Kyu Sakamoto was born December 10, 1941 in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. This is a city located south of Tokyo and north of Yokohama. Kyu’s real name is Hisashi Sakamoto but he was the youngest of nine children in his family. Because of that he acquired the nickname of Kyu-chan which, in Japanese means “lil nine.” He was known as Kyu all of his life. In high school, he began learning how to play the guitar and joined a Japanese pop group called The Drifters. (Not to be confused with the doo-wop group, The Drifters who were popular in the United States in the Fifties.)
He sang second vocal for the Drifters and he was not happy about that. He felt he was good enough to be first. This led to his leaving the band in 1958 and starting a solo career. His rise to popularity was rapid in Japan where he put several songs on their pop charts. In 1961, he recorded “Ue o Muite Aruko” which, in English, means “I Look Up As I Walk.” This song is about a man who is despondent over the loss of a love. He is looking up so his tears won’t fall. The song was written by Rokusuke Ei and Hachidai Nakamura. The song was first heard in Japan in 1961. In fact it was the number one song for the entire year, 1961, in Japan. It took it two years to get to the United States.
It came to the United States like many songs. A disc jockey heard the song and started playing it on the radio. People heard it and it went from there. When it was recorded for distribution in the States, they needed to change the name, since the Japanese name would nothing to most Americans. They figured, Americans knew what “Sukiyaki” was, so the song was given that name. In case you’re wondering, “Sukiyaki” is a Japanese dish of cooked beef. The title has nothing to do with the song. It is stated in several places that it would be like the song “Moon River” being released in Japan under the name of “Stewed Beef.”
There have been a few foreign language songs that have hit the American charts over the years, but “Sukiyaki” is the only one from Japan that hit number one. Some foreign language songs are sung in another language, but include English translation as part of the song. “Sukiyaki” is entirely in Japanese. “Sukiyaki” is one of the best selling records of all time, selling over 13 million copies worldwide. Kyu was a true “one-hit wonder” since he never charted in the Top 40 again. However, he continued to be popular in Japan, appearing on television shows and acting in movies.
On August 12, 1985, he died in the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, which is said to be the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history. 520 people were killed in the crash. Kyu Sakamoto was 43 years old.
“Sukiyaki” debuted on the American pop chart on May 25, 1963 and spent three weeks at number one.
This is a promotional video for the song and is a little old looking, but it shows Kyu Sakamoto as he was in the Sixties. This is a rare film.