Monday, October 11, 2010

The complicated history of the song "Sukiyaki"

This is about the power of a beautiful melody to transcend the language barrier, and how a Japanese pop song somehow conquered the world numerous times in different guises.

Bizarrely, I think the first time I heard the distinctive melody of Sukiyaki was in Snoop Dogg's cover of Slick Rick's La Di Da Di, which interpolates the opening verse. But it was not until a little later that I would hear that verse in its proper context, when US R&B vocal quartet released a cover of Sukiyaki in 1994 which was a hit around the world. But as nice as the song sounded, I had to wonder why such a tender ballad of lovelorn longing was named after a Japanese beef hotpot dish. Is the song's protagonist, I wondered, really pining for a pot of sukiyaki that upped and left him?

Our story starts in 1961. The song was written by composer Hachidai Nakamura and lyricist Rokusuke Ei (allegedly after actress Meiko Nakamura had left him), and named Ue o muite aruko (sometimes rendered as Ue wo muite arukou), meaning "I shall walk looking up". It is about a man reminiscing on his lost love, and keeping his head to the sky to keep the tears from falling. It was sung by rising young star Kyu Sakamoto, at a time when kayokyoku (Western-influenced pop and rock) was rapidly becoming more popular in Japan. I've included the lyrics and their translation below; I think you'll agree that it's a beautifully written song.


Ue o muite arukou (I look up when I walk)
Namida ga kobore naiyouni (So the tears won't fall)
Omoidasu harunohi (Remembering those happy spring days)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)
Ue o muite arukou (I look up when I walk)
Nijinda hosi o kazoete (Counting the stars with tearful eyes)
Omoidasu natsunohi (Remembering those happy summer days)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)
Shiawase wa kumo no ueni (Happiness lies beyond the clouds)
Shiawase wa sora no ueni (Happiness lies above the sky)
Ue o muite arukou (I look up when I walk)
Namida ga kobore naiyouni (So the tears won't fall)
Nakinagara aruku (Though my heart is filled with sorrow)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)
(whistling)
Omoidasu akinohi (Remembering those happy autumn days)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)
Kanashimi wa hosino kageni (Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars)
Kanashimi wa tsukino kageni (Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon)
Ue o muite arukou (I look up when I walk)
Namida ga kobore naiyouni (So the tears won't fall)
Nakinagara aruku (Though my heart is filled with sorrow)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)

Understandably it was a massive hit in Japan, sitting atop the pop charts for 3 months. More surprisingly, it also became a big hit in the English speaking world, and reached number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart (it is still the only Japanese-language song ever to do so). It remains the biggest international hit by a Japanese singer.
It was when the song appeared in the US that it was renamed Sukiyaki, apparentlyly out of sheer cultural ignorance. Radio DJs decided that no one could pronounce "Ue o muite arukou", so they picked a Japanese word, seemingly at random, that they thought American consumers might be familiar with. Normally you would think that titling a love song "beef stew" would not be a great commercial move, but fortunately record buyers didn't care.
Now with such a great melody, obviously people wanted to sing it and record covers of it. But obviously, not everyone speaks Japanese, so several attempts were made to translate the lyrics into English and other languages.
One of the weirdest such versions was by The Blue Diamonds. These guys were a Dutch duo consisting of the two Indonesian-born brothers Ruud and Riem de Wolff (best known for their 1960 song Ramona, a big hit in Europe). I'm not quite sure why, but this is sung in German (not Dutch). My German has lapsed since high school, so I have no idea what this song is meant to be about, but I think it's safe to say that the lyrics are completely unrelated to the original.

 
The first decent attempt to translate the Japanese lyrics into English was on My First Lonely Night, by 60s soul man Jewel Akens. While it's not a direct translation, it captures the spirit of soldiering on through sadness in Rokusuke Ei's lyrics, even though the brassy soul style is very different to the Kyu Sakamoto original version.

 
Nonetheless, what is often now considered the "definitive" English language version, is the following song by A Taste of Honey. Otherwise known as a disco-funk act (their other big hit was Boogie Oogie Oogie), this was a real change of pace, but garnered them a big hit throughout the world in 1981. The new lyrics written by ATOH's lead singer/bassist Janice Marie Johnson are kinda cheesy and fall short of the artistry of the original; however, the words still have a certain musicality that is absent from Jewel Akens' version, making it easier to listen to and nicer to sing. This rendition from the variety show Solid Gold is also pretty high on the fromage; but seeing Janice Marie Johnson in a kimono with her hair done Japanese-style just does something for me. Sort of wrong but sexy.

The lyrics from ATOH's version popped up in an unlikely place in 1985; in La Di Da Di by Slick Rick and Doug E Fresh. If you haven't heard this song, it is very much "of its era", yet remains one of the all-time classic hip-hop joints, and bits of it have been sampled in countless other songs.

Not all versions of La Di Da Di have the Sukiyaki interpolation, actually. It featured on the original, but CD releases edited it out due to copyright issues.
While La Di Da Di is one of the most seminal hip-hop tracks in history, it was never actually a hit, commercially. Yet it was finally heard by the audience it deserved when Snoop Dogg covered it on his enormously popular debut album Doggystyle (renaming it Lodi Dodi), including the Sukiyaki section sang by a female vocalist.
The version best known to most people of my generation and younger seems to be the acapella rendition by 4PM, which again uses the lyrics written by Janice Marie Johnson. I must say I really like the harmonies on this, but the ultra-cheesy spoken bit almost ruins the experience for me - why must all these vocal groups feel the need to do that? Just because Barry White made it sound cool doesn't mean you can too... but I digress.
The below clip is 4PM performing the song on Japanese TV. Funny how it's come full circle.

 
 
If for some reason you still want to hear more versions, there are plenty out there. Try these:
A Spanish version by Mexican-American singer Selena
 Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen doing one of the very first covers, in instrumental big-band style 
A French version by Lucille Star
A live instrumental version on the accordion by prog-rock band Styx
60s pop group the Fabulous Echoes from Hong Kong covering the original Sakamoto version
Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Lodi Dodi"
 A Portuguese-language version by Trio Esperanca
A Brazilian version by Daniela Mercury, sung in Japanese

23 comments:

  1. A reggae version of Sukiyaki was huge when I was in Japan in 97 and I even bought the CD single. Some lass named Sayoko teamed up with Jamaican producer gods Sly and Robbie Dunbar. Still brings a smile to my face- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28aXh3TrKA8

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  2. Thanks bonoboboy. I guess it just proves that no matter the song, someone somewhere in the world has done a reggae version of it (preferably with a guy saying "Laad 'ave mercy!" on it)

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  3. I love this song. I remember the ATOH and the 4pm remakes. A few years ago I did some online searching to figure out what the hell Sukiyaki meant and learned about the history of the song. It is pretty awesome that a Japanese song was able to chart back in 1961.

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  4. In the early 1960's there was a contest that asked for american lyrics to this song. I was 16 and I entered and never thought much about it. Years later I heard one of the versions and I immediately knew the lyrics were mine. I am 65 now and have lived with this for all these years. When my daughter went to Japan she sent me a music box that played this tune. Wow I feel better now. You can believde this or not, but it is TRUE.

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    1. I have never responded to anything online, however this song brings tears to my eyes. I am 63 years old and Mother (I miss her so) gave me a music box when I young and I cherished it. Mom would sing the words of the music to me so often. It was a black painted music box with an oriental design and had a tiny beautiful ballerina that danced around and around. I loved this music box so much and as an adult in later year heard this music playing and cried my eyes out, as much for the beauty as for the sadness it now brings me, what bittersweet memories for me. I heard this song today while at work and again it brought tears to my eyes. Finally today I was able to learn the name and will search for this song, to listen to for the rest of my life. Thank You for mentioning the music box, it's my memory too. edee Russo-Maurer (PA)

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  5. I heard this song every time I went to the Airmens Club at Brady Air Base in Japan in 1957. I am now 77. My wife is from Japan and she remembers the song. Last night they were singing on a japanese channel NGN here in Hawaii.

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  6. Playing for change also has a version by assorted Japanese artists

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  7. for me defenetly the original song from Kyu Sakamoto is the most beautiful. But also the Blue Diamonds version is quite good. Here are the german words and a translation of them:

    Cover version Blue Diamonds:
    Beim Suki- Sukiyaki, in Naga- Nagasaki, (at a Suki- Sukiyaki, in Naga- Nagasaki)
    da sah ich sie und vergass alle Frau‘n der Erde, (there I saw her and forgot all women on earth)
    denn sie war schön, unsagbar schön, (because she was beautiful, unspeakable beautiful)
    dass ich von ihr nur träumen werde. (that I will dream only of her)
    Zum Suki- Sukiyaki, in Naga- Nagasaki (to a Suki- Sukiyaki, in Naga- Nagasaki)
    lud sie mich ein in ihr Haus dort im Blütengarten, (she invited me to her house there in the flowergarden)
    und als sie ging trug sie den Ring (and as she left she wore the ring)
    und wollte immer auf mich warten. (and wanted always to wait for me)
    Sag mir Tamiko, bleibt die Liebe bestehen? (tell me Tamiko, will love remain?)
    Sag mir Tamiko wenn auch Jahre vergehen? (tell me Tamiko, when years pass by?)
    Beim Suki- Sukiyaki, in Naga- Nagasaki, (at a Suki- Sukiyaki, in Naga- Nagasaki)
    denke ich noch heut an die Zeit vor so vielen Jahren (I’m thinking still today at the time so many years ago)
    mein Herz ist schwer, ihr Haus ist leer (my heart is aching, her house is empty)
    wo wir so froh und glücklich waren (where we were so glad and happy)
    wo wir so froh und glücklich waren (where we were so glad and happy)

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    1. Wow! So the German/Dutch version is the one that first associated the song with Sukiyaki? (The Dutch version is about a girl in Nagasaki at a Sukiyaki shop)

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  8. I remember when this song came out. It was just so lovely that while people did wonder what it was about, nobody cared all that much, that they couldn't sing the lyrics. Everybody just loved it, could feel it's sincerely and there was an awe & respect in the regular American nuclear family. It doesn't surprise me that radio folks who knew that just about zero Americans spoke Japanese, would however choose a rhythmically catchy word that they knew Americans were familiar with from ordering it for dinner, as it's title. Maybe that was disrespectful to the artist and culture but I don't think it was in any way meant to be. And, I can promise you that everyone who is between the ages of 50 and 80 that grew up in the USA will say yes, (probably with enthusiasm), when you ask them if they remember the song Sukiyaki.

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    1. I also remember this song when I was very young went to the movies and it was played in a movie but I cant remember the name of the movie .. I have always remembered this song and I remember in movie Japanese woman still in my mine today.. Just wish I could find out the name of the movie ?

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  9. There is a second underlying meaning in the song since Sakamoto came up with the idea returning from participating in a (unsuccessful) student protest against the "Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan". So basically he is crying since his home country has now fully bowed down to the American oppressors. So many years later that is hard to grasp for us (especially since I am not Japanese either) but in the early sixties after having had two nuclear bombs dropped on your fellow countrymen and being basically ruled by the "American devils" it makes sense in light of the Japanese mindset of that time.

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    1. American devils? In WW-II Japan killed 15,000,000 people, for this she paid in return only 2,500,000 people. If the Stalinist or Maoist showed up she would have learned all about devils. They were blessed to get us. We not only helped them regain their feet but made them a forward fortress for our freedom and theirs. Bombing civilians all through her (Japan's) Holy War was not a problem for her. And if by chance she had acquired the A-Bomb she would have used it liberally and you would (if your parents survived) be a second class citizen in a vary imperialistic realm. - tics

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    2. American devils was in quotes Graylock. the statement was "it makes sense [the lyrics and the emotion] in light of the Japanese mindset at the time." I want you think about that and then think about how gratifying your childish mental masterbation. Then complete an essay on the future in mankind in terms of its 'jungle heritage' juxtapositioned to technological advances in weapons of massive destruction. u dig?

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  10. When this song came out, I remember a Los Angeles DJ playing an old 78 rpm country song with the same tune. He claimed that Japanese song had borrowed the melody from a country standard. Has anyone else heard this?

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  11. I am now 57, and just tripped down memory lane singing the original in Japanese even though I don't know Japanese a lick! But a pal on my Sing app by Smule, sent it out so I was able to halfway follow along and it sure took me back to when my mom and real dad were still married and I seem to remember it being sung while the girl danced with an umbrella on the Ed Sullivan show. I used to try to dance and sing it, too, just like I saw it on tv when I was 3 or 4 years old. Maybe it was in American Bandstand cuz I watched that all the time. The very first love of my life sent me a beautiful music box when he was stationed in Japan and it played this with the twirling ballerina like two other ladies mentioned on here. That song really took me away when I heard it and tried to sing it! It was awesome to finally sing the actual Japanese words to it earlier this evening!

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  12. I've just heard the song again after many years on BBC Radio 4's Soul Music programme. The song left me feeling so happy but wistful, especially after finding out that Kyu Sakamoto died in an air disaster in 1985. I played the song again and again on the internet and shed a few tears, perhaps for the loss of such a talented singer, and the loss of a period of time that seemed happier and less complicated. This is a beautiful song, may more young people find it and love it as much as we do.

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  15. I have been following a group of what I believe are street performers. They perform in clubs on streets and in private sessions in the Tokyo\Yokohama area. Recently, I managed to view a clip of them playing this song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8fe4sHIeBQ). I was around sixteen when this song hit the US. My friends and I loved the song because we believed it was about a fourteen year old girl. Does anyone remember hearing it that way. I believe that is the reason the song sold in the English speaking world. PS - I follow them for my Blog - Ilands of Dreams--- tics

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  16. Three things have made me think of this song in the last year or so. First, I've been watching "The Man in the High Castle" on Amazon. Great show, what if Germany and Japan had won the war. While the Germans are truly the bad guys, the Japanese are occupying the west cost.

    Second, my daughter took Japanese in high school, kind of out of the blue. She wasn't a great student, but in college found out she needed at least 3 years of language, so she took another year. This time she enjoyed it more and actually got into it.

    Third, my son decided to go to Tokyo next week on a lark. He's a commercial pilot and gets the benefit of free flight.

    So all of this together always put this song in my head. Yesterday we are all eating at a casual French restaurant and this song came on, and I tell my wife that it had been going through my head occasionally. She was totally unfamiliar with it. I had to look it up, so here I am.

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  17. My wife and I were recently in
    Branson, where we attended a Shoji Tbuchi show. He played this song on his fiddle while his daughter sang vocals. It was a beautiful version of the song, which I now have on my jukebox. I wound up on this link while seeking information about what the song was about. Turns out it has quite a history.

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  18. I believe a version of Sukiayaki by Ane Brun singing whilst backed up by a house band is a wonderul rendition.

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