LOS ANGELES (Kyodo) If one had to come up with an internationally popular Japanese song, “Sukiyaki (Ue-o Muite Aruko)” would certainly come to mind. It was the first Japanese song to get a Gold Record in the U.S., in 1963, with 1.3 million records sold in about 70 countries.
The song’s success came at a time when Japan was frantically trying to catch up with the rest of the world after World War II.
Surprisingly, the song (words and music by Rokusuke Ei and Hachidai Nakamura and originally sung by Kyu Sakamoto) is still being recorded by musicians all over the world. Why is it so popular?
Janice Marie Johnson, the lead singer of Taste of Honey, who won the Grammy Award in 1979 for Best New Artist of the Year, was one of the first to find success with a new version of “Sukiyaki.”
Major record companies, however, had initially turned down her version because they thought it did not cater to their markets. Taste of Honey was known then as a popular disco group, and there was not a general interest in Japanese songs.
However, “Sukiyaki” was so important to Johnson that she compromised. “The only way Capital Records would release ‘Sukiyaki’ was if I signed over my writer’s royalties,” she recalled. “Reluctantly I signed, believing the agreement between Mr. Ei and me would be honored.”
The record cover was shaped like a Japanese fan and showed Johnson clad in kimono. “It was kind of a rebellion against the major labels for us to make it mostly Japanese, and still make a big hit at that time,” Johnson said during an interview in Los Angeles.
All the musicians, from the producer to June Kuramoto, the koto player, shared a love for “Sukiyaki,” helping make Taste of Honey’s version a big hit in 1980. Indeed, Johnson’s version of the song has since been recorded by other musicians, and has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.
Back in 1963, Sakamoto was invited to the United States to appear on the “Tonight Show” with Steve Allen in Los Angeles after “Sukiyaki” became the first foreign song to hit No. 1 in the U.S.
Johnson was 9 years old at the time of the song’s success. Her family, eagerly searching for a better life, had moved more than 20 times in the L.A. area alone. Her father had died of an overdose of sleeping pills one year before Sakamoto’s “Tonight Show” appearance.
Johnson’s father had been a musician, but quit for financial reasons. It was from her dad that Johnson got her love of music and encouragement to develop her talent. He organized backyard talent shows every weekend, at which he played the piano. Their house was packed with happiness and laughter.
It was an early summer day in 1963. Johnson was listening to the radio.
“Mom! Buy me this record!” she remembers saying. Even though she could not understand the words, she said, it was such a heart-breaking melody.
“You’re gonna lose the groove!” her elder sister said, teasing her for listening to the record over and over again. But Johnson made her sister sing the song along with her. They put together a made-up Japanese dance routine and started singing the song at talent shows.
“Sukiyaki” became her theme song from that summer. It also helped her make up her mind to pursue a career in music.
When June Kuramoto, a koto player in a contemporary jazz band called Hiroshima, was asked to be part of Johnson’s “Sukiyaki,” she said yes without hesitation. The song meant a lot to Kuramoto, too.
By 1963, Kuramoto had been living in the U.S. for almost 10 years after coming to the country from Japan with her mother. Just a few years earlier, her family was reunited when her father, a nisei (second-generation Japanese-American), regained his U.S. citizenship, which he had lost for refusing to fight against Japanese — or Americans — during the war.
June was brought up in an African-American neighborhood in downtown L.A., an area that new immigrants could afford.
Growing up in the black community, listening to R&B, June felt sympathy for the civil rights movement. At the same time, June felt she had to hold on to her Japanese identity, which she did by playing and practicing the koto. One day, she was walking down the street carrying a radio when she heard the Japanese words “Ue-o muite aruko, namida ga kobore-nai yo-ni (Let’s walk looking up so our tears don’t fall).”
The song was written for her, she thought. The lyrics, the rhythm, the way Sakamoto sang suited her mood at that time perfectly. As a Japanese-American growing up in the ’60s, Kuramoto did not yet know how to express her identity. She thought nobody could understand her loneliness, but the song did; moreover, it was popular in America which was encouraging.
The English version of the song begins:
“It’s all because of you. I’m feeling sad and blue.
“You went away. Now my life is just a rainy day.
“And I love you so, how much you’ll never know. . .”
It has been almost 20 years since Johnson and Kuramoto first met through the song. Johnson went through ups and downs in her career and focused her energy on her songwriting and music publishing while Kuramoto and her band Hiroshima went on to achieve success.
Sakamoto was killed in a Japan Airlines plane crash in 1985 at the age of 43.
After many years out of the limelight, Johnson recently released a new CD, “Hiatus of the Heart,” on her own label Tastebuds Records, with Kuramoto playing the koto, just as she did in “Sukiyaki.”