Celebrate Japan: Sakamoto Kyu

As Korean rapper PSY storms up the charts with tongue-in-cheek, crazy and infectious Gangnam Style, it’s time to remember another Asian singer who broke into the big time. So, we rewind nearly 50 years to June 1963 when a song called Sukiyaki swept the charts in the United States.

Japanese food has also swept the globe since 1963, so you probably know that sukiyaki is a beef and vegetable stew, hardly material to compete with It’s My Party (Leslie Gore) or Blame It On The Bossa Nova (Eydie Gorme) in the early 60s. The promoter renamed the song Sukiyaki when Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen released an instrumental cover in the UK in early 1963 as the original title, 上を向いて歩こう (Ue wo Muite Arukou, which translates as Looking Up As I Walk), doesn’t quite roll off the Western tongue. The cover did well enough for HMV to pick up the original Japanese version for release in the UK. The song became popular on the west coast of the United States and Capitol Records picked it up for nationwide release. It topped the U.S. charts for three weeks in June 1963, a remarkable success considering that the lyrics were not in English, and an achievement that no Japanese, or Asian singer, has been able to repeat until this year. (Should you be interested to learn more, the story is told in detail in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Japan Echo Web.)

The singer was 19-year old Sakamoto Kyu from Kawasaki, seen here in a promotional video I found in the YouTube treasure chest. I’m not sure why they filmed him lingering among rusting barrels in a warehouse setting with smokestacks in the background. Today, such a setting would probably be considered cool and edgy, but in the early 1960s in Japan? Unless, of course, they simply filmed him in a factory setting at home in Kawasaki… The YouTube user who posted this video also spent hours synching the video to one of the first recordings of the song to create this stereo version. What dedication!

Coming in the year before the Tokyo Olympics, Sakamoto Kyu’s success was the first bit of positive ‘branding’ Japan had had in a long time. As such, he was a forerunner of all that was yet to come. Sadly, Sakamoto’s personal story came to an end when JAL flight 123 crashed into the mountains northwest of Tokyo in 1985.

Now, in 2012, a Korean rapper has finally repeated the success from 1963. He has stormed the U.S. and UK charts and conquered the media waves without trying to emulate the Western style. If the Gangnam Style phenomenon has passed you by, here’s the video that started it all in July this year. Be warned: it’s stupidly infectious.

Another measure of the success of Gangnam Style is the number of parodies and knockoffs that have been made since July. The other day a rejuvenated Ai Weiwei adapted it to taunt Chinese government officials. That man can dance!

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