my heart is filled with sorrow
For tonight I’m all alone

(Whistling)

Remembering those happy autumn days
But tonight I’m all alone

Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars
Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon

I look up when I walk so the tears won’t fall
Though my heart is filled with sorrow
For tonight I’m all alone


Fortunately, the song was catchy as hell, right down to the whistling interlude, and sold, in total, about 18 million copies in the 54 years since.  It’s also been redone many times since then. The first attempt to cash in was from Jewel Akens, who sang an English-language set of lyrics that hints at the actual translation but isn’t quite as depressing. It’s not a bad version if you look past the oft-used racist musical signature that signals all things Asian at the beginning.  (You know it when you hear it: the “ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-neee-neee-neee” theme.  What is that, anyway, and how did it come to signify the Orient? Throw a gong on it, and you’ve set a mood.) The song also was a hit for A Taste of Honey in the early ’80s and 4PM in the ’90s, and has been covered dozens of other times.

Ironically, the song has nothing to do with Sukiyaki at all.  The literal translation of “sukiyaki” is “grilling on a plowshare.” In America at the time, it was a term given to a Japanese dish.  The word was thrown on to the song as a title since, frankly, it was a Japanese word with no negative connotation that people recognized. A critic with Newsweek at the time of the record’s release lamented the choice as “equivalent to releasing ‘Moon River’ in Japan and calling it “beef stew.”

The sad song has one other sad ending.  In 1985 Kyu Sakamoto was a passenger on Japan Airlines Flight 123. Shortly after takeoff the flight suffered a decompression and crashed, killing all 520 people aboard. The accident remains the greatest loss of life in an accident involving a single airplane.

You can hear Kyu Sakamoto’s hit version of “Sukiyaki” by clicking here.

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